Thursday, 29 July 2010

The A Team; how to blow up the Port of Los Angeles without making me care very much

The A-Team movie ends with the classic opening narration of the original TV series, all about how there was an elite team of guys who if you really needed them and you knew where to look, maybe they could help you, and all I was thinking was maybe somewhere there's an ABC Team, and if you really needed someone to write an actual movie and you knew where to look, maybe you'd have made a better movie than this one...

Two months back, the first of this season's dumb team action movies hit with The Losers which also has a mismatched team of experts on the run after being framed for a crime they didn't commit, getting chased by a conspiracy they barely understand and climaxing in a fight in the Port of Los Angeles. The Losers didn't just get there first, they got there better.

The A-Team had so much more freight to carry, it inevitably came in behind the nimbler and smarter Losers, but it's actually worth thinking about how it goes wrong. The cast is fine - actually, Sharlto Copley is more than fine, Liam Neeson's always solid, Bradley Whitford's very nearly as good as he thinks he is and even Curtis Jackson's not at all bad. Ok, Jessica Biel's not great, but that's the writing; Meryl Streep couldn't save that character. The supporting baddies are more fun, as they always have to be in such movies. You have to have solid dependable muscle and a sneering mastermind, and it might just be me, but usually I leave the movie wishing someone would make a full length film about the bad guys instead. The A-Team was no exception. i couldn't even tell you who played Lynch (sneering mastermind) and Pike (stolid mercenary), but they had great fun (standout line, from Lynch to Biel's character when she's condemning the CIA for not having rules "We do have rules. They're just cooler than yours.")

The A-Team goes wrong by thinking more is more and that something can be too big to fail. So the setpieces are enormous, unbelievable and unrelenting. The gag you see in all the trailers, where the Team get stuck in a tank falling out of a Hercules and open fire from it as it freefalls? That's actually quite expensive to set up at all, so they run it very long. So long that it stops being interesting; so long that suspension of disbelief stops working. And it's actually quite a restrained sequence compared to the big ticket climax, which involves catastrophic levels of destruction in the Port of LA. The Losers couldn't afford to destroy much property or even hire computer monkeys to look like they did, so in the immortal words of Olivier, they had to try acting, and even then it looked like a TV episode from the 70s. The A-Team's approach to the same problem also looks kind of like a TV episode, run through the imagination of a hyperactive five year old with an unlimited budget, or Michael Bay, which come to think of it is probably the same thing.

In order to coax Lynch out into the open, the Team set up an elaborate scam involving a whole container freighter and a cup and ball game with shipping containers. Which starts to go wrong when Pike fires a rocket into the freighter. What happens next more or less breaks reality. A shoulder launched rocket blows a big enough hole in the ship that it immediately starts to sink. The ship, and everything on it, seems to be made entirely of explodium, as literally everything begins to detonate in great rippling bursts of flame. Then the containers, still exploding merrily, start toppling off the deck of the sinking ship until the Port of LA looks like some bastard cross between a game of pick up sticks and bonfire night. This is actually quite boring. It's as expensive as all get out, no doubt, but it's dull, dull, dull. Mostly because it's a night scene, everyone's masked, the focus is on all the tumbling containers and explosions and it's really kind of hard to care what all this noise is happening to.

You have to blame CGI. Most of the more outrageous stunts are entirely computer generated and they happen in the dark or in the sky because those environments are much easier to model and to hide mistakes in. Unfortunately, they also hide everything else. The movie actually had a perfectly useful principal cast who were more than capable of selling their lines and putting across their one note characters. But instead the producers just kept throwing more and more stunts at the screen.

Flashing back to the beginning of the movie, the most annoying thing is the structure. Just like Ridley Scott's underpowered Robin Hood, this is primarily an origin movie. It sets out to tell us how the modern day A Team winds up on the run, a job which the original TV series managed to deal with in a short voiceover to the opening credits, and a job which didn't really need to be done anyhow - was there really any prospect that anyone was going to be showing up at the movie who didn't know about the TV show? So, bad enough that it's an unnecessary origin movie, it's actually got another origin story to get through first; we don't just have to spend the first half of the movie numbly enduring how the A-Team get jailed for a crime they didn't commit (and then break out in a succession of the lamest jail breaks of all time), first we have to endure a completely pointless "how they all met" shenanigan which begged us to believe that eight years before the US pull out from Iraq, the only way in which you could possibly get a corrupt Mexican general killed would be to lure him into Arizona and have his helicopter shot down by an F22 on a flimsy pretext. It's Mexico! - Hollywood Mexico at that - you could get just about anyone killed and turned into brandname dogfood for less than it costs to fill up the fuel tanks on a F22. God, that was an unbearably long run-on sentence. The first half of the movie's kind of the same as that.

The McGuffin, by the way, is everyone squabbling to try to get hold of a set of printing plates for US dollars. We're told that before the US invasion, only Iran had a printing press capable of forging US currency. I think that this was actually asking us to believe that outside the US, only Iran actually used paper money. Presumably the rest of the world is still using tree bark and cowrie shells.

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