I have a son who likes action films, especially now that he can see everything that's rated PG-13. But a funny thing happened when I put on "The A-Team" the other night. He started watching the film with me, then, during one of his snack runs, he quietly moved to our computer in the other room and started surfing the Internet. How come? I asked. "I don't know," he said. "I just didn't feel like watching."
I had pretty much the same response, and I think I can articulate why: Director Joe Carnahan's film version of the popular '80s television show struck me as being too unrelentingly shrill and frenetic. Fragmentized, is the word that kept popping into mind. While watching, I felt a little like someone forced to spend 119 minutes inside a preschool classroom full of shrieking, discombobulated, bouncing-off-the-walls kids. And the plot? It felt just as undisciplined and cacophonic. Worse, it didn't give me what I needed to know in order to care about the characters. With this MTV-style quick-moving patchwork of action and information, even back stories seemed hurried or slapdash.
Another problem was the tone. The original television show by Stephen J. Cannell was unabashed tongue-in-cheek light entertainment. Cannell's A-Team was more like a commando version of the Men of Sherwood, with the gang always working to help those who were oppressed by governments or evil-doers. They were "Charlie's Angels" with more giggle than jiggle. Although there were all sorts of explosions and shooting, no one ever really seemed to get seriously hurt--just dissuaded. But that idea of the skilled warriors who, like western heroes, fight other people's battles kind of fell by the wayside in the film version.
As Carnahan pointed out in an interview I did with him, audiences today are different from those who loved the campy light action-adventures from the '70s and '80s. As a result, he decided to go with a mostly action movie that's relieved only occasionally by comic relief, rather than the consistent tongue-in-cheek action we got from the TV series. Unfortunately, that makes the film version of "The A-Team" an odd combination of comic-book action without the comic-book tone. Sure, we get that are-you-kidding-me smile when the guys' plane is blown up and they end up parachuting to earth in a tank, but there are countless other sequences that feel as serious as the action segments from a Steven Segal film. As a result, when the comic-book moments do turn up, they feel even more outrageous, juxtaposed against all that seriousness.
What's interesting, though, is that in addition to changing the time-frame from Vietnam to Iraq, Carnahan takes both a prequel and sequel approach, with the beginning establishing the origins of the A-Team. Then, after fast-forwarding "8 years, 80 successful missions later," we get the crucible event that tests this group beyond anything else that had happened before, with double-crosses making them federal prisoners and then escapees trying to get after the guys who slipped through their fingers because of an inside turncoat. That's about as much as I can tell you about a plot that's so fragmentized (there's that word again) and kaleidoscopic that it defies logic.
"This is beyond nuts, Boss."
"It gets better."
And it does, actually. After a clumsy yet methodical start that introduces each character and hurls music at us that doesn't really seem to fit an overall continuity, "The A-Team" moves along with better narrative flow.
The original TV A-Team was made up of four Vietnam vets who we're told were wanted for a crime they did not commit, which makes them fugitives. But the hunted were also the hunters, a crack commando unit who would work for peanuts if the elephant needed saving. George Peppard was John "Hannibal" Smith, the cigar-chomping leader whose catch-phrase was "I love it when a plan comes together." Then there was B.A. Baracus, driver of a funky convention van whose Mohawk haircut and bad attitude was charismatically evoked by Mr. T. Rounding out the original cast was the ladies man/con man Templeton "Faceman" Peck (Dirk Benedict) and the mentally unstable "Howling Mad" Murdock (Dwight Schultz). These four had a chemistry together that their counterparts--Liam Neeson, Quinton "Rampage" Jackson, Bradley Cooper, and Sharlto Copley--never quite achieve. There isn't time, frankly. They're all too busy shouting and blasting bad guys.
"The A-Team" only slows down enough for Hannibal to have a chat with Gen. Russell Morrison (Gerald McRaney, TV's "Simon and Simon"). There isn't time, really, to figure out how the bad guys factor in, either. Patrick Wilson plays Lynch and Brian Bloom Pike, and it's easy to spend much of the film wondering who's good, who's in cahoots, and what in the world is Jessica Biel doing as Charissa Sosa, who's also some sort of government official and one of Faceman's many ex-girlfriends. But I can't even begin to tell you about a Black Forest commando group that may or may not work for the CIA and may or may not be associated with any number of the government people I've just mentioned. Every time I started thinking about the plot, somebody started screaming and shooting again.
However, Blu-ray lovers are going to love how the audio and video come together. "The A-Team" comes to Blu-ray via a pristine AVC/MPEG-4 transfer to a 50-gig disc, with an aspect ratio of 2.35:1. It's a visually loud and splashy film that reproduces colors faithfully and boasts strong black levels and a good amount of detail even in outdoor settings like the desert, which normally generates more atmospheric grain than we get here. And yet I saw no evidence of picture-tampering and no artifacts. Even in fast action there's consistent sharpness and no focus problems, so both the camerawork and postproduction make this film look better than it is.
And the audio? It's stunning. Yes, you have to crank up the volume to hear the dialogue too, but that's the way this movie is meant to be played. It's like a rock album, and bullets and explosions are the music. The subwoofer rumbles pleasantly along throughout the action scenes, while the mid-tones and high notes are crisp and full of zing. Especially strong is the movement of sound across the sound field and the use of rear effects speakers. It's a fully immersive and dynamic English DTS-HD MA 5.1 audio, with additional options in Spanish and French Dolby Digital 5.1 and subtitles in English SDH and Spanish.
The bonus features are like the film itself--so-so. This Blu-ray allows you to watch either the theatrical release or the unrated extended cut, which is only a few minutes longer and with a few F-words thrown in. The main Blu-ray feature is an audio-video commentary on the theatrical version featuring Carnahan talking about the film and then popping up on a paused screen to host behind-the-scenes and making-of featurettes. Icons also appear that you can click on and access other mini-features. I found it to be more trouble than it was worth, though Carnahan is extremely passionate and articulate and worth listening to.
I much preferred the standard making-of feature, "Plan of Attack," which runs just under a half-hour and focuses on the action in this action film, including some fun-to-watch sequences on the stunt work.
"Character Chronicles" (23 min.) doesn't stray far from conventional territory, delivering pretty much what you'd expect in the way of "here's who I play" and "here's what's in my character's head" features. More interesting for me was visual effects supervisor James E. Price's walk-through on several of the more difficult shots. Rounding out the bonus features are six deleted scenes, a gag reel, an A-Team theme song mash-up, and a trailer. "The A-Team" is also BD-Live enabled.
I also love it when a plan comes together, but as well-intentioned as this film might be, "The A-Team" never gels for me. It's so awash in constant action that it takes all the fun of the characters right out of it.