80s Rewind Double Feature: The Karate Kid and The A-Team 

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The A-Team features not one but two concluding sequences that needlessly replay what's already been shown, fitting for a film that distills the original television series' eternal return of predictable in-and-out-of-trouble narratives, gung-ho one-liners, and PG-13 violence. The difference between Karate Kid and A-Team is that the latter subscribes to a self-knowing that's become second nature to nostalgic kitsch: this is a film in which Liam Neeson's cigar-chomping group leader Hannibal calls an antagonist "a cartoon character," an obvious (and affectionate) reference to the gleeful unreality of its Mission: Impossible-meets-Boys' Life source material. Of course, looking backward here also means "going old-school," with director and co-writer Joe Carnahan literally breaking the fourth wall in a scene where a 3-D glasses-donning audience of shell-shocked military men watch a dimensionally-enhanced A-Team episode, a truck crashing through the screen as parallel destruction unfolds in the show-within-the-movie. Eff fancy F/X, says The A-Team, let's wreck some shit.

Too bad, then, that in his first blockbuster assignment Carnahan (Smokin' Aces) proves himself a graduate of the Bourne School of shaky-cam over-editing that renders his set-piece missions almost completely illegible (and, considering the abovementioned scene, somewhat hypocritical—for all the film's grit and grime, it repeatedly resorts to woefully inadequate computer animation). Where the action sequences should be as crisp and playful as the Team's clockwork-timed and adrenaline-fueled flare for the ludicrous, everything becomes an incoherent blur, and even the je ne sais quoi that made the silly series so winning, the Team's opposites-attract chemistry—fashioned from the veteran cockiness of Hannibal, the spangled badassness of B.A. Baracus (UFC champ Quinton "Rampage" Jackson here, no Mr. T), vain playboy Face (Bradley Cooper), and slightly touched helicopter pilot and master of disguise Murdock (Sharlto Copley)—is too often drowned in an almost Altman-esque cacophony of overlapping, drowned-out, and mumbled dialogue.

And so, despite a left-field performance by villain Patrick Wilson that becomes increasingly and bizarrely hysterical, The A-Team replays virtually every other action-comedy pumped out by a major studio in the past decade. What makes The A-Team unique, then, is the Reagan-era ambivalence toward American militarism it revives. The NBC series that ran from 1983 to 1987 was a comedic version of that decade's Stallone-Schwarzenegger-led trend of muscleheaded recuperation of the Vietnam War as audience-friendly spectacle. But such spectacle was contradicted by the premise of the show itself: the Team wasn't a cog in the U.S. war machine but a loose canon outfit escaped from prison (having been put there for "a crime they didn't commit" in 'Nam) and helping those in need with freelance elite forces service. Like Rambo, The A-Team worships at the altar of military might but does so by celebrating underdog and outcast pluck; in the movie version that paradox is expounded by the convoluted plot, in which the Team has as its nemeses a rogue's gallery ascension up the ladder of organizational nefariousness: a traitorous general (Gerald McRaney), an unscrupulous private contractor (Brian Bloom), and a duplicitous CIA man (Wilson).

Since the Iraq War serves as the backdrop of this A-Team adaptation, one might conclude that its regurgitated plan is to sell an unpopular and unending military occupation as good rough-and-tumble fun for soldiers ruined only by the ideological scheming of its planners. The sad fact, however, is that the Iraq War itself was initially and tragically conceived as a spectacle ("Shock and Awe") with only the most cynical of ideologies to back it up. Unlike the A-Team series' relationship to Vietnam, the film has been awkwardly released at a time when we're still living with the consequences of Iraq; as with The Kingdom, Transformers, and even The Hurt Locker (the unironic metal-scored coda to the Best Picture winner could have worked as a prelude here), its separation of combat from politics feels less like escapism than self-delusion. "I love it when a plan comes together," grunts Hannibal as per his catchphrase; but alas, The A-Team has arrived too early, and thus, too late.

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