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.

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The Potato stayed up late for “Iron Man 2”

Tony Stark.  In the Marvel-verse, he is the eccentric billionaire weapons manufacturer turned superhero.  In Jon Favreau’s follow up to the Marvel megahit “Iron Man”, Robert Downey Jr. is the undisputed star of the summer kickoff tentpole “Iron Man 2”.  Stark is a man haunted by the sins of which he and his father are both guilty.  In this sequel, the sins of the Stark family catch up to Tony in the form of criminally insane Russian physicist Ivan Vanko aka Whiplash.  Nefariously connected to the Stark family legacy, Vanko will not rest until he has turned Tony Stark’s advanced technology against him and everyone he loves.  Also on the offensive is weapons manufacturer and Stark rival Justin Hammer, who will stop at nothing to steal the Iron Man technology, and Vanko is the key to making that happen.

At the beginning of the film, Tony Stark justifies withholding of his benevolently destructive supersuit from the U.S. government with the reason that he and the Iron Man suit are a singular entity.  If you take one, you take the other, and Mr. Stark bows to no one.  There couldn’t be a more perfect analogy for Downey’s performance.  For lack of a better phrase, Downey IS Tony Stark/Iron Man.  Like Stark, Downey is all charm and wit when the flashbulbs are popping. When the spotlights finally dim, Downey shows a depth of emotion so subtle yet so present that it’s sometimes hard to imagine that it’s the same person.  This was also true for the first film, and this is where the criticism lies.  To be fair, it’s not Downey’s fault.  He does everything that the role requires.  The fault has to lie with the script.  When Tony Stark comes face to face with the possibility that his Iron Man suit might be slowly killing him, it causes him to fall into a (brief) self-destructive spiral.  This could have been a compelling section of the film, but the script passes over this character moment in favor of more comic relief.  As a result, Downey gives the same performance in this film as he did in the last Iron Man movie, with a few brief moments of darkness that serve little more than to move the clunky plot forward.

The rest of the returning cast are all up to their jobs:  As Pepper Potts, the new CEO of Stark Industries and the only woman Tony Stark will ever love, Gwyneth Paltrow is just as solid here as in the first film.  Her character gets more face time, and her chemistry with Downey is apparent, but the role is little more than a flustered girlfriend who exists only to yell and be frustrated with Tony Stark.  As Lt. Col. “Rhodey” Rhodes, Don Cheadle does a fine job, yet doesn’t really build on the character that Terrence Howard created in the first film.  In another Avengers-setup cameo, Samuel L. Jackson brings wily fire to the mysterious eyepatched Nick Fury character, but I just kept waiting for Jackson to slip into some silver-tongued soliloquy from “Pulp Fiction” and then rule ass singlehandedly.  I mean, he and Stark share breakfast at a classic diner, for crying out loud.  Extra props go to Clark Gregg for reprising his role as S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent Coulson.

The new additions to the cast are also quite good: Sam Rockwell nearly steals the show as Stark wannabe Justin Hammer.  Every scene that he and Downey share is gold.  I would love to see the two of these guys do another movie together.  Human method acting exercise Mickey Rourke was inspired casting for the vengeful Whiplash and he is indeed as menacing as he is in the film’s trailers.  Rourke doesn’t get as much screen time as one would hope, and he actually disappears from the film for about twenty minutes during the second act.  As S.H.I.E.L.D. operative Natasha Romanoff, Scarlett Johansson wears a Marvel-made tactical leotard very well and proves she can handle herself both as an action heroine and as a competing love interest for Downey.  In a hilarious cameo as Senator Stern, Garry Shandling crawls out from his comfortable rock and shows these juniors just how sarcasm is done.

Jon Favreau can make a hell of a comic book picture.  He’s obviously a director who loves the source material and loves to entertain.  The action of “Iron Man 2” is shot with the audience in mind, designed to show the viewer just how powerful these weapons can be, and how much destruction they can cause.  Retaining Matthew Libatique as Director of Photography, Favreau creates an Iron Man world that is backlit by technology and fueled by a playfulness that recalls swinging 60’s action romps.  “Iron Man 2” is a fun movie for what it is.  The criticism, again, lies with Justin Theroux’s script.  I’m not sure how many constraints he may have been working with, since he was challenged with continuing Tony Stark’s storyline along with setting up characters who will undoubtedly be appearing in future Marvel films.  Unfortunately, this left the plot of “Iron Man 2” very convoluted and disjointed.  Characters appear and disappear for long periods of time.  The film seems to be a collection of action scenes strung together by a weak revenge narrative and survives on the charm of its actors, specifically Downey and Rockwell.  On a positive note, the dialogue is very cool and funny with enough puns to compete with at least half of the James Bond series.  As a complete film, “Iron Man 2” fails to capture the magic of the first film, and while high expectations may have had something to do with that, the film doesn’t feel complete.

Overall, “Iron Man 2” is a fun summer blockbuster, but when you’re exiting the theater, you’re going to feel one of two ways: “I liked it.  That movie was fun” or “It was awesome, and I can’t wait for The Avengers!!!” Both reactions were overheard in the theater as I exited.  If you liked “Iron Man”, if you like Robert Downey Jr., or if you just want to have some well deserved fun watching some colorful expensive comic book explosions, blast off to the theater for this one.  I give it a 2.5 out of 4 stars.