What is it with Gen-X men and their nostalgia for the machismo-fueled entertainments of their youth? Take Family Guy, Seth McFarlane’s popular animated sitcom. In between gut-busting bits of social satire and wonderfully surreal asides, the show and its 36-year-old creator indulge a penchant for 1980s boys’-culture pastiche, blithely riffing on such obvious personal faves as Thundercats and Transformers. In a welcome departure from this method of uncritical appropriation, McFarlane devotes one episode to satirizing this strain of regressive male fantasy. After Peter Griffin and his friends win a local costume contest by dressing up as the characters from The A-Team, they delude themselves into thinking they can actually operate as the famous foursome, causing disastrous levels of harm to the people they set about “helping.”
Alas, no such self-awareness characterizes Joe Carnahan’s cinematic re-imagining of that same 1980s television staple. It is, simply put, an ode to violence, but violence as imagined by 21st-century Hollywood. Full of explosions and loud oaths, it’s edited to the verge of incoherence, with some sequences consisting of little more than a steady stream of half-second shots, each one hopelessly blurred by whip pans. In the wake of such recent fare as Michael Bay’s Transformers movies, this seems to be the new paradigm for the contemporary action film: a combination of regressive 1980s nostalgia with ultra-aggressive cutting, a blowing up of the relatively modest original product into a slam-bang action epic for the new millennium. It’s as if directors like the 41-year old Carnahan are saying that the shows they loved as an adolescent were pretty cool, but it takes cutting-edge technology and an amped-up aesthetic to fulfill their promise.
The A-Team‘s excessively convoluted plot involves the titular foursome (all miscast, from Liam Neeson as the group’s leader to zero-personality UFC fighter Quinton Jackson as B.A. Baracus to an obnoxiously manic Sharlto Copley as the borderline insane Murdock) in a search for a stolen set of counterfeiting plates. The quest for this MacGuffin takes the crew from the deserts of Iraq in the waning days of the U.S. occupation through a prison sentence after they’ve been double-crossed and framed by a rival to Germany where they’re trying to stay one step ahead of the Army, while being aided by a possibly rogue CIA agent and looking to track down a member of the mercenary army Black Forest (read: Blackwater). Why the film feels the need to adapt an Iraq setting and involve government agencies in possibly felonious behavior isn’t exactly clear since, a couple of obvious swipes at Erik Prince and Al Clark’s infamous company aside (“Black Forest and its personnel are not subject to military jurisdiction,” explains an Army judge), the film is completely apolitical. Everyone’s corrupt or potentially corrupt except the heroes and political issues are all just an excuse for some good ol’ fashioned ass-kicking.
As is the film’s lamest conceit: the moral quandary experienced by Baracus following his escape from prison. After breaking out of jail, his trademark Mohawk grown into a low-grade Afro, the man takes a vow of nonviolence, refusing to indulge in the killing necessary to the fulfillment of the A-Team’s mission. But rather than imagine his conflict of interest as a constant struggle, the filmmakers resolve the dilemma in one laughable, violence-confirming exchange. When Baracus weakly quotes Gandhi on nonviolence, Neeson’s Hannibal Smith cites that same Indian leader on the occasional need to use force in the cause of something you believe in. “What do you believe in?” he asks Baracus. The answer to that question isn’t exactly clear, since the plot has become so full of twists and turns that, apart from clearing their names still tarnished from the Iraqi double-cross, it’s unclear what they’re fighting for. One thing’s certain: They’re not fighting for the independence of a nation from imperialist control.
The real answer is that, the anti-violence objections having been raised and summarily dismissed, they’re free to simply fight because, for the filmmakers and their presumptive audience, fighting’s awesome. Although, despite all the explosions in the final showdown, it somehow doesn’t seem so awesome, Carnahan’s lack of interest in staging action scenes (instead piecing them together with a bunch of quick, disparate cuts) and his self-seriousness combining to sap the endless finale of any real interest. While this self-seriousness disappears briefly in the film’s more relaxed middle section, in which the filmmakers take some unsuccessful stabs at a leavening humor and even attempt a weak meta moment, merging the credits of the original show with the A-Team’s current incarnation, it’s just a temporary respite until the ass-kicking can return, since, in this morally and intellectually regressive film, that’s what it’s all about. If the television version of The A-Team attracted a wide audience of all ages drawn in by the group’s ingenuity and the program’s low-key vibe, then Carnahan’s big-budget rethink is strictly for little boys.