Hey, it’s Blockbluster, our seasonal feature in which Benjamin Sutton and Henry Stewart go rogue to find out during what sort of movies regular people all over the country are eating popcorn. This week they enjoy some quality guy time during Joe Carnahan’s amped-up, bromantic re-imagining of The A-Team.
So Henry, as we left this screening, down a long and dramatically lit movie theater hallway, I joked that it kinda felt like we were The A-Team, an off-hand comment that, following Freud, says a lot about this Reagan-era reboot’s appeal. Beneath its world-policing politics, recurring racism, unsurprising sexism, tokenistic working-class cred and gravity-suspending action sequences, The A-Team is basically about a chummy single dad (Liam Neeson) and his “boys” (Bradley Cooper as Face, Quinton Jackson as Baracus and Sharlto Copley as Murdock) hanging out in a club house, playing with toy cars, tanks, planes, helicopters, etc., keeping girls (well, the one girl, Jessica Biel) out, and going on “covert,” city-destroying missions. At least their rampages feature an inclusive rainbow cast of collateral damage: Mexican drug lords and cops in the origin-story opening; Baghdadis and Saddam Hussein loyalists in the second, 8-years-later section; Frankfurt office workers after another six month flash-forward; and the finale’s Los Angeles dock workers (so Mexicans, again, probably—maybe the “A” in A-Team stands for Arizona?).
Simple as A-B-C: The A-Team meets randomly during the Mexican chase sequence; almost a decade later they’re a covert tactical team in Iraq, where someone has stolen the only set of printing plates outside the U.S. capable of producing American currency (they can take our freedom, Henry, but they better not try to take our money!). After retrieving said plates, they’re framed and locked up in military jails all over the world. Following a jailbreak montage, they go after the men who set them up while playing cat-and-mouse with the CIA and the Department of Defense. There’s a flicker of a romantic subplot between the two pretty ones (Cooper and Biel), and a kind of crisis of faith for (obviously) the black guy who found god in jail, and that’s all the character development for which writer-director Joe Carnahan and co-writers Brian Bloom and Skip Woods make time between innumerable, pleasantly spectacular set pieces.
This lack of below-surface personality makes it hard to see the A-Team as anything more than an asexual, amoral squad of revenge-seeking, ex-military man-boys more concerned with clearing their names than with doing the right thing. This makes their entertaining rampages—more physics- than fight-focused; think James Bond rather than Jason Bourne—increasingly difficult to enjoy. I kept worrying they’d lock Baracus (Jackson) in a plane against his will again (this happens like four times), and appease his fury with curry, like some contemporary King Kong with a thing for Asian fusion cuisine; I felt myself sink back into my chair every time a guy called Charisa Sosa (Biel) a bitch for wanting to expose systemic military corruption and incompetence, which just about every character got to do at least once. But in addition to the brazen Republican fantasy of all those sexist and racist containment strategies, there were a few politically admirable things about The A-Team¬as we keep realizing, the big money’s in two-faced blockbusters these days.
Aside from the general air of military aggression, corruption and the-world-is-our-playground infighting, did you notice how scary the drone aircraft were in that scene with the parachuting tank? None of the soldiers in the command center really knew how to call them off, or exactly what they’d do next; they were like terrifying (because much more realistic) versions of the evil plane from another great pro- and anti-military Jessica Biel movie, Stealth. Similarly scary were the dudes who framed The A-Team, a competing mercenary squad that seemed to be more of a friendly, frat-y opponent until the whole murder-court marshal-framing thing. They were called Black Forest, an obvious allusion to the similarly tactless tacticians at Blackwater [http://www.thenation.com/article/blackwater-founder-implicated-murder]. Until they turned out not to be the baddest bad guys, it was kind of great to see America’s freelance army portrayed in such an unflattering manner. Finally, on the subject of freelance armies, the only A-Team-member apparently capable of a benevolent act was Hannibal (Neeson), exchanging pleasantries with members of the Iraqi security forces he’d presumably been helping to train for the U.S.’s eventual pullout. See, Henry, there are glimmers of Obama-era hope in even our most conservative collective fantasies reheated from the 80s. More importantly, don’t you think we’re totally like The A-Team, exposing the hypocrisies and dirty (semi-)secrets of a dangerous and hegemonic system? You can be Face, and I’ll be Murdock.
Yes, yes, fine Ben, we’re the A-Team. I’ll meet you in the tree fort after work today! (Bring booze.) Anyway, I think you had a bit more fun with this one than I did; I kept thinking it was like some arthouse snob’s parodic idea of an action movie; did you notice that everybody was always screaming? As a cheap way to add urgency to an action sequence? Those action sequences, by the way, were totally incoherent, and the only way I could follow along was the expert sound design: oh, that deafening thud means he punched somebody! Seriously, it made Christopher Nolan look like Gene Fucking Kelly. And yet, for a movie so gratingly loud, there were several moments when I couldn’t even understand what the characters were saying; shows what Carnahan thinks of dialogue! (For Pete’s sake, Ben, even Mr. T thinks the movie is too violent!)
As for glimmers of Obama-era hope….uh, maybe. My favorite little bit of subversion in the movie was that the “Arab” with whom the Black
Air Mountain Forest bad guy (played by co-writer Bloom) was conspiring wasn’t an Arab at all, but one of “our guys”! An American in a stage beard! As though to suggest that we are our worst enemy, regardless of whatever “make-up” we’ve “disguised” ourselves in to sell it to The (Surveillance) Cameras.
But, I don’t know, Ben, I thought making the bad guys the military contractors was kind of a cop out, like: “hey, the American military ain’t so bad! It’s just those damn rogue operatives!” Who are, of course, in cahoots with that other set of rogue American operatives, the (boo! hiss!) CIA. It didn’t really strike me as a courageous form of criticism—neither did when spook/bad guy Patrick Wilson watches a monitor on which a plane blows up the A-Team’s hideout and says, “that looks exactly like Call of Duty, doesn’t it?”—to say that the system is fine except for a few rotten apples, corrupted, of course, by money. The contractors, it’s noted, work for the big bucks, while our scrappy heroes act only out of love for country. Bloom may as well have been playing Ken Lewis in a Madoff mask.
Now, onto some of the film’s more grossly irresponsible aspects, the most galling of which was
Obama Barack-us’ conversion to pacifist and back again. First of all, making your one African-American character discover non-violence was a bit eye-rolling, but then having Liam Neeson refute it by quoting FUCKING GANDHI? Through a willful misreading of a quote that actually addressed the dangers of insincerity? It’s like using Harvey Milk to prove that hating gays is cool. Plus, Barack-us returns to violence to protect his “family,” not unlike the way Sandy Bullock teaches her Big Dumb Black Boy in The Blind Side to play football.
I agree with you, Ben, that generally there’s a very “No Girlz Allowed in Our Clubhouse” mentality to this movie. Except, you neglect to make room for Bradley Cooper in that formulation. Has Hollywood ever produced a bigger dick? He reprises here the same unctuous sleazeball with which he rose to prominence in The Hangover. Girlz R Allowed in or around The A-Team, as long as they have a pinchable rear end (CIA) or will jump into bed at the drop of a charming wink (Cooper). When he kissed that French journalist I thought of the time Adrien Brody raped Halle Berry with his tongue and she screamed for help. If anything’s token here, it’s Biel’s presence: a tough babe that’s also hot? Nice! She may ostensibly seem like a ploy to draw in female viewers, but really she’s just another sexual fantasy for the adolescent audience to enjoy.
If there’s any pleasure for the rest of us to get from The A-Team, it’s similar to those had from Soderbergh’s Ocean’s films; no, not watching sexy, charming men be sexy and charming (LOL, Neeson s so oldz!), but watching really complicated plans—what Cooper calls “beyond nuts” schemes—successfully executed. (Ben, they flew a fucking tank!) And the movie’s only convincing political point? That shipping containers, which collapse en masse in the Big Finale causing untold mayhem and destruction, are really dangerous. Port security is of the utmost importance, Mr. Sutton.