"Overkill is underrated," opines group leader "Hannibal" Smith (Liam Neeson) at one point during the course of The A-Team. Clearly, the man isn't talking about summer films, wherein the whole point of many of these heavily hyped efforts is to render everything louder, larger and more expensive. Still, as far as costly packages go, this is one of the better ones in recent memory -- unlike the somnolent Robin Hood, the tepid Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time or even the schizophrenic Iron Man 2, this at least has some inkling how to keep the adrenaline pumping.
The film is of course based on the wildly popular TV series that aired during the middle stretch of the 1980s ('83-'87, to be exact). The series was, let's be honest, crapola, a cheesy crash'n'smash rally that often played like The Dukes of Hazzard stripped of the hick accents. Its appeal largely came from its colorful characters: the brainy Hannibal, the suave Face, the nutty Murdock and the imposing "B.A." Baracus, the last-named played by Mr. T in the role that built on his Rocky III stepping stone and allowed him to emerge a full-fledged media star.
This new film is occasionally cheesy in its own way, but it's also far smarter than the series ever was. There, the plots were as rudimentary as, say, someone stealing his neighbor's toothbrush and The A-Team being hired to retrieve it (well, I can't swear this was an actual plotline, but ya never know ...). This big-screen version, on the other hand, is packed with the dirty double-crosses and constant reversals of fortune we've come to expect from our modern thrillers. Some of it is clever, some of it is obvious, but there's always a sense that writer-director Joe Carnahan and co-scripters Brian Bloom and Skip Woods are repeatedly trying to up the ante.
Expectedly updating the action, the movie makes the quartet Iraq war participants rather than Vietnam War vets, but the basic thrust remains the same: Wrongly accused and convicted for following sketchy orders they cannot prove were ever issued, the men bust out of jail and set about clearing their names. As in the series, Hannibal always has a plan or two brewing, Face (Bradley Cooper) is irresistible to the ladies (Jessica Biel co-stars as an army captain who once dated Face and now pursues him and his cohorts), and the otherwise brave B.A. (mixed martial artist Quinton "Rampage" Jackson) is scared to death whenever he's forced to board a plane being flown by the crazy Murdock (District 9's Sharlto Copley).
As B.A., Jackson isn't nearly as memorable as Mr. T -- the latter always looked like he could beat you to a pulp just by staring -- but in the case of the other three actors, they're actually improvements over their small-screen counterparts. They provide the human hook that draws us into the action, much of it more imaginative than what we usually encounter in CGI-heavy efforts: The cheerfully ridiculous sequence involving the "flying tank" rates a half-star all by itself. The climactic set-piece is far too chaotic for its own good, but by then, the film has already delivered on its promise.
The A-Team is basically a B-movie writ large, and in that respect, it gets the job done.