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Posts Tagged ‘The A-Team’

Over the last few years I have been lucky enough to be invited to contribute to eight volumes of ATB Publishing’s Outside In series (two on Star Trek, two on that British fantasy show I don’t talk about any more, and two on Buffy and Angel, plus their forthcoming diptych on The X Files and related series). For the second X Files volume I was assigned an episode of one of the spin-offs, The Lone Gunmen. What follows is the piece I initially came up with, which the editor liked – but discussions about it led us to have another go and something radically different and slightly more offbeat resulted, which is what will be appearing in the finished volume. I present the first draft here, mainly because I hate to see a nice bit of writing go to waste.

Outside In Wants To Believe will be out before the end of the year (or so they tell me, anyway). 

The main running gag in Maximum Byers comes from the fact that the Gunmen are essentially recreating an exploit previously done on TV many years earlier: namely, sneaking into prison. That the experience turns out rather differently to their expectations produces many a cry of ‘It wasn’t like this on The A-Team!’

The A-Team episode being referenced here is Pros and Cons, first broadcast on February 8th 1983. Space precludes me going into too much detail regarding the story, but in true A-Team style it concerns an underground prison fight club, someone making his way from Florida to Los Angeles on foot between scenes, Hannibal pretending to be a very camp hairdresser and our heroes escaping over the walls of the prison using a hot air balloon made out of trash bags.

You can sense a sort of sniffiness towards The A-Team from the writers of The Lone Gunmen, with Langley getting dialogue about how sneaking into prison is the kind of tired old plot every bad TV show rolls out four or five seasons in, when the writers start to run out of ideas. This seems to me to be rather unjustified for a number of reasons: firstly, the Lone Gunmen writers haven’t done their research properly (Pros and Cons was broadcast early in the first season of The A-Team); secondly, hanging a lantern on the fact you’re reusing of a corny old plot premise doesn’t actually excuse the fact you’re reusing a corny old plot premise; and thirdly, in this case at least, The A-Team has a much better idea of what kind of TV show it wants to be than The Lone Gunmen, and as a result is much more entertaining.

Oh, let’s be clear: Pros and Cons, like most episodes of The A-Team, is dumb and silly, lacking in any kind of sophistication or subtext. But once you get past that, it is at least fun to watch, with engaging characters and a sense that nobody involved is really taking it too seriously.

The elevator pitch for The Lone Gunmen probably sounded more or less the same: a light-hearted conspiracy-thriller and perhaps semi-spoof of other shows like Mission: Impossible. The best episodes of the series do stick pretty close to this idea and engage with well-known ‘conspiracies’, although taking care to avoid the kind of explicit SF-tinged notions the parent show dealt with.

Maximum Byers, on the other hand, is about characters on Death Row, which establishes a pretty dark overall tone. Things get even bleaker when the midpoint twist of the episode is the reveal that the supposedly innocent man they’re attempting to help is actually guilty as charged, at which point the focus switches to helping an African American man with psychological problems who’s been wrongly sentenced to death. The story ends on a profoundly downbeat note despite their apparent success.

Well, it wouldn’t exactly be to my taste, but I guess you could put together a decent if rather dour episode from this kind of material: there are serious issues to be touched upon here, involving the American judicial system and capital punishment, while on some level even the episode-as-broadcast is a character piece for Byers, as the least ‘street’ of the regular characters is required to go well outside of his comfort zone in the service of his ideals.

Byers with a bedpan. This episode almost reviews itself sometimes.

The problem with Maximum Byers is that someone involved in the production appears to have looked at this bleak, dark, serious story and realised it bears very little resemblance to the show they’re supposed to be making. As a result, it seems various attempts have been made to ensure it is a bit lighter and funnier, although this has taken the form of just inserting comedy bits rather than toning down the original story.

So, in addition to a conspiracy to murder, prison beatings and an execution, we get a sight gag pinched from the Marx brothers, Elvis impersonators, the A-Team running joke, Yves pretending to be married to Jimmy, and the concluding montage featuring the opening of a hospital for sick cockroaches – from which we go straight to the final coda with the execution sequence.

The tonal dissonance at this point is almost enough to give you whiplash, but it’s a consistent feature of the episode. You constantly find yourself wondering just how seriously you’re supposed to take it, and it’s tempting to conclude that even the makers of the episode weren’t entirely sure. There is a real sense of the episode being a bit too desperate to get its laughs – it’s almost impossible to imagine a show like this being commissioned today anyway (the main cast are four straight white dudes and a frequently objectified younger woman), but especially not an episode doing throwaway gags about whiteface make-up, speech impediments and convicts with mental problems.

As noted, the episode suggests that this kind of plot is the kind of thing writers resort to when they’re running out of ideas – well, I doubt that was the case with The A-Team’s take on the premise, but I’m not so sure about The Lone Gunmen. This show doesn’t have the well-defined and flexible format of its parent programme, nor the ability (it would seem) to achieve the same kinds of shift in tone from week-to-week: it’s locked in the same slightly silly, slightly knowing mode all the time, rather like The A-Team itself. The difference is that the writers of The A-Team recognised this and ran with the ball, while The Lone Gunmen team seem to have been slower to accept it. Self-knowledge is the beginning of wisdom, apparently: which would mean that while The Lone Gunmen is probably the wittier, more imaginative and more sophisticated show, The A-Team is the wiser.

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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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