The A-Team: The Potato loves it when a film comes together!

1983. A legendary network television show was born. It featured action, adventure, comedy, brotherhood and, of course, Mr. T. Creators Stephen J. Cannell and Frank Lupo found a way to combine the popular detective procedural drama with a boys-with-Tonka-trucks sense of precocious male abandon.  It was a huge hit, and ran for 5 seasons until it was canceled in 1987. After 23 years of the franchise lying dormant, the world will be reintroduced to: The A-Team.

::Cue burst of machine gun fire::

That’s right everybody, Hannibal Smith, Faceman Peck, B.A. Baracus, and Howlin’ Mad Murdock are back, and they’ve finally brought their particular brand of military justice to the big screen.  At the helm of this camouflaged runaway freight train is a particular brand of director, and his name is Joe “Blood, Guts, Bullets, and Octane” Carnahan.  A perfect marriage if I’ve ever seen one.  Of course, as with all resurrected franchises, we have to reintroduce it to the younger folks who only know The A-Team as some show that Dad can’t shut up about, and so the film version is an origin story of sorts: the team forms, the team is shown in action, they get framed and arrested, they break out, and then they begin their quest to clear their names.  It couldn’t be the exact same story, because it was so much of its time and politics that it would ring false today.  Instead of being made up of Vietnam vets, they’re Gulf War vets, and so their circumstances behind their framing, arrest, and escape have all been tweaked to serve this contemporary update.  The major plot points and characters, however, remain the same.  The result is a cigar-chomping, testosterone-dripping comic action opera that satisfies the inner child’s need for danger and adventure, with as many one-liners fired as bullets.

For a TV show that contained such memorable characters that all had an unlikely chemistry (the very chemistry that made the show what it was), their big screen counterparts did not disappoint.  The two versions of the cast are proportionate to the action universes they inhabit.  The TV show features military heroes. The film is a big-budget, explosive, 80’s-informed blockbuster (in the best way), requiring the cast to do more heavy lifting.  They have to be more than military heroes; they have to be action heroes. Of course, comparisons are inevitable, and they may also be warranted.  How could anyone replace Dwight Schultz?  How could anyone truly replace Mr. T.? Mr. T. built his entire legacy around the B.A. Baracus character.  He is B.A. Baracus.  Even in an updated film, the best that any actor can do is imitate him and for an imitation, Quinton “Rampage” Jackson did a good job.  He could definitely handle the action, he pitied fools constantly, and he could keep up with his lively costars.  The script gave also his Baracus an emotional depth that could be expressed with fewer words and more actions.  Though the updated Baracus is not as cuddly, he comes from a similar place.

Much like George Peppard before him, Liam Neeson plays Hannibal Smith as a tough-as-nails Army colonel, with a big heart and mischievous look in his eyes.  Anyone who has seen the action opus Taken knows that Liam Neeson can growl painfully and dispatch movie baddies with convincing aplomb.  In this film, Hannibal Smith is still the man with the best laid plans, and he still never hesitates to get in the fight.  The most perfect casting comes in the form of Bradley Cooper as Faceman Peck.  Cooper matches Dirk Benedict’s old school urban swashbuckling charm perfectly and is the glue that holds all the other performances together. Faceman is the most complicated because he is both the finesse and the fire, and while Dirk Benedict is responsible for creating him, Bradley Cooper is keeping Faceman alive and well.  The big surprise is District 9’s Sharlto Copley who is able to effortlessly capture the constant mania that Dwight Schultz brought to the Howlin’ Mad Murdock character.

After his performance in last year’s District 9, which was largely improvisational with little written dialog to work from, Copley was tested with the A-Team’s more traditional script and had to show that he could sustain an already existing character. Any skeptics should worry not, for Copley’s performance is the heart and soul of The A-Team’s dynamic.

As far as supporting casts go, this one is game.  As Captain Sosa (and Faceman’s former flame), Jessica Biel does a lot with a thankless role, holding the line between love interest and woman-of-action.  Gerald McRaney (Major Dad?) starts out playing General Morrison as the General from Predator, but his character gets more complicated as the plot thickens.  Extra kudos goes to Lakeview Terrace’s Patrick Wilson as CIA Agent Lynch, a wormy, sociopathic G-Man so duplicitous that you love him as much as you hate him.

Making an impact with his first feature Blood, Guts, Bullets and Octane, and making a smaller yet deeper impact with Narc, Joe Carnahan should have made his action smashup debut with 2006’s  Smokin’ Aces, but it was a misstep. The cinematography and offbeat dialogue suggested that Carnahan would be a director who could handle large action while maintaining a uniquely graphic vision, but Aces fails because the story falls apart in the third act, and also does not deliver the action that it was building towards.  In The A-Team, I must say, I love it when a Joe Carnahan movie comes together.  His cinematic vision for the franchise is a combination of Tony Scott and True Lies-era James Cameron.  It is an immensely entertaining homage to old-school Hollywood spectacle. The script, co-written by Joe Carnahan, Skip Woods, and Brian Bloom (who also plays rogue mercenary Mr. Pike) is a breezy, expertly strung together tapestry of one-liners with a clever plot and a few interesting twists along the way. The action sequences are fierce, fun, and impossible, culminating with an unbelievably destructive scene at the Long Beach harbor.  Amidst the chaos, Carnahan keeps the film moving in its quieter moments, and though there aren’t many, they’re very well placed. In The A-Team, Carnahan is tasked with aiming a shotgun at a target, and instead pulls out a rocket launcher and fraggs the entire mountain. Hoo-yah.

If you’re an A-Team fan, if you’re an action fan, a Liam Neeson fan, or pretty much a fan of all things loud, fun, and awesome, then maybe you can hire…The A-Team! I give it an enthusiastic 4 out of 4 stars/bullets.

The rise and fall of the rise and fall of Cadillac Records

cadillac records

When watching our Netflix copy of 2008’s Cadillac Records, we get through the opening credits before my cell phone rings, and I have to pause the film.  I wanted to get off the phone as soon as possible, because I was so pumped up by the first five minutes of the film, and was looking forward to being transported to the universe that the film was setting up.  The opening credits sequence is as bright as the glare coming off of a freshly polished Cadillac Sedan De Ville.  This may be due partly to the fact that there are many, many Cadillacs that grace the screen in just a few minutes.  As the classic cars flash across the screen, classic blues riffs set the mood, the Chess records logo spinning in the background, and then Cedric The Entertainer comes out…what?  Cedric The Entertainer?  That Cedric The Entertainer?  Yes, that one, and it turns out that he is going to be the narrator in this little odyssey, and I wasn’t sure if I was on board.  But Cedric was basically playing himself, just without his trademark glasses  and stylish hats, so I was still on board with the film…oh, and then the cell phone rings…

…so I take care of that, and then we can finally get into the film.  The first real scene in the film introduces the audience to the closest thing that this film has to a main character: sharecropper and future blues superlegend Muddy Waters.  Played by heavily underrated actor Jeffrey Wright (Basquiat, Casino Royale), Muddy is a complicated, seductive individual who rides up north to try and make a name for himself in the music business.  At this point, I am on board with the film.  As Muddy meets the musicians who would make up his band, we are then introduced to the second closest thing this film has to a main character: Leonard Chess, played by Oscar winner Adrien Brody, is a former bar owner turned record mogul in the form of his own company titled simply Chess Records.  What follows is a string of events that chronicle the rise and fall of one of the first and brightest blues record labels to ever cross over into the mainstream.  The film has drawn comparisons to 2004’s Ray, and it takes a page out of their book in the visual department.  From the muted pastel colors to the  cars to the costumes to the copper glow that gives the film its bittersweet nostalgia, Cadillac Records certainly looks like a worthy successor to Ray.

Then the film starts to slowly roll downhill from there.  The acting was all over the place on all fronts.  Adrien Brody seemed to have his acting permanently set on “Cool 50’s Rebel” throughout the film, which may resemble a compelling performance, but never actually connect with him.  Jeffrey Wright has the easiest time with the film, wearing a perfectly sculpted 50’s pompadour and perfectly sculpted suits to match.  His character is the only one in the film that is allowed to change at all.  I would say that Wright’s performance nearly saves the film, but we could not understand half of what he was saying in the quieter moments, because Wright gives his Muddy Waters such a drawl that it crossed over into unintelligible.  He could have been trying to growl Chinese backwards, because I would have never know the difference.  Halfway through the film, Beyonce Knowles and Mos Def enter the film as legends Etta James and Chuck Berry, respectively.  These people all deserved their own film, but instead they all get jammed up together in the same redundant narrative that keeps these characters (and these actors) in the same emotional places.  Etta gets reduced to an angry junkie, Chuck Berry becomes a black Jerry Lee Lewis (although that’s not too far off, in my opinion), and Muddy Waters is nothing more than an exceptional blues man who cheats on his wife and has kids out of wedlock.  These details of their real lives that become dramatized on screen are supposed to provide insight, but they fall flat because the film itself does not know which character to develop, so they all just come off as third rate impersonations. Honorable mention does go to Mos Def for giving the film a semblance of the fun that came from early rock and roll, because it certainly broke the monotony.

The Beach Boys stole his riffs, but he got even...

The Beach Boys stole his riffs, but he got even...

The film insists on simply retelling of true events strung together by scenes of drama and stock footage, but it never comes together into a film and we don’t really care about any of the characters (except Muddy Waters).  It felt like the HBO Films version of Ray, so I would say skip this one on video, and just wait for HBO.