The new 'A-Team' hopes to avoid B-remake status

Fox's $100-million adaptation of "The A-Team" (June 11) takes glee in rehashing certain touchstones of the cheese-tacular '80s TV action- comedy series.

In the film's teaser trailer, Liam Neeson's character, Col. John "Hannibal" Smith, leader of the fun-loving crew of mercenary brigands, utters George Peppard's signature line from the show: "I love it when a plan comes together!" And Bradley Cooper (in the playboy-outlaw role of Lt. Templeton "Faceman" Peck) looks at former Ultimate Fighting Champion champ Quinton "Rampage" Jackson's B.A. Baracus character (Mr. T's scowling dramatic creation) and remarks: "You look like you have a real bad attitude."

But in movie promotions, as with blind dates, first impressions can be deceiving.

On the movie's Vancouver set in December, its four principal cast members -- Cooper, Jackson, Neeson and Sharlto Copley as Capt. H.M. "Howlin' Mad" Murdock -- stood shoulder to shoulder, dressed in full military dress regalia, to run through a scene in which they face a tribunal of judges for the team's dishonorable discharge. Between takes, co-writer-director Joe Carnahan ("Smokin' Aces," "Narc") explained that "The A-Team" movie is hardly a by-the-book rendering of the series.

Where the original Alpha Unit was a quartet of disgraced Vietnam war vets turned soldiers of fortune, the new squad are covert operatives who ran missions during the most recent Iraq war and get hung out to dry for crimes they didn't commit. They determine to clear their names from the moment they make their inevitable break out of maximum security prison.

According to the filmmaker, it's more in the spirit of Christopher Nolan's "Batman" reboot than, say, Ben Stiller's comedy-arrested "Starsky and Hutch." "I'm not interested in making the easy, breezy Cover Girl version of ‘The A-Team,' " Carnahan said. But, um, isn't this a summer popcorn film full of sight gags and big explosions? "We streamlined and stripped it down. But we had to keep some staples," the director clarified.

Although the project had been gestating with various filmmakers – most notably John Singleton -- for almost a decade, Carnahan threw out all the previous scripts and redrafted the action to kick off during the impending American troop withdrawal from the Middle East.

"I thought they were too slavishly devoted to the TV show," Carnahan said of past scripts. "While I like the TV show, I didn't think it was any great shakes in terms of heavy drama."

Exhibit A: Gone are B.A.'s thick coil of gold necklaces and habit of exclaiming "I pity the fool!" In character on-set, however, a resplendently Mohawked Jackson sported temporary tattoos across his knuckles that read "P-I-T-Y" on one hand and "F-O-O-L" on the other.

Likewise, "Howlin' Mad" Murdock has been updated for the new millennium.

"What passed as crazy 25 years ago? It doesn't hold up," Carnahan said. "Nowadays, you have Steve-O on ‘Jackass' strapping on a g-string made out of chicken parts and rappelling over an alligator pit. So you have to reevaluate things like ‘crazy.' "

Copley, who starred in last year's Oscar-nominated "District 9," also idolized the team growing up in South Africa. Still, he held certain reservations about being part of the adaptation.

"At the beginning, I was a bit skeptical to do a movie of a TV show that could come out really dodgy," Copley said. "But when I heard who they were casting, I thought, ‘This could be really fun!' "

That fun encompasses the imbroglio between Cooper's Faceman and Jessica Biel's character, Defense Department agent Carissa Sosa, who share a tortured romantic past. "The respect each other but piss each other off at the same time," Biel said. "It's a complicated relationship."

Carnahan glanced out at the principal cast and again defended his remake of the TV classic. "We're not making an homage to ‘The A-Team,' " the director said. "We're taking the base story of four guys wrongfully convicted of a crime, they're an Alpha Unit, that's it. That's the point of departure."

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