We Failed This Film is a series about underrated films that simply didn’t receive the love they deserved upon initial release. For the 24th and final entry, Dylan Moses Griffin explores Joe Carnahan’s The A-Team.
How We Failed It
In this column, I already covered one film by Joe Carnahan, the existential thriller called The Grey. And I could pick just about any of his films because he’s one of the modern filmmakers that we have failed the most. For every Carnahan film that gets made, there are six films that he didn’t get off the ground. It’s enough to make me sweat, and “failure” best describes the mild treatment of his explosive, bonkers and entertaining adaptation of the 1980s TV show The A-Team.
The A-Team is an elite military unit comprised of Colonel Hannibal Smith (Liam Neeson), Templeton “Faceman” Peck (Bradley Cooper), B.A. Baracus (Quinton “Rampage” Jackson) and Howling Mad Murdock (Sharlto Copley). After going to prison for a crime they didn’t commit, the team breaks out to reunite and clear their names, while shady CIA operative Lynch (Patrick Wilson) and Lieutenant Charissa Sosa (Jessica Biel) hunt the team across the world.
The film had a large budget of $110 million, yet it only made $25 million domestically on opening weekend, topping out at $77 million overall. Foreign markets didn’t really pick up the slack, punching in $100 million and leaving The A-Team with a gross of just $177 million worldwide (barely breaking even). When a film fails, it’s usually one specific thing that puts it over the edge. For The A-Team, it was a cluster of bad luck that contributed to its poor reception, as everything that could go wrong did. For one thing, The A-Team was released during The World Cup, which really drained the foreign market. The A-Team also opened against The Karate Kid remake, and the fact that it was something parents could take their kids to also drained the potential audience. And it’s important to note that this was only the first action film that Liam Neeson had done since blowing up the scene with Taken in 2008, and he wasn’t yet Hollywood’s most bankable action star. Also, Bradley Cooper wasn’t yet a household name; he wasn’t a three-time Academy Award-nominated actor yet. The A-Team’s marketing department just missed the boat on both these stars’ most profitable time periods. Had this film come just a year or two later, I might not be writing this, and would instead be seated for a midnight premiere screening of The A-T3am: Soldiers of Fortune. What really hurt too was that the trailers did not look good. They didn’t capitalize on the film’s freewheeling, knowingly campy tone and made The A-Team look forgettably generic. I was always planning on seeing the film out of my love for Carnahan and Neeson, as well as enjoying the TV series, but the marketing for this adaptation did itself no favors by trying to make it look like any other action film. Because The A-Team isn’t just any other action film.
Critics were not kind to The A-Team. Roger Ebert tore into the film, writing “The A-Team is an incomprehensible mess with the 1980s TV show embedded inside. The characters have the same names, they play the same types, they have the same traits, and they’re easily as shallow. That was OK for a TV sitcom, which is what the show really was, but at over two hours of Queasy-Cam anarchy, it’s punishment.”
Nathan Rabin was more sour than sweet on the film: “The A-Team’s titular aggregation of Army Rangers-turned-outlaws spend an awful lot of time cracking up and flashing shit-eating grins. They’re such a smiley, guffaw-happy bunch that it can sometimes be hard to tell what they’re laughing about, beyond their palpable delight in being awesome manly men whose lives are filled with heroism and derring-do. That spirit of smug self-satisfaction pervades the film, which high-fives itself at every opportunity.”
Richard Corliss was one of the film’s only admirers, poeticizing “By now there’s debris from an exploded U.S. Air Force jet landing all over Germany. But in a movie where Gandhi is quoted as being in favor of violence, and where Hannibal’s standing order for armaments is “Fire everything!”, one needn’t speculate overmuch on historical or geopolitical accuracy. This is Mission: Implausible. As technicians, the filmmakers prefer the icy-veined efficiency of Black Forest stormtroopers to the bumbling of CIA desk jockeys trying to be killer studs. Mind you, no one really dies in this picture. It’s international carnage, video-game style. ‘Awesome,’ Lynch whispers as something else blows up. ‘That looks exactly like Call of Duty.’ The movie has its share of idiocies endemic to the action movie. Stuff gets blown up without any thought of collateral damage. The elite thugs pursuing the Teamies can’t shoot straight and, when they get one in point-blank range, botch a kill by boasting at length about how death feels. You could also say the picture lacks a coherent plot and complex characterization, but those are irrelevant to the genre. The movie is like a superior athlete who gets tongue-tied in a post-game interview but on the field is poetry in motion. And hit or flop, The A-Team is the best of show in a mediocre lineup of early-summer action films.”
Why It’s Great
I can remember the exact theater moment when I knew that I was going to love The A-Team. Surprisingly, it didn’t come when two hungry dogs go into the shadows and then run back out whimpering with their collars chained together with cuffs, as Neeson steps out lighting up his cigar. That scene is amazing, but it wasn’t the moment. No, it came just moments later when there is a long helicopter shot of Neeson just running for his life aimlessly across the desert. The audience has no clue where he is running to, or why. I mean, seriously, does even Neeson know? It’s just such a gratuitously over-the-top shot that encapsulates the exciting and utterly ludicrous nature of The A-Team.
“Overkill is underrated.” Hannibal says these words just before the climax, and they are the film’s credo. Carnahan takes these words as gospel in how he directs the film, and every aspect is in support of this wild tone. The A-Team is one of the more intelligent action films this century in that it knows just how ridiculous it is. Few films are as fun to watch, as it’s so gleefully, shamelessly self-aware. Carnahan really captures the spirit of the show, which is unashamed pure fun. It’s a strange marriage of Michael Bay’s excessive, gratuitous heightened cinema and Michael Mann’s gritty, quasi-magical aesthetic and tragic characters. Imagine Thief meets The Rock, if you can. Carnahan films the most banal of scenes to the giddiest degree of over-the-top antics, knowing how silly this whole film is and loving it. Even so, he keeps the action coherent, understanding the importance of knowing where the characters are in order for viewers to lose themselves in the action scenes.
Carnahan has a special talent for marrying top-tier action, compelling characters and gripping storylines. This is much more difficult to do than it sounds. He does the simple things that most filmmakers do just alright with excellence and ambition. He makes it look so easy that it’s easy to take his skill for granted. But just consider this: he made B.A. Baracus an interesting character. HE MADE B.A. BARACUS AN INTERESTING CHARACTER. Do you understand what an achievement that actually is? B.A. has an actual compelling character arc, and he’s more than a “pity the fool” walking joke that everyone associates the character with.
The cast is near perfect for their roles, each of them just having a blast playing in Carnahan’s bonkers world. Neeson wasn’t Hollywood’s most bankable action star yet when this came out, but there was no question that he was headed there. Neeson was already a most watchable action star overnight, and that didn’t change here. He’s so magnetic when he’s in motion and can bark orders like no other. Cooper wasn’t yet the superstar he is now, but he had the makings back then. He has an undeniable ease in his charisma as Face, aware of how good-looking and charming he is at all times.
Sharlto Copley has a blast unhinging himself as Murdock. Sometimes the dialogue he’s given feels like it’s trying too hard to be crazy and kooky, but Copley sells it. His performance is legitimately hilarious and entertaining, elevating some standard material to enjoyable heights. While Carnahan and his co-writers Brian Bloom and Skip Woods did their part in making B.A. more than a walking punchline, their work still wouldn’t land without the surprisingly competent turn from MMA fighter Quinton “Rampage” Jackson. He takes the role seriously, and has serious screen presence and ease among his interactions with the talented and experienced cast. Yeah, he’s no Mr. T in his iconography and line delivery, but he doesn’t have to be in order to make it work. He sells viewers on B.A.’s ridiculous personal crisis of wanting to commit to non-violence while simultaneously wreaking utter carnage in his actions.
I’ve yet to find a lacking performance by Patrick Wilson, and his portrayal of Lynch is enjoyably sleazed up. He’s like a fratboy who’s given unmatched judicial authority, getting high off the fumes of power. He’s giddy over an operation called “Broadsword” because of the name, watches an explosion from a drone camera and says “That’s awesome. Looks just like ‘Call of Duty.'” He relishes in silly dialogue like “CIA’s got rules. Our rules are just cooler than yours.” Character actor MVP Gerald McRaney handles his scenes with authority as General Morrison, a former friend of The A-Team. Co-writer Bloom has a supporting role as the villainous mercenary Pike and milks it for all the ham and sleaze that he can. Jessica Biel is one of those actresses that Hollywood kept trying to make a superstar, and this is one of those roles that provides an example of that mission, and unfortunately it’s a pretty thankless role. She never became a superstar. She deserves better than this role, and expertly plays it that way. Biel has one of the best line deliveries in the film, and it comes when she in disbelief, more as herself than her character, “They’re trying to fly the tank.” It seems that she’s just about had it with this film, and that only amplifies how much fun it is.
Few films deserve a sequel like The A-Team does, and it had set itself up so well. A CIA agent, also named “Lynch,” shows up to take Patrick Wilson’s Lynch into custody, and guess who it is? JON HAMM. I just about screamed and ran laps around the theater in excitement when he showed up. He was going to be the villain in the sequel. It’s a crime of cinema that we didn’t get to see an A-Team film with Jon Hamm as the villain, and I get sad and start crying every time I rewatch it because I know this is all I get of Jon Hamm as a villain. I want to be the first to say that I would fist fight whomever necessary to get a sequel made. Six years later, I’m still carrying the torch, and if I ever come into $100 million, the first thing I’m doing is calling up Carnahan and company. The cast has said multiple times that they would drop everything to do another film, and Carnahan had plans for another wild film in place. Luckily, there is a bright spot on the horizon. Carnahan has signed on to direct Bad Boys 3, and he’s a perfect fit to take over for Bay, as he can make a great film out of the material and keep it exciting and fun. Carnahan may just get the hit he deserves with Bad Boys 3, and if that works out, maybe he can reassemble The A-Team?
Dylan Moses Griffin (@DMosesGriffin) has been a cinephile for as long as he can remember. His favorite film is Taxi Driver, and he reads the works of Roger Ebert like it’s scripture. If you want, he will talk to you for 30 minutes about the chronologically weird/amazing Fast and Furious franchise.