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Posts Tagged ‘as seen on TV’

There was a point about fifteen or twenty years ago where you couldn’t move for big-screen adaptations of popular TV series from twenty or thirty years earlier. I don’t just mean the Star Trek movies, although these are particularly notable for their role in getting the show back on the telly for a very substantial run – there were also the Charlie’s Angels movies, Mission: Impossible (nowadays pretty much existing solely as a Tom Cruise vehicle), Scooby-Doo, Lost in Space, Starsky and Hutch, Miami Vice… even really obscure things like The Mod Squad and SWAT were dusted off and sent to the cinema. It almost got to the point where you were surprised when an old TV show wasn’t turned into a movie: apparently The Six Million Dollar Man got tied up in rights issues, thus possibly sparing us from a comedy version starring Jim Carrey, while the big-screen take on Knight Rider hit a snag when mooted star Orlando Bloom declared his role as David Hasselhoff’s son to be insufficiently demanding for an actor of his abilities (now that’s a criticism).

It’s fairly self-evident that some of these movies took a distinctly tongue-in-cheek approach to the TV shows that spawned them, which I must confess that I wasn’t always a particular fan of, although this probably depended on how much I enjoyed the original programme. Of course, there are worse things than being irreverent, as I discovered in 2010 when Joe Carnahan’s big-screen version of The A-Team finally arrived (I say ‘finally’ as the movie had been in development for fifteen years, arriving notably after the peak of the small-to-big-screen-transfer craze).

The film opens in Mexico, presumably in the early 2000s, where hard-bitten US Army Ranger Colonel John ‘Hannibal’ Smith (Liam Neeson) is intent on bringing a corrupt local general to justice. In order to do so he must first rescue his sidekick, a smooth-talking lothario nicknamed Face (Bradley Cooper). But Hannibal doesn’t have a ride! His only option is to carjack the first person who happens along. This turns out to be bad-tempered mechanic B.A. Baracus (Quinton Jackson), who is driving along in his beloved red and black van minding his own business. Hannibal shoots B.A., just a little bit, to prove he is serious about the carjacking, but then notices B.A. has a Ranger tattoo just like his. What are the chances? Such is the bond of comradeship between US Rangers that B.A. completely overlooks Hannibal shooting him and off they go to rescue Face together. (No, really. And this is just the first ten minutes.)

Having saved Face from being barbecued alive, the next priority is to get out of the country, which they do by borrowing a helicopter from an army hospital. But who is to fly it? Well, it turns out that one of the patients has an outstanding record as a combat pilot, the problem is he’s just completely insane. Yes, it is Howling Mad Murdock (Sharlto Copley), and he whisks them all off to safety.

Your heart sinks a bit as this opening section concludes, because you realise it has nothing – nothing! – to do with the rest of the plot, and is just there to show how the four members of the A-Team first met (the movie doesn’t bother including any of the non-core characters from the TV show). Why have they bothered to do this? It is puzzling – the premise of the story is that the characters all have a background in the military; it’s not like you have to contrive a way to get them all together.

Well, anyway, we then jump forward to the present day where the A-Team are hanging out in Iraq having done their bit to bring long-term peace and stability to the Middle East (‘You guys are the best!’ Hannibal tells some local soldiers he’s been training). But then word reaches them of some forged plates for making counterfeit American money which are due to be smuggled out of Baghdad very soon. A convoluted jurisdictional tussle breaks out between US army intelligence, the CIA, and private security firms over who is going to capture the plates, involving slippery CIA dude Lynch (Patrick Wilson) and Face’s old girlfriend (Jessica Biel), who’s in military intelligence. Needless to say the A-Team are given the nod to go ahead with the op.

However, they have been set up, it all goes bad, the plates disappear and their authorisation for the mission disappears in a ball of flame. As a result they are all court-martialled and sent to four different glasshouses to serve their sentences (Murdock is even sent to Europe, though this also serves the plot). But Lynch approaches Hannibal with a proposition: if he can retrieve the plates and find the man who stole them, Lynch can bust him out of jail and see to it he and the team get a full pardon…

Now, I was discussing the state of modern TV with a friend the other day and really lamenting the fact that hardly anybody does episodic television any more: nearly every programme is essentially serialised to some degree or other, making it a lot harder to dip in and out of them. I do think there is a certain craft and skill involved in making this kind of entertainment, certainly for the long haul, and that this kind of show had its own particular charm.

On the other hand, I am currently between jobs which means I can, if I so choose, watch three episodes of The A-Team on re-run, most days, and in this situation you do very quickly realise that the bare bones of the series’ format were seldom very deeply covered. The plot of an episode of The A-Team nearly always goes something like this:  a small mom & pop outfit somewhere nondescript is being bullied by small-time hoods. One of the victims makes tentative contact with the team and manages to hire them. The next time the hoods show up, they are properly slapped about by Hannibal and the others. There is a plot twist where it turns out the hoods have a bigger plan which bullying mom & pop is only a small part of, followed by a reversal which sees the bad guys locking the A-Team in a garage with a lot of welding gear and washing-machine parts. The A-Team build an armoured car or helicopter gunship out of the washing-machine parts and blast their way to freedom for the climax. They proceed to fire 37,000 rounds of .223 ammunition at the bad guys, destroying all inanimate objects in a half-mile radius but leaving their human opponents miraculously unscathed. The bad guys go to jail and the A-Team are paid their (presumably hefty) fee: there are smiles all round.

(Mixed in with this are the scenes where the individual team members get to do their schticks – Hannibal puts on a ridiculous disguise, Face either scams someone or romances the only female character, B.A. snarls a lot and says something motivational to a child, and Murdock – well, Murdock’s schtick is that he gets a different schtick every week, so it depends.)

There are coats of varnish with greater depth to them than the typical A-Team script, but while this is undeniably schlock TV aimed at the very young and the very undemanding, it remains oddly likeable and perhaps even watchable (up to a point at least). The movie’s problem is that it doesn’t want to be schlock, but hasn’t figured out a way to not be schlock while still remaining recognisable as The A-Team. The problem isn’t just that the film opens with a sequence providing unnecessary back-story for the team: the whole movie is unnecessary back-story for the team, as it concludes with them just about to commence their careers as good-hearted soldiers-of-fortune operating on US soil, at which point all the familiar A-Team plot beats will presumably start to occur and it will genuinely begin to resemble the TV show. (I mean, the movie is two hours long and the most prominent use of the theme music is diegetic. Also, they write off the A-Team van in the opening sequence. I mean, really…)

But as it is, it’s like the A-Team have accidentally wandered into a particularly downbeat Mission: Impossible movie, or possibly a Bourne, where they keep going off to Germany and getting double-crossed. You don’t expect to have to work quite so hard to follow the plot of The A-Team, to be honest, but there’s a lot of slightly baffling exposition going on here (‘I found it a little confusing and I was in it,’ Liam Neeson later commented). Plus there’s a subplot where Face doubts his own ability to put a plan together, and another one where B.A. becomes a pacifist… the writers don’t seem to have realised that to give these characters extra depth is to lose what makes them recognisable and distinctive. You do wonder about the extent to which the success of the TV show was just down to the charisma of the main four leads, the simple pleasure of watching stuff blow up, and how reassuringly predictable it all was to watch.

If the movie never quite feels like the A-Team TV show, an equally big problem is that it never really feels like a very good movie, either. Quite apart from the problems with the plot, the action sequences are not particularly spectacular or exciting, and the use of CGI is also quite obvious. The performances, I should say, are not bad, given the material the actors have to work with, but they are fighting a losing battle from the beginning of the film to the end.

George Peppard was long gone by the time the movie came out, and Mr T refused to take part, but the other two original cast members (Dirk Benedict and Dwight Schultz) do turn up for cameos – however, these don’t appear until the very end of the closing credits. Supposedly this was for timing reasons, but there is something very odd about this sequence – it feels grudging and uneasy, almost like a contractual obligation. The movie seems to have little interest in or affection for the original TV show, so why else would the film-makers have invited the cast back? This film was underwhelming at the time, joyless and dour where the TV series was silly but diverting. It would probably be quite difficult to make a big-screen A-Team that was both faithful to the show but also good, but the movie shows that doing one which is at least as bad as the TV series while barely resembling it and having little of its entertainment value was entirely possible.

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There was a time, a few years back, when half the new movies coming out of Hollywood seemed to be adaptations of old TV shows to the medium: Mission: Impossible, Charlie’s Angels, The A-Team. This sort of thing has been going on for decades, of course, and shows no signs of letting up (the Mission: Impossible franchise is now Tom Cruise’s most reliable revenue stream, while we are threatened with a new Charlie’s Angels movie before the year is out), but it certainly felt like something of a peak when obscurities like The Mod Squad and SWAT were being dusted off for a big screen outing. Such is the nature of modern cinema, I suppose: there’s currently no bigger risk than originality.

British attempts at this sort of thing go back nearly as far: in fact, back in the 1950s, Val Guest and Hammer Films were actually making films based on radio shows. The British big-screen spin-off is usually a cash-in, made while the TV show in question is still a going concern or at least a recent hit, and most of them have been based on comedy programmes. The results have been extremely variable – some of the Monty Python films are regarded as genuine classics, and the two Inbetweeners films made a stack of money, but on the other hand the Are You Being Served? film is practically a shorthand summary of the many reasons why this sort of thing is a bad idea.

Of course, they have done movies based on drama series, too: there have been a number of Sweeney films, a big-screen Callan, and (not that long ago) a Spooks movie. Appealing to a rather different demographic, however, is the current release of Michael Engler’s movie version of Downton Abbey. I don’t just mean that this film features fewer men in overcoats delivering knuckle sandwiches to each other than the typical Sweeney film; Downton Abbey, whatever you think of it, has become a globally successful entertainment, even to the point where they do jokes about it in Marvel movies. It may be a few years since it was actually on TV, but the calculation seems to have been that an audience exists that will be prepared to leave the house and pay to watch what is essentially a new instalment (the $90 million return so far on a $20 million budget suggests this was a shrewd assessment).

Full disclosure: I never watched Downtown Abbey on the telly and never felt like I was missing out on much, either; I’m not saying I would have walked five miles and stuck my head down a sewer in order to avoid watching it, but it’s just not my cup of tea. However, I did find myself taken along to watch Engler’s film by various family members who were more than passingly familiar with it. In brief, they all found it to be inoffensively engaging and occasionally rather amusing, and if you are a die-hard Downtonite this may be all you need to know.

The film opens with a lavish credits sequence concerning a letter being written and delivered, which kind of sets the tone for the high-octane thrills which follow. It turns out that the King and Queen are about to embark on a trip round the country and are intent on spending the night at Downton Abbey. Needless to say, this sends everyone into a proper tizzy, from genial good-egg Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) to the assistant cook (Sophie McShera).

It seems like everyone has their own particular concerns as the royal visit approaches: is the best silver going to be polished correctly? Can the boilers be relied upon to keep functioning? Will there be enough chairs for everyone? Primarily, though, the Downton domestic staff are somewhat peeved to learn that they are to be displaced by the King’s own servants for the duration of his time at the house. Can they really be expected to take this kind of treatment?

Mixed in with all this (and there are a great many other plotlines, some of them very minor indeed) is a subplot about an attempt to assassinate the King. I would hazard a guess that in 90% of films, this would be the main focus of the script, and the climax would see the domestics showing their quality by coming together to save the King’s life, a deed for which they would receive due gratitude and respect. However, this is not the kind of level on which Downton Abbey operates. The assassination plotline is resolved quite early on, without a great deal of fuss, and everyone carries on as they were for the rest of the film. The message is clear: this is not a film about tension and excitement. It’s a film about using the right knife for the fish course and knowing your place in Downton’s labyrinthine social ecology.

It’s all a bit like HG Wells’ The Time Machine, with the feckless but presentable upper classes wandering about in self-absorbed bemusement, while the much more capable domestic staff get on with ensuring that everything actually works – although, once again, there is never any real prospect of Mr Carson the butler (Jim Carter) actually eating the Dowager Countess of Grantham (Maggie Smith), as that would be far too surprising.

Of course, to say all this is to miss the point of a film like Downton Abbey, which is absolutely not intended to surprise the audience – what it is there for is to deliver more of exactly the same sort of thing as the TV series on which it is based. (I get the sense of the movie jumping through hoops in order to ensure all the main players are in their customary positions, even though some of them departed them at the end of the show’s run.)

However, as a newcomer I couldn’t help noticing a number of things. It is true that the film contains a number of very capable actors, Bonneville, Carter and Smith most prominent amongst them – on the other hand, such is the diffuse and episodic nature of the film that none of them actually get much to do beyond simply showing up and doing their usual business. More problematically, from my point of view at least, is the essentially complacent nature of the film. The main thrust of the plot concerns a group of people who are utterly determined to go out of their way to be as servile and deferent as they possibly can: the film doesn’t so much let a particularly rigid form of the British class system go unquestioned, as swooningly celebrate it.

Of course, I suppose much of the charm of Downton for its many fans is the very fact that it depicts a picture-book version of a world that hasn’t so much vanished as never existed in the first place (who was it who said that progressive escapism tends to look to the future, while the reactionary kind is set in the past?) – somewhere that is clean, and essentially untroubled, where everyone knows their place and sticks to it. (The film is not entirely backwards-looking, but a storyline about the lives of gay men in the 1920s feels laboriously crowbarred in.)

Perhaps this is why the focus of the film remains so firmly on the continuing characters, with the newcomers in distinctly secondary roles even when they are played by people who are relatively famous (Stephen Campbell Moore shows up, along with Geraldine James and Tuppence Middleton). The rules and regulations of Downton Abbey supercede conventional movie-making concerns. In the end it only barely feels like a genuine film at all; it could be just a particularly lavish and extended episode of the TV show. Which was surely the idea; but whether this is the film’s biggest strength or weakness is a matter of perspective.

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