The A-Team movie is a big noisy mess, but that was the point. The best thing about the movie is the way the four leads conjure up the spirits of the heroes of the TV show without resorting to impersonations. There are moments when Liam Neeson actually seems to have been replaced on screen by the ghost of George Peppard and Bradley Cooper looks more like Face than Dirk Benedict ever did, which is kind of like saying that Bradley makes a better Dirk Benedict than Dirk Benedict. If the movie sparks a revival of interest in the TV show I suspect that a lot of people are going to see Benedict as the impersonator. This is not a tribute to Cooper’s acting or a knock on Benedict’s, because neither one was particularly challenged by the role. It just says something about the difference between a movie star and a television star.
Sharlto Copley as Howling Mad Murdock is somewhat more howling mad than Dwight Schultz who always left open the possibility that his madness was an act or at least partly an act. There’s no question that the movie’s Murdock is completely crazy.
If I’d written this right after seeing the movie the other day I’d have probably said something similar about Quinton “Rampage” Jackson as B.A. Baracus as I said about Cooper as Face, that he was better at being Mr T as B.A. than Mr T. But it turns out that Mr T was better at being Mr T than I remembered, and I’ll get to that as soon as I finish up talking about the movie, which won’t be long since I’ve already said more about it than probably needs to be said.
Neeson, Cooper, Copley, and Jackson’s main acting challenge is to look as if they believe what they’re doing without over-selling it, slipping into parody going one way and camp going the other being the only serious technical hazards they had to overcome.
Otherwise, whatever comes close to real acting is handled by the two villains and by Jessica Biel as the movie’s token female lead who has to act as if her character’s being as beautiful as Jessica Biel is irrelevant to her role while still looking as beautiful as Jessica Biel.
The movie is about four overgrown boys having fun while blowing things up, which is what the TV show was about, and whether or not you’ll enjoy it depends on your mood and your tolerance for that sort of thing. I was in an undemanding mood and I can tolerate that sort of thing, if it’s done competently and with a sense of humor.
Another factor that might come into play is what you felt about the TV show.
I wasn’t a fan. There wasn’t a chance the movie was going to disappoint me by not being as “good” as the show or not being true to its spirit. But there wasn’t a chance that it would surprise me by being “better” or somehow truer either.
But I suspect that if you were a kid and a fan in the 1980s, like the two women in their thirties who were the only ones besides the blonde and me who stayed through the end credits to see the joke for fans waiting there, the movie’s greatest pleasure will be how much it reminds you of how you felt when you used to watch the TV show when you loved it best.
The Mannion guys got a kick out of the movie. But they’d never seen a single episode of the TV show and in fact only knew of the show as the source of a thousand Mr T jokes. The movie made them curious, and as it turned out, the show is available to watch instantly on Netflix. So Sunday night, that’s what we did.
I now understand why there were so many shots of cars flipping over in the movie.
Like I said, I wasn’t a fan of the show. I had nothing against it. Just never got in the habit of watching it. I can’t swear to it, but I probably never watched more than a handful of episodes all the way through. I saw what I saw of it by accident, in snatches, because it was on somewhere, in a bar, or at a friend’s place when I happened to passing through. So I don’t have strong memories of what the show was like. My sense was that it was sort of a poor but muy macho man’s Mission: Impossible with jokes and car crashes and many more things blowing up.
Somebody would find themselves in an improbable scrape, they’d hire the A-Team to get them out of it, Hannibal would come up with a plan that would require B.A. to build something, Murdock to fly something that wasn’t meant to do barrel rolls or nose dives and make it do barrel rolls and nose dives, and Face to charm or con someone, the plan would go awry, a new plan would be improvised, that wouldn’t quite do the trick, and then the A-Team would shoot, punch, and detonate their way out.
We watched the pilot, a two-parter, and I was stunned.
It was a big, noisy mess.
The movie’s a big noisy mess, but that was on purpose.
The pilot was just sloppy.
It looked as though it was made with the aesthetic of an Ed Wood film, as if the producers said to the crew, “We don’t have a script and we’ve got zero budget, but we’ve got this much film, we’ve got these costumes, we’ve got this location, we’ve got this many hours of daylight left, and we’ve got three cars we can wreck. What can we do with it all?”
At certain points it looked as though the storyboard was put together from snapshots of producer Stephen J. Cannell’s kids playing with their army men.
“How did your guy get up there?”
“He jumped twenty feet straight up?”
“Maybe he used a rope.”
“Where’d he get the rope?”
“It was just lying there.”
“Ok. Makes sense to me. But how did he get the rope anchored up top?”
“Where’d that come from?”
“He made it out of this crowbar that was over there!”
“Cool! How’s he get down?”
The hokey, jokey dialogue sounded as if it had been written on the spot, the writer, the producer, and the director leaning over scrap paper on the trunk of a car while they figured out what the characters needed to say to explain how they happened to be in the position of needing to punch, shoot, or detonate their way into or out of a situation that had been created solely for the purpose of having the characters needing to punch, shoot, or detonate.
It’s not as though I was expecting great art. But I wasn’t expecting something so cheerfully and casually under-written.
Were all the episodes like that?
It didn’t take me long to figure out why I was surprised by the lackadaisical production values.
It was because it had been a long time since I’d watched any television that didn’t aspire to be more than…um…television.
The A-Team premiered in 1983, a year after Cheers and St Elsewhere, two years after Hill Street Blues, a year ahead of Miami Vice, the fall after M*A*S*H said goodbye, farewell, and amen.
There had always been well-written, well-directed, and well-acted television shows. What made these shows different was that all at once TV audiences were presented with a group of shows that were more like movies in a particular and significant way.
The characters and their situations changed.
Not just from season to season either.
From episode to episode.
If you missed last week’s episode, you started this week’s somewhat lost.
That’s why some version of this became a feature of the opening of so many shows:
“Previously, on Hill Street Blues…”
Something began to be built into TV shows that had never been there before.
And endings meant beginnings that set things in motion towards those endings.
Stories that continued through individual episodes. Stories that existed apart from individual episodes. Stories that individual episodes were designed to advance.
Television had changed.
For the better.
And apparently the change is permanent. At least it has continued up to now.
The passengers of the S.S. Minnow were never going to get off that island. The survivors of Oceanic Flight 815…well, lots of them got off their island the hard way as Lost made its way towards its storyline’s end.
After twenty years Marshall Dillon was still keeping the peace in Dodge City, with each episode not picking up where the last one left off but starting at pretty much exactly the same point where the last episode started.
I can’t even begin to catalog the changes in Seth Bullock’s personal and professional lives over the course of three seasons of a mere twelve episodes each.
It wouldn’t have mattered if the show had lasted twenty years and the original Battlestar Galactica never made it to Earth (although, didn’t it finally?). But right from the first episode of the updated Battlestar Galactica we knew that the fleet was either going to make it to Earth or that it would fail to, spectacularly and disastrously, but that either way that would be the end of the series. The old show had the job of postponing its promised finale. The new show was about reaching its ending, whatever that would be.
What this meant is that TV shows were being produced with the expectation that audiences would be paying attention.
And audiences who were paying attention were going to demand that what they were paying attention to was worth the attention. They would notice when the producers tried to slip things by them. They would want shows to reward them, not cheat them, for their time.
Pretty much, they would want what they got when they went to a decent movie.
Wasn’t long before they were getting more than they were getting from movies, but that had to wait for the 1990s when the A-Team had gone off the air.
This improvement in quality wasn’t universal. Chewing gum for the eyes was still manufactured on network assembly lines. The A-Team shared the TV Guide listings with the shows I mentioned but also with Air Wolf, Knight Rider, The Love Boat, The Fall Guy, and Who’s the Boss?
But even lighter fare, like Magnum P.I., Simon & Simon, Remington Steele, and Moonlighting included story arcs and were more tightly written and more smartly directed than similar shows of a decade before, and I’m thinking of some of the better shows of the 70s too, The Rockford Files and Columbo, not just Police Woman and Starsky and Hutch.
I don’t know all the factors that contributed to this improvement, which of course wasn’t universal---television as a whole didn’t get that much better, there was just more of the better stuff on television---but I’d guess that cable and VCRs had a lot to do with it.
All of a sudden audiences had choices.
Network TV shows no longer competed only with each other for eyeballs. They competed with re-runs of classic TV shows and movies. A show competed with itself in that now that it could be taped and watched whenever viewers had the time and the desire and that meant they could fast-forward through the commercials which producers and networks wouldn’t want because that would make advertisers unhappy.
So shows had to give viewers a compelling reason to watch in real time and sit through the commercials. More had to be going on. There had to be something to talk about the next day with other people who had watched in real time.
On the other hand, you now had an audience that could pay attention because they could watch a show they’d taped when they had time to pay attention and they needed something worth paying attention to so they would remember and bother to watch shows they’d taped.
Story arcs, multiple story arcs, two and three parters, cliffhangers, new characters coming, old characters going, all these became more common, and because they gave the producers, writers, and actors more to work with that mean better acting, better writing, better directing, and higher budgets. Higher budgets don’t automatically translate into higher production values but they usually did. More and more TV shows began to look like movies.
Like I said, these changes and trends weren’t universal. And there’s still Fox and the CW and reality shows and the CSI franchise and far too many vampires. But over the last twenty years, and more so over the last ten, I’ve gotten used to watching certain kinds of shows, shows that require attention and that reward that attention by not making me feel as though I’d have been better off watching a movie or reading a book. Not that all I ever watch are shows on the level of The Sopranos or The Wire---of which there have only been two anyway, The Sopranos and The Wire---I have favorites I watch just for the escapist fun of it. But it’s been a long time since I’ve watched anything like The A-Team, which judging by what we saw the other night was a show made to be watched the way I watched it back in the 80s---in snatches, with half an eye, as a time-waster, and purely for the fun of what it offered.
Big, noisy messes made by overgrown boys playing army and having the time of their lives.