Wednesday, June 16, 2010
The best shot in The A-Team is the very first one. The camera flies over some barren Mexican landscape. The shot is smooth, clear, and most importantly, continuous, being allowed a duration of what feels like 5-10 seconds. What’s on screen hardly matters because it is being captured so well. This shot is an ideal one to call out in the argument for the importance of smooth, uninterrupted takes in action films. When the camera is tracking it’s best to allow it the freedom to move without interruption because a long take means movement, which is inherently kinetic, which is inherently exciting. Think about a roller coater ride. The reason they are so exciting is because they involve one unbroken stream of action in a single, controlled, straight forward direction. You understand what is coming with complete clarity and the movement makes it exciting. Imagine a roller coaster ride with jagged edges coming from every angle, meaning you can't see or know what is ahead of you? Sounds more sickening than exciting no? The A-Team is a film built on jagged edges. What is becoming one of the film's most quoted lines is one where A-Team mastermind Hannibal Smith (Liam Neeson) declares that overkill is underrated. He’s right; it can be, if it’s filmed right. The A-Team, despite a plot that is convoluted, hard to follow and not easy to care about, is not, to say the least, filmed right at all. There’s a helicopter chase sequence at the head in which schizoid pilot Murdock (District 9’s Sharlto Copley) not only spins his chopper 360 degrees around to avoid incoming fire but also avoids two heat seekers by flying the craft upwards until it’s on a 180 degree angle and then kills the engine, sending it into a free fall. It would be an amazing feat of ridiculousness, if you could see it happening. Instead director Joe Cranahan (Smockin’ Aces) and his editor kick it into overdrive and lose the entire focus of the stunts. Before Murdock can even get the chopper all the way flipped the film starts cutting away at a pace so rapid it veers way past unintelligible and into the realms of the unbearable. Instead of seeing a wicked trick the audience is subjected to cuts from above, below, right, left, and what seems like every degree between 1 and 360 and back again. The fourth wall isn’t shattered here, it’s vaporized into extinction before the audience can even decipher that they are missing something important. Did Cranhan actually sit in an editing room at some point, looking at this and think that he had something great on his hands? Producers raise millions of dollars so that these films can have the best special effects on the market. The least Cranahan could do is let us catch a peek of them as they happen. I’ve just described ninety percent of all the action in The A-Team, which, in and of itself, is about ninety percent action. But this is not an action movie: it’s a headache. It’s a loud vomit of random images strewn together in a blender at an inhuman pace. Fist fights happen but you can’t see who is landing punches or if anyone is even throwing them; bullets are shot but God-forbid we get to see who is shooting them and who they are being shot at in one continuous flow; and the handheld camera not only films in close-up most of the time but shakes uncontrollably in the wake of action. There’s a scene where the A-Team are on wheels and the bad guy is in a bank. He runs, shooting through glass panels to make it to the road in time to intercept them. It would have been an exciting moment, but the cameraman runs after him, losing complete focus of the character as he bobs in and out of view and also losing the excitement of a man with a machine gun shooting out glass panels at random. Another good sequence down the tubes. This is unnecessary overkill. The sequence could have been perfect were a track lain and the camera pushed along behind. Maybe that would have required too much thought? It’s a shame because there’s nothing all that inherently wrong with anything about The A-Team besides that it was directed, shot and edited by mad men with no respect or knowledge of the filmic conventions of an action picture. The story is typical: a group of soldiers are betrayed by their government and seek revenge to clear their name. Ya know, The Losers kinda stuff. The acting is all as good as it needs to be with Bradley Cooper and mixed martial artist Quinton “Rampage” Jackson heading out the other half of the team. They are funny and work well together and Copley shows that there might even be a great character actor in him as he takes most of the films laughs. It’s funny to ultimately end up mentioning The Losers which was a much better film with just about the same story. It’s proof that nothing about The A-Team would have needed to change outside the key technical players to make a good film. All of the elements are there, the special effects are great and the action sequences are inventive and exciting. You just can’t see them. I sincerely believe that in the hands of a better director the exact same film could have been made well. Cranahan has the wrong hands and the film, thus, is a disaster.