POSTED ON JUNE 16, 2010:
Another Couple of Blows
The A-Team and The Karate Kid knock down box offices -- not audiences
Action Flubs. Liam Neeson, Bradley Cooper, MMA fighter Quinton “Rampage” Jackson and Sharlto Copley play against the rules and make action funny in the film version of The A-Team.
When I was 12, The A-Team was the pinnacle of the television arts; a cartoonishly violent, men-on-a-mission, action-fest whose ultimate cheesiness wouldn't reveal itself until I was older and had a hell of a lot more taste. It's a bad show that reminds you that nostalgia is, often, a bad thing.
Of course, there's been a film version in development for 15 years.
Normally this is where a despondent sigh would occur, lamenting the seemingly bottomless well of film ideas bled dry of originality and creative effort. Last week's Splice seemed to divide the people that bothered to go see it, but even for those who didn't like the film, I bet it still got under their skin a bit. Films such as The A-Team are designed to dematerialize as soon as the credits roll.
So, it's probably an admission of guilt that I had fun with The A-Team. To be fair, I've spent as much time watching bad films as much as I have good or great ones -- looking for those special cases that hit the sweet spot of enjoyable awfulness. I might have a better developed sense of taste now than when I was 12, but I never said it was all good taste.
The A-Team is really no sillier than many James Bond films --with the exception of Casino Royale -- so it's fitting that the extended opening sequence is a decidedly Bond-esque mini-mission that does the job of bringing our protagonists together.
Colonel John "Hannibal" Smith (Liam Neeson), is part of an elite commando unit working in Mexico to eliminate a renegade general. His partner, Templeton "Faceman" Peck (Bradley Cooper) is being held by the general, and Hannibal's rescue plan has hit a snag.
So Hannibal hi-jacks a van owned by one B.A. Baracus (MMA fighter Quinton "Rampage" Jackson), a disgraced Army Ranger who just happened to be driving across the desert at the right time. (Yeah.)
After they save Faceman, the enraged general gives chase, and the men are forced to find a pilot in the form of H.M. "Howling Mad" Murdoch (District 9's Sharlto Copley), who, unfortunately enough, has been committed to an Army hospital for living up to his name. Ultimately, though, Hannibal's plan comes together.
Eight years and many missions later, the A-Team, now stationed in Iraq, is a highly regarded special-ops outfit known for specializing in "the ridiculous." The team is approached by Lynch (Patrick Wilson), a CIA operative who wants Hannibal and the crew to go after an insurgent group who possesses U.S. Treasury plates that can perfectly counterfeit American dollars.
But they are warned off the mission by Hannibal's friend and commander, General Morrison (Gerald McRaney), who insists that the onsite private security firm -- the obviously named Black Forest -- be tasked with retrieving the plates.
Needles to say, orders are ignored.
The relative joys of The A-Team lie far more with its execution then its conception, and that has almost everything to do with director Joe Carnahan. Carnahan impressed with 2002's Narc, and with The A-Team, he's expanded the scope of the action chops he displayed four years ago in equally fun Smokin' Aces.
As an action film, it's a success. Carnahan uses a cinematic scope that renders each increasingly crazy set piece in nearly epic terms, while giving the chaos a distinct visual cognizance -- not to mention style. It's not all wine and roses, as he does let some of the quicker cut fights devolve into a bit of spatial incoherence, but generally the film looks good and packs a surprising number of memorable sequences.
The enjoyable visual style Carnahan brings to the table is bolstered by his mostly well chosen cast, all of whom are having a good time.
While it's clear Neeson and Cooper got the memo about hamming it up, Copley and Jackson seemed a bit more dialed back (Copley struggles to maintain a Texas drawl, while Jackson struggles with line readings that don't contain the words, "Aww, hell yeah."), but the overall sense of fun they are having can't help but be a little infectious.
Jessica Biel has a supporting turn as Agent Charisa Sosa who has the unenviable job of trying to capture the A-Team, which is complicated by the fact she's Face's ex-girlfriend. Biel brings her trademark sexiness, but little else as she can't really breathe life into the underwritten Sosa. You can only do so much to stand out from all the scenery chewing, gunfire and flying tanks. Seriously, it does get ridiculous.
Carnahan likes genre, and with The A-Team, he's filtered the questionable qualities of an '80s television relic through the lens of the silliest action James Bond ever had to offer. The script is riddled with holes (both bullet and plot-wise), and it consistently stretches suspension of disbelief beyond the breaking point almost as a matter of pride. I don't want to seem like I'm giving it a pass, especially since there's so little substance that I can point to; no real reason to say it's worth spending your money.
But if The A-Team's sole mission was to provide a fun diversion for a couple of hours on a hot, summer day in a dark, cool theater, then it achieves that modest goal in all its ostentatious immodesty.
The Non-Karate Kid
I saw the original 1984, Ralph Macchio-fronted, The Karate Kid, on cable again not that long ago (more of that corporate synergy).
It was actually a movie I grew up with in those halcyon summer days when school was out and HBO was always on. I identified with Daniel LaRusso's outsiderness as well as his interest in the tasty Elizabeth Shue, and even kind of wished I had a wise, old Japanese guy to teach me the ancient art of dropping fools.
And kind of like The A-Team the memory of The Karate Kid is better than the actual film. It is sweet but ultimately just the sort of predictable, black and white, Uplifting Sports Movie™ that was already growing stale, even back then. I can still watch it now and appreciate it, but in reality, it's the sort of dated franchise that is rife for a remake.
Unless that remake is a bloated vanity project, concocted and produced for Jaden Smith by his parents Will Smith and Jada Pinkett-Smith. While The Karate Kid 2010 is not a bad film, it suffers from its creator's insistence that Jaden Smith is capable of carrying a whole movie, much less one that's overlong by about 20 minutes.
Twelve-year-old Dre Parker (Smith) is a cocky Detroit kid who is transplanted with his single mom (Taraji P. Henson) to China by her employer, some generically named car company.
Once in Beijing, the already snotty Dre becomes even more irritable (and irritating) since he doesn't understand the language, can't conform to the local customs, and he has no real friends.
When Dre notices Mei (Wenwen Han), a cute girl practicing violin in the park and tries to get her attention, he also attracts the notice on Cheng (Zhenwei Wang) who takes an instant distaste to Dre and his interest in Mei. Cheng picks a fight and hands Dre's ass to him.
In a misguided bid for vengeance, Dre ambushes Cheng and his cohorts but winds up cornered by the gang -- until the local maintenance man, Mr. Han (Jackie Chan) intervenes and saves him from a brutal beat down.
They soon discover that Cheng and his friends are members of a kung fu studio (there is no karate in The Karate Kid) run by a brutal teacher, Master Li (Yu Rongguang, who will be familiar as Dr. Yang to anyone who has seen the fantastic 1993 film Iron Monkey).
Li preaches a mantra of "no mercy," which his students have taken to heart. Of course, they challenge Dre, but Mr. Han and Master Li agree any score settling must happen in competition. So Han takes it upon himself to train the undisciplined Dre in the art of (not) karate.
Directed by Harald Zwart, The Karate Kid's biggest problems are its length and its star. If he had just tightened the film up to an even two hours, the pace would have been improved without losing any of the narrative beats.
Zwart has certainly crafted a lovely looking film to the point it almost starts to feel like a travelogue (the film is produced in part the China Film Group). Roger Pratt's vibrant, expertly composed cinematography does a great job of conveying the grandeur and beauty of China's natural and architectural wonders.
But the film just limps along in the first act. Jaden Smith is years away from being as charismatic and watchable as his parents think he is. As a result, The Karate Kid doesn't really come alive until Jackie Chan fully enters the picture.
As Mr. Han, he gives what might be one of his best, most soulful performances. The script takes some surprisingly dark turns that allow Chan to really dig into an emotional vein that I didn't see coming and went a long way to making this film progressively more endearing than I expected it to be after the listless beginning.
And it's surprisingly brutal. The fight choreography is well done, though nothing mind-blowing (particularly if you've seen the aforementioned Iron Monkey), but it's portrayed with jarring realism. And the darkness is amplified by Master Li who isn't as cartoonish as Martin Kove's John Kreese from the original. Li's quiet intensity is creepier as is the hypnotic devotion of his disciples. They make the Kobra Kai seem like a bunch of fun loving jokesters.
The Karate Kid was never going to beat its predictable nature entirely, but it's still a surprisingly thoughtful and well made film that suffers from, ironically, it's unfocused nature. With a more compelling leading kid and some significant tightening of the narrative pace, The Karate Kid could have done something these updates don't usually pull off.
Improve on the original.
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