Magnifying TV series to the screen has hardly been hiccup-free (see “I Spy” and “The Mod Squad”), often squandering the warm rush of nostalgia. “The A-Team” meets this challenge with loud, chaotic and fairly relentless action, best enjoyed (a la the “Mission: Impossible” franchise) by simply admiring the explosions and silliness without dwelling too much on the skeletal plot. Frankly, a little less budgeting for visual effects — in exchange for more physicality and sharper character interplay — would have improved matters, but the pic still works moderately well as the equivalent of a mindless B-movie — and should reward Fox accordingly.
“The A-Team” certainly has a sizable footprint in TV history, having done as much as any of the classier shows Brandon Tartikoff ordered up in the 1980s to help rouse a then-moribund NBC from its ratings doldrums.
For the most part, director Joe Carnahan (“Smokin’ Aces”) — who collaborated on the script with Skip Woods and co-star Brian Bloom — adhere pretty closely to the basic premise, albeit with some mandatory timeline changes, shifting the central quartet from Vietnam to Iraq.
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Introduced, one by one, in a bustling and extended opening action setpiece, these Special Forces officers are led by Hannibal (Liam Neeson), a strategic mastermind who excels at hatching intricately staged operations. His unit consists of ladies man Face (Bradley Cooper); brawler and vehicle specialist B.A. Baracus (mixed-martial artist Quinton “Rampage” Jackson); and pilot extraordinaire/certified lunatic Murdock (“District 9’s” Sharlto Copley, who steals practically every scene he’s in with wild-eyed abandon).
Under the stewardship of Gen. Morrison (Gerald McRaney), the four mount a secret mission to recover missing counterfeiting plates in Baghdad, but they’re double-crossed, land in prison and must escape to clear their names — with the help of a shadowy if suspect CIA agent (Patrick Wilson). Meanwhile, Face’s ex, Charissa (Jessica Biel), is a military officer in hot pursuit of the fugitives.
Alas, as constructed, that’s all the plot the movie can handle, with as little down time as possible between frenetic sequences that invariably entail something — planes, buildings, the Port of Los Angeles — getting blown up. The challenge is to make the capers sufficiently thrilling and still maintain a light, slightly tongue-in-cheek tone, which pays off only intermittently.
Fortunately, the elite-team-takes-on-the-world premise is familiar enough to quickly be comprehensible to those who might not get every inside reference, like B.A. having “pity” and “fool” tattooed on his fists. And even if misty with age, the brand is better known than something like, say, “The Losers.”
One other footnote: While employing Iraq as a backdrop is perhaps tolerable, there ought to be some kind of rule against a movie with this much mayhem invoking the teachings of Gandhi, ostensibly as an excuse to give Neeson a chance to fleetingly flex his muscles doing something other than snarling.
That’s a rare overreach, however, in a project that otherwise appears to have a clear sense of its central mission, which is to reboot the TV franchise and potentially set up a template for further adventures — even if “The A-Team” is another minor-league player on a major-league payroll.