'The A-Team'

"The A-Team," like "The Karate Kid" an 1980s artifact blown up for a 21st Century audience, has a hard time topping the moment when Liam Neeson's Hannibal Smith takes time for a philosophical heart-to-heart with one of his men, B.A. Baracus, played by mixed martial arts star Quinton "Rampage" Jackson.

They're about to kill a lot of people, but Baracus has undergone a conversion of the soul (the movie isn't kidding here) and so they discuss Gandhi's theories of nonviolent protest. The character originated on TV by Mr. T has had enough. Enough killing. Then Hannibal reminds him that "Gandhi wasn't afraid to fight for the things he believed in." In the context of this perpetually frenetic and (surprise!) frequently entertaining time-killer, such a discussion is, of course, ridiculous. But that's why you hire actors like Neeson for projects like "The A-Team": to make the internal nonviolence debate momentarily less ridiculous.

On television from 1983 to 1986, laughing all the way to the next weapons stockpile, "The A-Team" starred George Peppard as Hannibal, rarely without his cheroot or his canary-munching cat's grin that telegraphed one idea above all: Relax, folks, it's a joke. Neeson's vibe is something else altogether. By nature, he's more of a brooder. He's also a solid anchor for just about any ensemble, including this one. The silver-gray hair dye may be a nod to Peppard's portrayal, but that's about it for direct echoes of the series.

So, what do we have here? We have a big, bombastic, violent variation on the original theme of rocket launchers and machine guns and wisecracks. Instead of Vietnam war-era soldiers set up for a crime they didn't commit, Hannibal and the guys are Special Forces ops working in Baghdad during the troop draw-down. The plot involves a plan hatched by former allies of Saddam Hussein to counterfeit billions of U.S. dollars. There are evil U.S. private contractors and slippery CIA suits who don't like the A-Team and its way of gittin' 'er done.

Directed for maximum visual fragmentation in the action sequences by Joe Carnahan, the movie also gits 'er done, though with increasingly less interesting approaches to its story. Carnahan made the execrable "Smokin' Aces," and, like that picture, this one loves shuffling flashbacks in with "OK, here's the plan…" flash-forwards. Sometimes you're not sure if what you're watching is happening now, will happen soon, has happened already or happened on the series a generation ago.

The Team of A includes Bradley Cooper as the horn dog they call Face and Sharlto Copley of "District 9" as the maniacal pilot. Jessica Biel is stuck in the minor, functionary role of Capt. Sosa, Face's ex, representing those in the story who are three steps behind the heroes. Patrick Wilson has better luck as the intelligence officer who may be a bad guy or a good guy or a tweener. Producer Alex Young is quoted in the production notes as saying: "If you want a modern movie, you have to make it feel bigger and more muscular and make the action sequences compete with the best of today's blockbusters." Hence the headbanger that is "The A-Team," though make no mistake, this was no "Transformers"-style global affair in terms of shooting; the whole thing, from Baghdad to Germany to wherever, was photographed in and around Vancouver.

If it's a big hit — and until a leaden third act, it is reasonably entertaining — producer Young will be proven correct in his approach. However, I respectfully suggest that more violent isn't always more compelling. My viewpoint on this matter is directly addressed by Neeson's Hannibal, who at one point reminds one of his A-Teammates: "Overkill is underrated, my friend."

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