I don’t know about you, but I’m tired of reading/hearing all of these so-called cultural critics going on and on about how dreary and materialistic the 1980s were. I grew up in the ’80s. I effing loved the ’80s–and still do, without disclaimer or apology. I got to see Empire Strikes Back on opening night and had my interest in history jump-started by Raiders of the Lost Ark. The small screen boasted Magnum P.I., Steven Spielberg’s Amazing Stories, The Winds of War, The Cosby Show, and, on PBS, Doctor Who was winding its way through the Peter Davison years.
Which brings us to The A-Team. Could there have been a more perfect encapsulation of the 1980s in all its innocence and swagger? I’m not suggesting for a moment that it was a great TV show. It was not a Magnum P.I. or even an Airwolf. However, the concept was great. It was all there in the intro, and if you’re in your thirties, you know it by heart:
Ten years ago, a crack commando unit was sent to prison by a military court for a crime they didn’t commit. These men promptly escaped from a maximum security stockade to the Los Angeles underground. Today, still wanted by the government, they survive as soldiers of fortune. If you have a problem, if no one else can help, and if you can find them, maybe you can hire…The A-Team.
Okay, let’s just brush aside the obvious problems–as in, how exactly does one “promptly escape” from a maximum security stockade, and how is it that the government can’t find them but any poor soul whose cat gets caught in a tree can track them down at the corner bar? (Well, maybe that’s not too hard to believe)–there was an elemental magic in the premise: four former soldiers on the run from the government, surviving by their wits, and helping those whom the law could not help. A nice mix of Robin Hood and The Dirty Dozen, with Vietnam vets finally being portrayed as heroes after a decade of scorn.
For the life of me, I can’t remember any of the actual plots (one blogger half-jokingly suggested there had been an episode centered around a stolen toothbrush). What I do remember is the four main characters: the brilliant, calculating Colonel John “Hannibal” Smith, the suave, womanizing Lieutenant Templeton “Faceman” Peck, the alternately tough and sensitive Sergeant Bosco Albert B.A. “Bad Attitude” Baracus, and the just-plain-insane Captain H.M. “Howling Mad” Murdock. Some would argue that B.A.’s van was the fifth central character. There were lots of nice touches: Hannibal’s cigars, the pithy catchphrases (“I love it when a plan comes together,” “I pity the fool,” etc…), B.A.’s fear of flying–not due to any inherent phobia of planes by rather a distrust of Murdock’s abilities as a pilot. Most importantly, a spirit of fun pervaded the whole thing.
When I learned earlier this year that a movie relaunch of The A-Team was imminent, I got more excited than I had any right to be, given Hollywood’s abysmal track record of TV show-to-movie updates. My high hopes were due to the preview, which gave strong evidence that the premise, the characters, and the fun were all solidly intact in this relaunch.
But so many questions still remained: Could Liam Neeson pull off a convincing Hannibal Smith? Would we finally learn how the heck these guys escaped from a maximum-security military prison? And, most importantly, would the movie deviate from the original series in one crucial respect and allow the villains to actually die?
It just so happened that the movie premiered during the very week I was vacationing with my wife in San Francisco. There was something wonderfully subversive about venturing deep into the heart of Berkeley, getting smashed on a massive pitcher of PBR, and going to see a testosterone-drenched old-school action extravaganza. Because make no mistake about it, that’s exactly what The A-Team is: a glorious throwback to the Lethal Weapon-style of summer action thrillers. The negative reviews that have bemoaned the lack of plot and characterization are entirely missing the point. This thing is all swashbuckling spectacle. It’s got the van, the explosions, the hair-raising airborne chases, the vehicles crashing through walls, the flying–yes, I said flying–tank. And the new cast has the chemistry in spades. It doesn’t matter that the accents slip every now and then, the entire movie is one sustained four-way riff, punctuated by bullets. Hell, there’s even an improvised homage to Braveheart (courtesy of South-African Sharlto Copley, who give an electric performance as Murdock). And yep, we do find out how they got out of that prison–and it’s as madcap an escape as you could possibly hope for.
The movie only loses its footing when it dials things down and tries to play it serious. Blessedly, the instances of that are few and far between. There’s an unfortunate subplot involving B.A. turning pacifist–a half-hearted attempt to appease the critics with some character development, but this by itself cannot derail the mad momentum of the film.
For the most part, The A-Team refuses to be anything other than an eye-popping thrill ride. That gives it a confidence and unity-of-purpose that was sorely lacking in Iron Man II and other recent action fare. And you know what? The audience actually clapped at the end. In the middle of freakin’ Berkeley.
Yes, it’s grittier. Yes, people die this time around. As Thomas Wolfe said, you can’t go home again. This movie is not on par with Indiana Jones or the classic Star Wars movies, but damnit, it’s at least running on the same fumes. The spirit of my beloved ’80s is alive and well in this flick, and the characters are the ones you remember. If the wistful, opening notes of the A-Team theme song quicken your pulse in a way you can’t fully explain, it’s time to get your butt to the theater.
Robert Dean Lurie is the author of No Certainty Attached: Steve Kilbey and The Church.
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I was busy this weekend and couldn’t get to see the film, but will definitely get to it asap, especially after reading your excellent review, Robert. I too had been looking forward to this film since it was first announced, and I’m delighted to hear that it does a good job of capturing the spirit of the original TV series.
That spirit was an open hostility toward arrogant, unjust authorities, especially big government; a respect for the common person; and cognizance of the fact that the latter need the protection of brave people and real leaders.
The show’s positive portrayal of Vietnam vets was somewhat brave at the time. The convention of not showing anyone getting killed was one of the ridiculous shibboleths of television of that era, but I suspect that most sensible viewers of The A-Team just took that as the producers’ tongue-in-cheek obeisance to what was not yet known as political correctness. Rather a samizdat-style reaction to another arrogant, unjust authority, in fact.
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