“I love it when a plan comes together.”
This iconic phrase was first uttered by Colonel John ‘Hannibal’ Smith when “The A-Team” action series debuted on the NBC network in the US in 1983.
But did the scriptwriters, producers and director Joe Carnahan (“Smokin’ Aces”) really have a plan when they signed on to make the feature film version of the hit television series?
Sure, the original show was zany and sometimes downright silly, the car chases were saturated with flying American-made vehicles, and miraculously no one ever got killed despite the thousands of bullets fired and bombs exploding everywhere.
But it was the richness of the characters themselves that made the show so popular during its five-year NBC run.
George Peppard (“Breakfast at Tiffany’s”) was perfect as the betrayed Colonel Hannibal Smith who led the ragtag team of heroes from adventure to adventure. Dirk Benedict (“Battlestar Galactica”) charmed as his right-hand man Lieutenant Templeton ‘Face’ Peck, and Dwight Schultz was brilliant as the nearly loony Howlin’ Mad Dog Murdock, later known as the sockman.
Then you have the role of B.A. Baracus which was specifically written for Mr. T (“Rocky III”). Like “Knight Rider,” “Matlock,” and “Magnum, P.I.,” the TV shows became part and parcel of pop culture in the 1980s and soon outlived their popularity before the end of the decade. But “The A-Team” defined 1980s cool.
Despite having series co-creator Stephen J. Cannell on board as one of the executive producers, the film version suffers from update syndrome; the plot is almost identical to the 80s’ show, with places and events enhanced to reflect contemporary history and technology.
But such is the artistic impasse of transforming a popular television show into a major motion picture. The writers thought they could bypass that stumbling block by creating an ‘origins’ story — how the A-Team came into being.
In the television serial, the A-Team are a crack special forces squad who are recruited for one final covert mission — to rob a Hanoi Bank in the waning days of the Vietnam War. The cinematic version follows nearly the same premise with Iraq in 2010 serving as the backdrop.
But the mission goes awry, defeat is snatched from the jaws of victory, and the A-Team are wrongfully accused of killing a senior US commander, who happens to be the only one aware of their secret mission.
Court-martialed, they are sentenced to jail but soon escape, going rogue to clear their names and bring the real villains to justice.
And that’s it; think of a 42-minute television show stretched, pumped full of adrenaline and over-saturated with often convoluted action sequences to fill nearly two hours.
The film zips the viewer from Mexico to the US, fast-forwards to Iraq seven years later, jumps back to the US, high-tails it inexplicably to Frankfurt, Germany, and back again to the US.
Liam Neeson is convincing as Hannibal Smith, chomping his cigar to near perfection, and often repeating adages and cultural idioms with refreshing poignancy.
Most bizarre — and perhaps fittingly so — is the casting of South African Sharlto Copely (“District 9”) as Mad Dog. If the sock fits, wear it — Copely looks, acts and speaks with the inane insanity that gave the maverick pilot his Mad Dog moniker.
But Bradley Cooper’s casting as Face is nothing short of spectacularly annoying. He fails to even come close to the precocious, yet suave Benedict. Yeah, yeah … Cooper has become THE hot Hollywood hunk since his breakthrough role in last year’s “The Hangover.” But he just fails to convince in here.
And while Mr. T excelled and soon became a household name thanks to his energetic portrayal of B.A. Baracus, the film’s Quintone Rampage Jackson appears to long for the safety and comfort of an artistic straitjacket.
Still, the film does find its cool a few times, such as the tongue-in-cheek commentary on 3D movies; there are a few funny moments.
At the end of the film, I got goosebumps from hearing the original show’s intro voice-over: “In 1972, a crack commando unit was sent to prison by a military court for a crime they didn’t commit. These men promptly escaped from a maximum security stockade to the Los Angeles underground. Today, still wanted by the government, they survive as soldiers of fortune. If you have a problem, if no one else can help, and if you can find them, maybe you can hire… The A-Team.”
And that is the most favorable thing I can say about the film version. If you were a fan of the original show, you are likely to appreciate the film but long for the 1980s. Otherwise, it is just another mediocre production in a lackluster year for motion pictures.
It is no secret that Hollywood has run out of ideas; if studios aren’t turning to Marvel and DC comics for inspiration, suddenly realizing the value of video games, or re-making everything short of Star Wars and ET, they’re rehashing TV serials.
[Watch out for the film versions of "MacGyver" in 2011 and a rumored “Magnum, P.I.” starring Ashton Kutcher. The horror, the horror.]
Bradley Cooper’s casting as Face is nothing short of spectacularly annoying. (AP Photo/20th Century Fox, Doug Curran)