Friday 30 July 2010

The A to Zzzzz of the 80s: "The A-Team" and "The Karate Kid"

If you're planning on enjoying The A-Team in cinemas this Saturday teatime, may I suggest you travel to your nearest Odeon aboard a Raleigh Chopper, ideally while high on Spangles and taking care to avoid some prefabricated white dog poo? Because, even if you're such a bore you require your culture to come with some element of nostalgia and brand recognition built in, you're going to need all the help you can get. Nobody seriously expected an A-Team movie to be anything other than lame - at best, perhaps, as enjoyably tatty as the 1980s TV series was - but Joe Carnahan's film can only aspire to mediocrity. It's irksome claptrap made a few degrees worse by its pretence to topicality.

The script is part-origin story, part straight update; granted access to that title, no-one involved really seems to have cared which. During the American withdrawal from Iraq, Colonel John "Hannibal" Smith (Liam Neeson) and his crew - ladies' man Templeton "Face" Peck (Bradley Cooper), bad-ass brawler BA Baracus (incorrectly nicknamed mixed martial artist Quinton "Rampage" Jackson), loony-tune "Howlin' Mad" Murdock (District 9's Sharlto Copley) - are recruited to retrieve an armored car containing millions of counterfeit dollar bills run off by Saddam loyalists attempting to sink the U.S. economy. (They need scarcely have bothered, of course, although this plot point rather aptly converts the whole film into an extended, noisy argument over a licence to print money.)

When the mission backfires in their faces, the Team are obliged to go on the run to prove their worth to the authorities, crossing paths along the way with the full, post-Bourne roster of black ops, shady CIA men and private security firms. As someone present in the room at the marketing confab at which the film's future was sealed must, surely, have said: "Cool". The problem is that spirit of self-congratulation has trickled into The A-Team itself, precisely an hour of which appears to consist of gurgling, throaty chuckles, the lighting of cigars, and manly slaps on the back.

Carnahan, who made the no less insincere Smokin' Aces, and his producer Tony Scott, who may well have provided the cigars for smoking, use the remaining hour as an excuse for blowing stuff up. These guys use gunpowder to cook hamburgers; when the Team's iconic van approaches a security checkpoint at high speed, its driver elects not to smash through the security barrier, but to drive all over the adjacent booth, presumably crushing to death the poor, underpaid flunky paying his dues therein. The excess might have been a coherent, even enjoyable strategy if Carnahan weren't quite so hellbent on deconstructing it as he went along, chiefly through a disastrous editing schema that seeks to explain the Team's plans as they're in progress.

During the last-reel's firefight in a (predominantly virtual) shipping yard - a shoo-in for 2010's dullest set-piece - the relentless pursuit of new angles comes to seem more than ever a diversion tactic, designed to distract us from the flimsiness of what we're supposed to be enjoying. The suspicion grows that Carnahan is a director of trailers who got lucky; his choices continually draw attention to how little actual acting is required here - and how much money the performers are presumably receiving for the privilege. It's one of those summer movies where the supporting players - Patrick Wilson's shifty operative Lynch, Jessica Biel's unlikely military police - elect to wear reflective sunglasses, so we can't see the sorry state of their souls.

For the unknown Jackson, the up-and-coming Copley, and the unctuous Cooper (whose shit-eating grin leaves him, in every sense, the Face of this particular A-Team) - each at an early stage in their screen career - participation is understandable, if not excusable. For Neeson, though, The A-Team is an inexplicable decision - or, at least, it would be if the similarly brainless Taken hadn't just provided him with his biggest hit in years. In any event, Oskar Schindler to Hannibal Smith looks like a pretty precipitous (and entirely self-induced) decline for one of the modern cinema's more thoughtful presences. Don't get me wrong: I love it when a Hollywood plan comes together. But the wheels come off this one at a very early stage.

It was perhaps only a matter of time before someone got round to remaking The Karate Kid, given the popularity among teen audiences of the low-cost, high-return likes of Fighting and Never Back Down, and that young viewers of 1984's original are now all grown up with kids of their own - Hollywood never missing a chance to double its money wherever possible. With the recent death of Noriyuki "Pat" Morita (an Oscar nominee for his role as Mr. Miyagi first time around), Ralph Macchio having vanished into obscurity, and Hilary Swank (star of 1994's last-gasp franchise renewal The Next Karate Kid) threatening to do likewise, it's almost as though this material has gone out of copyright - allowing studio Sony to effectively start from scratch.

The USP of this remake is that it's set in China rather than white suburbia, which accords some traveloguey tourism - trips to Imperial palaces and shadow-puppet theatres - and windchime spiritualism involving life forces, mystic fonts and women communing with cobras (not a euphemism). More striking is what this means for America, glimpsed briefly and tellingly during the opening credits in the form of a grey and boarded-up Detroit, symbolic of a nation foreclosed upon. (The shift in location is justified narratively by the outsourcing of the hero's mother's job.) The message is clear: go East, young Kid, and seek a box-office fortune.

The update doesn't always pay off: Justin Bieber is no Peter Cetera, and thus his end-title number "Never Say Never" inevitably lacks the sincerity of "Glory of Love". There is, too, a lot of flab: it's an hour before Jaden Smith's ill-disciplined hero twigs his apartment block's shabby, noodle-chowing maintenance man Mr. Han (Jackie Chan) was once a kung-fu master - and even then it's another hour of the Kid repeatedly picking up his jacket (this version's equivalent of the car-waxing) and trudging around hillsides before he faces off in the Tournament of Champions, itself now grander than a mere community-centre smackdown. Smith cites the old Chinese proverb about having too much of a good thing, and as a criticism of the 2010 Kid, it more or less stands.

Still, that's to acknowledge this Karate Kid is not entirely a bad thing, and certainly fresher and more charming than we had any right to expect. The enjoyment derives chiefly from these performances. Smith (the Fresh Prince's kid) manages to appear spontaneous without seeming forced or precocious, and - more pertinent to the role - to suggest basically good instincts lacking only in the proper schooling. Taraji P. Henson makes fierce and funny the largely thankless role of the Kid's mother, and there's an appealing debut from young Wenwen Han as the violin prodigy with whom our hero enters into a very cute cross-cultural relationship.

Crucially, though saddled with character business (involving a prized car) that's only just less preposterous than his moustache, Chan finds himself at the exact right moment to inhabit the role of a slowing warrior striving to pass on his ideas to a new generation: simply put, this is a more heartening use of his skills and iconic status than cheap rubbish such as The Spy Next Door. None of us really needs a new Karate Kid, but - devoid of conspicuous digital effects - the remake retains a certain, cheering innocence: it's a throwback to the days when a summer movie could try to impress us with no more than a training montage set on the steps of a prominent landmark, then finish on a cheesy freeze-frame. Wax on, wax off, peace out.

The A-Team and The Karate Kid are on general release.

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