Some time back, Lost in Translation reviewed the A-Team movie. However, the years since then has broadened the definition of adaptations and what it means for one to be successful, so it’s time to take a second look.
In 1982, television was going through a renaissance. Many of the staples of the Seventies were on their last legs and ending, either through decisions by showrunners to end the run or through low ratings. One victim of the latter was Happy Days, which had begun its dominance in ratings in 1974. By 1983, it was a shell of what it was, having replaced most of its core cast, ultimately bringing in Ted McGinley. The show was ripe for counter-programming, something that wouldn’t have been thought of in its heyday, when it was just too popular to risk an unknown show against.
NBC had a new series it had piloted with a two-hour movie. The A-Team wasn’t a sitcom; instead, it was a light action-comedy featuring four Vietnam veterans. The general mood in the US about the Vietnam War was beginning be open to the idea of characters having served during the conflict. When The A-Team debuted as a regular series, it pulled in over a quarter of the viewing audience. The show was a change of pace from a tired sitcom.
The narration during the opening credits provided the show’s backstory. A US Army Special Forces unit, the A-Team was ordered to hit the Bank of Hanoi. They returned several days after the armistice and were arrested. The man who gave them the orders, General Morrison, had been killed in the final days of the war, so it became the Army’s word against the A-Team’s. The team broke out of the stockade before their trial and disappeared into the Los Angeles underground, where they became soldiers of fortune.
The pilot picks up with a reporter being held by bandits in Mexico near San Rio Blanco. His protege in LA, Amy Allen, played by Melinda Culea, needs help getting him freed and searches for the mythical A-Team. She’s sent to several locations and meets several odd characters, including Mr. Lee, before meeting the team. The wild goose chase has a purpose. The leader of the A-Team, Colonel John “Hannabal” Smith (George Peppard), wants to make sure she’s not working for the Military Police. However, he’s convinced that Amy is who she says she is and takes the job. However, Amy wants to go along, in part to cover the story of the rescue.
The team gathers. Getting Lieutenant Templeton “Faceman” Peck (Tim Dunigan) and Sergeant Bosco “B.A.” Baracus (Mr. T) is easy enough. Code phrases used on a radio call-in show gets the meeting place and mission needs sent out to them. Getting the last member of the team, though, is a problem. H.M. “Howling Mad” Murdock (Dwight Schultz) is in a VA mental institution and may very well be insane*. Face is the one chosen to break Murdock out.
Getting to Mexico is an issue. B.A. hates flying, especially if Murdock is the pilot. Driving will take time, though, which the team doesn’t really have to pull off the plan Hannibal has in mind. Hannibal tries to distract B.A. long enough so he doesn’t realize that they’re going to the airport. It almost works, though B.A. does get a punch in before the sedative takes effect. He’s out for the duration of the trip, giving the team time enough to reset his watch to reflect the how long a road trip would have been.
In Mexico, Face convinces the local film liaison that the movie allegedly being made needs some equipment, including armour plating and a heavy vehicle. The script isn’t the greatest, and Face complains about the quality of both the story and the director, but what can he do? The liaison gets the gear requested. In San Rio Blanco, Hannibal engages the townsfolk in getting their help to drive out the bandits. The initial plan succeeds, but runs into an unexpected hitch – the bandits are associated with a guerilla band who are better armed than the A-Team. What the guerillas aren’t, though, is a highly trained team with a knack for defying the odds led by a man who can come up with contingencies as the battlefield changes. The A-Team gets the reporter home and the town freed of bandit and guerilla influence.
Back in L.A., Amy convinces Hannibal that she is useful to the team, being the legitimate contact with access to news records. As such, she’s not wanted by the Military Police and isn’t on Colonel Lynch’s (William Lucking) radar as part of the team. The series is thus set up.
When The A-Team gets greenlit, some cast changes are made. Dunigan is replaced by Dirk Benedtic, who was the actor creators Frank Lupo and Stephen J. Cannell had in mind for the role. NBC, though, wanted Dunigan, even though he looked too young for the part. The series followed a similar format as the pilot – the A-Team would be hired to help people who were desperate and outmatched, typically against criminal elements. There would be a montage of the team preparing for the climactic fight, putting together makeshift armoured vehicles and booby traps. Because of its time slot, there were very few deaths. Most of the damage went to vehicles, which crashed in spectacular ways.
Each member of the team has a specialty. Hannibal is the leader and a master of disguise. When he wasn’t leading a mission for the A-Team, he earned a pay cheque as an actor, usually as the monster in a Hollywood B-movie. B.A. is not just the muscle but also the team’s mechanical and electronics expert. Face is the con man, the grifter, the one who interacts with officials to smooth the way for the rest of the team. He’s also the accountant, keeping track of expenditures. Murdock is the team’s pilot and the foil to B.A. Amy is their contact to the legitimate world, allowing for more extensive intelligence on targets.
Over the five season run of the show, there were more cast changes. Colonel Lynch was replaced by Colonel Decker (Lance LeGault), who was more relentless in pursuing the team. Amy was replaced by Tawnia (Marla Heasley), a fellow reporter, who was then replaced by Frankie “Dishpan Man” Santana (Eddie Velez). In the final season, Robert Vaughn joined the cast as General Hunt Stockwell.
The series started having problems near the end. The episodic nature of the show meant that it began to feel stale later in the run. An attempt to shake things up by having General Stockwell fake the A-Team’s death and become their commander didn’t help ratings; the change was too jarring for the remaining viewers. Massive shake ups tend not to work and are seen as a desparation move by audiences, usually coming too late to be of help. The fifth season change also took the show away from the original concept of a Special Forces unit accused and on the run for a crime they didn’t commit.
However, with three strong seasons and a decent fourth, the series still has fans and name recognition. Hollywood, not one to ignore the lure of an easy draw, spent time trying to build a remake, with the earliest work done in the mid-90s. However, it wasn’t until 2010 that the movie was released. The new cast included Liam Neeson as Hannibal, Quinton “Rampage” Jackson as B.A., Bradley Cooper as Face, and Sharlto Copley as Murdock. With the time difference, the conflict that the A-Team was in changed from the Vietnam War to the second Gulf War.
However, the movie begins eight years before the end of Gulf War II, with a scene similar to the pilot movie. Renegade General Tuco (Yul Vasquez) is interrogating a man hidden by shadows. Since the man won’t talk, Tuco orders the man’s death, using his own pistol. However, said pistol doesn’t work, not having a firing pin. Tuco decides to let his dogs have him instead. The seated man uses the firing pin to unlock his handcuffs just as the dogs arrive. When he steps into the light, we see Colonel John “Hannibal” Smith.
Elsewhere, B.A. Baracus has returned to his former gang to recover his beloved. The gang isn’t willing to just let him leave, which they soon regret. With the gang down, B.A. gets into his beloved GMC Vandura, painted in the classic colours from the original series, and leaves. However, as he heads to a new life, he gets stopped at gunpoint by Hannibal, who notices the Ranger tattoo on B.A.’s arm. With some convincing, B.A. agrees to help Hannibal rescue his teammate.
Face is in deep trouble. He was caught with Tuco’s wife and the General is not happy about it. Tuco wants to set fire to the tires Face is trapped in, but the Lieutenant is buying time, mostly by aggravating the General. Face does get enough time for Hannibal and B.A. to arrive, but they leave with Tuco in hot pursuit. They need a way out and Hannibal has a man in mind. However, this man is in a hospital, but B.A.’s arm needs patching up. At the hospital, Hannibal looks for his man while a doctor sews up B.A.’s wound. Turns out, the “doctor” was Hannibal’s pilot, H.M. “Howling Mad” Murdock, who is in the hospital as a psychiatric patient.
The four take the hospital’s helicopter. Tuco follows in one that is more heavily armed. Murdock takes his chopper through moves that no one sane would try, resulting in B.A. gaining a phobia about flying. Hannibal goads Tuco while keeping an eye on an electronic readout. His plan succeeds; Tuco is lured across the border while engaging in an act of hostility against US military personnel, and a fighter jet is just waiting for the battle to cross the border.
Hannibal pulls the team together as a unit, bringing B.A. back into the Rangers and getting Murdock out of the psych ward, to the point where they are a crack unit in Iraq. Near the end of the conflict, Hannibal is brought into General Morrison’s (Gerald McRainey) for one last mission. Iraqi insurgents have a set of US Treasury plates that would allow for perfect forgeries of American currency, and CIA Agent Lynch (Patrick Wilson) wants them back. Meanwhile, DCIS investigator Captain Charissa Sosa (Jessica Biel) approaches her ex, Face, to warn him against going after the plates.
Since Hannibal outranks Face, the team takes the mission. Hannibal’s plan goes off without a hitch, every contingency taken into account, even B.A.’s fear of flying. Preparation involves scrounging a number of parts, mostly from the private military contractor Black Forest without their knowledge. The team steals the stolen plates and delivers both them and the money already printed to the base. However, at the base, General Morrison’s HMMVV explodes, followed by a strike by Black Forest personnel led by Brock Pike (Brian Bloom). The shipping container holding the printed money and the plates explode and the plates disappear.
Hannibal and his team are arrested and tried for the theft of the plates and the money and are sentenced to dishonourable discharges and prison time in separate facilities. Sosa is also court-martialed, leading to her demotion. After six months, Lynch approaches Hannibal with an offer – accept the agent’s help in escaping in return for finding the missing plates. Lynch provides photos of Pike and an unknown Arab in Frankfurt at the Konigsbank. Hannibal already has plans to escape and just needed a reason. He fakes his own death to escape his prison, kidnaps Face, who has managed to turn his sentence into a spa retreat, then the two free B.A. during a prisoner transfer. Murdock turns out to be the more difficult break out; Sosa, who is still searching for the plates and now Hannibal, has tracked down Murdock to a VA hospital in Germany. With the help of a 3-D film, the team break out Murdock and go on to steal a C-130 Hercules.
The escape isn’t smooth. Stealing any American military aircraft gets immediate attention and two drones are dispatched to shoot down the Hercules. Sosa tries to countermand the orders to shoot down the plane, but the drones destroy the C-130. One of the drones picks up parachutes from an air-droppable tank. The team managed to get inside the tank before the plane exploded. The drones continue their attack. Face shoots one down, but the wreckage takes out two of the three parachutes used by the tank to slow its fall. Hannibal manages to control the plummet using the main gun’s recoil to redirect the tank to land in a lake and then to slow the fall.
In Frankfurt, Hannibal has a plan to get the Arab man, involving pinpoint timing. The plan almost gets derailed, though. Pike recovers quickly from the assault and tries to catch up with the plates. B.A. has him, but during his time in prison, he decided to take a path of non-violence; killing Pike is out of the question. But the team does escape with the Arab and the plates. Sosa catches up to Pike and takes him into custody.
Lynch, though, is still working on getting the plates for himself. Hannibal deduces the Arab’s identity and, before he can make his next move, a gunship obliterates the hideout, killing the Arab. Lynch then takes custody of Pike, working to close off loose ends. Hannibal calls Sosa, wanting to make a deal, the plates for full clemency. Lynch has Sosa’s phones tapped and hears the conversation. What he doesn’t have tapped is the burner phone Face slipped to her earlier, where he explains the plan to her.
The plan to deal with Lynch is a shell game – distract, disrupt, and reveal. Lynch falls for the game, but has Pike standing by as a wild card. But the plan, Face’s, not Hannibal’s, is flexible enough to handle the unexpected addition. Lynch is exposed. But the director of DCIS, Sosa’s boss, has the team arrested for unlawful escape. He wants that case off his books, even if the team did the heavy lifting in stopping Lynch and recovering the Treasury plates. The team, though, promptly escape and disappear into the Los Angeles underground.
The first thing of note for the movie is that it is an origins story. These men aren’t yet the A-Team of the TV series, but end the movie becoming them. As such, the movie expands on the original opening narration, using it to end the film. However, the elements of the original are there. The characters are recognizable. Casting helped here. Neeson channels George Peppard as Hannibal, using similar body language and vocal tones. Cooper has the charm of Face. Jackson brings a new interpretation to B.A. that still fits with what’s seen in the original series. Copley’s Murdock might be crazier than the original.
The tone of the movie varies, from drama to action to comedy, at points causing a mood whiplash. That’s more a factor of what’s expected in today’s entertainment, which does include deeper looks into motives than action-comedies in the Eighties. The movie does delve into the backstory presented in the TV series, pulling names from the team’s past and giving faces to names. The plot is more involved, with two agencies and a mercenary corporation all after the same MacGuffin. The world isn’t as black and white as in the TV series, but the core, that the A-Team are the heroes, remains.
The movie adds a few extras for the long-time fan. First is a post-credits sequence that features Benedict as Face’s fellow prisoner and Schultz as a doctor called in to consult on Murdock. A more subtle Easter egg comes up when the team breaks Murdock out of the German psychiatric facility. The movie sent, The Greater Escape uses the classic theme tune as the credits roll. Among the stars of the movie are Reginald Barclay, Schultz’s character on Star Trek: The Next Generation and G.F. Starbuck, a reference to Benedict’s character on the original Battlestar Galactica. Several scenes would fit without a problem in the original series, as well.
With a PG-13 rating, the movie avoids some of the problems of the original series. Since the show aired at 8:00pm for most of its run, very few people died on screen and none to the full auto fire that the A-Team used. In the movie, there is a body count, though the A-Team is far more judicious on where they shoot, unlike, say, Pike. The language is a little more salty, what one would expect for soldiers on deployment. Again, it’s the difference between prime time television and the PG-13 rating.
There were some problems with the film. The take on The A-Team went darker than the series did through most of its run, barring the final season. With the CIA and DCIS working against each other putting the A-Team in the middle of the fight and betrayals by trusted sources, the stakes were higher than helping someone deal with a criminal element. There was no Amy Allen; Sosa took on the Colonel Lynch role from the TV series, leaving the team on their own. If there was a sequel, an Amy could be introduced, but the movie didn’t make enough at the box office to justify a follow-up. The big problem was the focus. The movie covered the A-Team’s backstory instead of their exploits as soldiers of fortune in the Los Angeles underground. As such, the movie set up a series that never happened.
The movie did get some elements right. The cast, as mentioned above, had the chemistry and were recognizable as their characters, not just in looks but also in personalities. It’s not just a matter of using catch phrases, but knowing when to use them and why. Several scenes would have fit in with the TV series, just through the banter and camaraderie. The film definitely lived up to the action standard set by the TV series.
The movie remake of The A-Team is a hit-and-miss affair. Some problems could have been shored up, but there was an effort to have the team feel like the original, a difficult task.
* Through the series, Murdock displays different neuroses, so it could be an act. However, some of the act continues even when no one is around. He may have an untreated condition that he hides by acting crazier.