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.

“Fire Everything!!” – The Return of Star Trek

Space.  We thought it was the final frontier.  We had been on the voyages with the various Starfleet commands.  We wanted to boldly go where no one had gone before.  Then, forty years later, we realized that there was no more frontier.  It had been paved over, and repaved over several times after that.  The USS Enterprise had become an antique, and its exploits became quaint reruns on basic cable.  It didn’t seem like there would ever be hope for Star Trek. In the end, it took a non-Trekker in the form of a certain J.J. Abrams to do what others couldn’t: He shook off the cobwebs, installed a new warp drive, and blasted off from scratch.  Star Trek is back and better than ever!

To boldly go...

To boldly go...

In Star Trek, the new James Tiberias Kirk is a man willing to face certain demise because he faces it every time he looks into a mirror.  Kirk may be haunted by the death of his father, but he also recognizes that the apple did not fall too far from the tree. Chris Pine (Smokin Aces) brings a natural energy to the role.  His Kirk is rakish and impulsive, defying authority at every chance but never backing down from a challenge. His inner strength fuels his naked will to do what is right, no matter what.  Pine captures the unorthodoxy and charm of Shatner’s Kirk but leaves out Shatner’s eccentricities.

Spock has always been complicated, but never this much.  This spin on the series highlights the duality of the Spock character, and makes it part of his overall character arc.  As a 21st century remix of Leonard Nimoy, Zachary Quinto (Heroes) displays all of the measured Vulcan logic expected of Spock, but shadows it with a slow burning intensity. In this Trek, Spock is a being caught between two worlds, and must decide for himself which path he will choose.  He is not content with simply being accepted as a Vulcan, but cannot bring himself to indulge his human side either.  Even in moments when Spock is justifying the logical decisions he makes, we can see him struggling with his own anger and frustration, and the moment when Kirk goads Spock into finally releasing his demons is definitely one of the best moments in the whole film.

The rest of the crew is an entertaining bunch.  As space heroine Uhura, Zoe Saldana (Pirates of The Caribbean) is given double duty, matching Kirk’s fearless nature while providing a beating heart for Spock.  It’s a shame her part was so limited.  Same goes for Karl Urban (Lord of The Rings) as Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy.  His McCoy is less gruff and more neurotic than the classic TV doc, but it fits the film’s more naturalistic approach.  Every line he speaks is gold or near-gold and steals about every scene he’s in, that is until Simon Pegg pops up as kooky engineer Montgomery Scott.  Pegg (Shaun of The Dead, Hot Fuzz) has the least amount of screen time, but when he does show up, he leaves us smiling if not in full laugh mode.  John Cho (Harold and Kumar 1 & 2) turns in an unexpectedly straight performance as Sulu, getting his day in the heroic sun during the furious “space jump” sequence. Anton Yelchin (Charlie Bartlett) is classic Chekhov, replicating Walter Keonig’s trademark Russian while dialing down its stereotypical elements.  Bruce Greenwood has played captains and leaders before in films like The Core and Thirteen Days, but he looks like he’s having too much fun as Christopher Pike (Captain Kirk’s prototype).  Look out for Mr. Leonard Nimoy as “Spock Prime”.  I’d need another article to explain why there are two Spocks.  It makes sense, believe me.  It’s just something that needs to be seen.  Last, but not least, Eric Bana (Troy, The Hulk) brings us the freshest Star Trek villain in years as a genocidal Romulan aptly named Nero.  His vengeance toward the Federation runs deep, forcing his would-be pursuers to share his pain, which is more connected to a certain Enterprise crew member than we know.

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From the heart shaking opening assault on the USS Kelvin to the climactic battle on Nero’s Romulan Death Ship, Star Trek fits an epic space saga into a snug two hours. Using good old-fashioned storytelling and eye popping visuals, J.J. Abrams (Co-creator of TV’s Alias and Lost, Mission Impossible III) brings back the earnestness and sense of adventure of classic summer blockbusters.  Star Trek uses eye-popping special effects and innovative set design to reinvent the Trek universe, but their reinvention also pays subtle tribute to the Treks of old.  There are so many references to the old shows and films that, again, I would need another article to get them all down.  Let’s just say that when characters would say their certain lines that we all remember, they incorporate them so well into the story that they felt like they had never been spoken before.  Also, for being a reboot, the film doesn’t short change the fun of the original series just to work in some heavy handed dramatics, unlike Superman Returns.  Skeptics could argue that the science in the film is very “huh?” worthy, but considering that it’s Star Trek, you just have to go with it.  It’s a great adventure reminiscent of vintage Spielberg and Lucas, and I’ll definitely be there for the next one.  To quote a future classic line: “I love this ship!  It’s so exciting!”  Beam me up, Mr. Scott!

Put it in the win column, Mr. Cage.

Nicolas Cage is charged with the fate of the world yet again, this time it revolves around a time capsule that has been dug up at his son’s elementary school. In it is a note filled with seemingly random numbers.  These numbers predict disasters — some that have already occurred and others that are about to — that lead him to believe his family plays a role in the much larger events that are about to unfold.

You think you know...

You think you know...

As I was leaving the theater Saturday afternoon, a feeling came over me after watching Nic Cage and company in the new film Knowing.  It didn’t feel like frustration, although I was certainly racking my brain.  It wasn’t disappointment, yet I wasn’t smiling all that much afterward.  In fact, the part of my brain that loves movies, the part that runs on 24 frames per second and craves digital sound, was spinning almost completely off of its axis trying to process what I had just watched for two hours.  After all, the logical part of my brain knows that this film doesn’t cover any new ground, and some of the dialogue has cheese on it so thick that it should be covered in wax and sold in supermarkets.  Right about now, I’m sure you’re feeling safe to assume that this review is going to be another addition to the laundry list of negativity that follows the latter half of Nicolas Cage’s career.  I went in to Knowing with the assumption that, at best, I would have a fun time watching Mr. Cage ham up another pseudo-blockbuster at a cheap matinee theater.  If I left this film with anything, it was that assumptions count for nothing.  This film was very good.  Surprisingly good.  Dare I say, really good?  Possibly.

The movie opens with a flashback sequence that brings the audience up to speed on how the prophetic numbers come to be.  Right away, director Alex Proyas sets an ominous tone, using iconic 1950’s imagery and bathing everything in permanent twilight.  If the audience only saw the first 10 minutes of the film, they might mistake it for some lost sequence from Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures.  At this point, I am surprised by just how engaging the movie is.  But when the movie jumps to present day, Mr. Cage graces the screen, and I brace myself for the worst.  It never came.  I kept waiting for Cage to veer off into “phoning-it-in-from-another-galaxy” territory as per usual, but he remained in control and somehow turned in one of his best performances in recent years.  In this film, Cage is every bit the movie star that his paycheck claims he is.  On the page, his character is not much more than a father on a mission to keep his son safe, but Cage brings a grounded realism to his character’s haunted intensity.  He isn’t a hero in the square-jawed sense, but Cage makes you root for him just the same.  Newcomer Chandler Canterbury, last seen in December’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, does an exceptional job as Cage’s young son.  He has some of the cheesiest lines, but Canterbury infuses the right amount of emotional depth, so the character never becomes distracting or cliche.  He and Cage have a very authentic father-son connection that is the heart and soul of this film.  Aussie actress Rose Byrne (TV’s Damages, 28 Weeks Later) turns in another strong supporting performance as a woman who may be connected to the mystery behind the numbers.

Hold on, hold on, I can still get this baby down...aww crap.

Hold on, hold on, I can still get this baby down...aww crap.

It may be Cage’s name about the title, but the success of Knowing rests in the capable hands of its director.  Having helmed such sci-fi classics as The Crow and Dark City, Alex Proyas brings a steady, imaginative hand to the familiar material, and still manages to pack as much tension and suspense as possible into every frame.  In fact, The Whisperer characters could have easily been alternate versions of The Strangers from Dark City.  The film has the familiar “event movie” beats: sweeping helicopter shots of major cities about to perish horribly, big flashy disaster set pieces, “end of the world” trailer lines, and one hero caught in the middle of it all.  But the execution is nearly flawless.  Just the plane crash scene alone elevates the movie to “enjoyable” status, and reminded me of the larger action scenes in Cuaron’s Children of Men.  But the moments in between the action are where the film really shines.  This is also due in part to the moody, foreboding score composed by Marco Beltrami.  As the plot thickens, the tension builds, and seeing Cage’s character slowly unravel is even more effective because the audience knows that Cage knows the truth, and we feel alienated along with him when no one believes him.  I can’t give away the end, but I will say that the film ends on a spiritual note that has to be seen to be believed.

This film could easily become a sleeper hit, because though it has its faults, Knowing is the film that M. Night Shyamalan has been wanting to make for the better part of a decade.  I highly recommend this film for fans of classic end-of-the-world blockbusters, and it also renews my faith in Nicolas Cage, until he makes another Bangkok Dangerous.