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Quinton ‘Rampage’ Jackson fits ‘The A-Team’ to a Mr. T

VANCOUVER -- Talk about a Bad Attitude.

As early December darkness fell on the Vancouver set of Fox’s $100-million movie reboot of “The A-Team,” one of its stars, Quinton “Rampage” Jackson, found himself fending off an all-too-familiar impulse. The urge to, well, rampage.

Pride of the Ultimate Fighting Championship and a former light-heavyweight champ (he was scheduled to fight May 29 for the title in Las Vegas) — a guy whose day job consists of beating the toughest men in the world into either submission or unconsciousness — Jackson stood in the middle of his trailer spewing invective with a glint of real menace in his eye.

At issue: a movie crew member had wandered in on this final day of principal photography and — whether jokingly or not — called the muscle-bound movie star a homophobic epithet. Jackson had responded with barely contained fury. He threw the guy out, shouting him down with every conceivable gay slur. “You’re a punk!” Jackson finally bellowed.

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He claimed the crew member’s intent had been to provoke a physical assault. “That … wanted me to punch him so he could sue me,” the professional body-slammer explained, using a certain 12-letter curse word that he lets fly often in conversation — a word that has no business appearing in a family newspaper and, for the sake of this article, will here on out be substituted with “individual.”

But the outburst seemed to also prompt Jackson, 31, to wrestle with other issues: his experiences in Western Canada, his choice to take time out of the octagon (as the UFC’s fighting ring is known) and how his stardom in “The A-Team,” Fox studios’ tent-pole adaptation of the ‘80s action-comedy series that’s due in theaters June 11, might affect his fighting career.

“Acting is kind of gay,” Jackson said. “It makes you soft. You got all these people combing your hair and putting a coat over your shoulders when you’re cold. I don’t want a coat over my shoulders! I’m a tough-ass [individual]!

“Vancouver strikes me as a San Francisco-kind of place,” he continued. “And I don’t want [individuals] getting ideas about me. I feel in my heart I’m the toughest [individual] on the planet. And I don’t want nothing changing my train of thought. If you don’t believe that when we step inside the octagon, it shows.”

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Jackson’s knuckles were adorned with temporary tattoos that he had sported for the duration of the movie’s shoot — 72 days of blocking scenes and performing stunts alongside such bona-fide movie stars as Liam Neeson (as team leader Col. John “Hannibal” Smith) and Bradley Cooper (as smooth-talking lothario Lt. Templeton “Faceman” Peck). “P-I-T-Y” read the letters on Jackson’s right hand, “F-O-O-L” on the left.

Ladies and gentlemen, meet the new B.A. Baracus.

The story of how Jackson — the most recalcitrant movie star appearing in any blockbuster this summer — came to be cast in “The A-Team” is a creation myth that begins in 1982. That year, “Rocky” star Sylvester Stallone had the good luck to watch a TV game show featuring a toughest bouncer contest and took note of a resplendently Mohawked, Grade-A tough guy. His name: Mr. T.

Stallone cast the granite-faced former bodyguard as Rocky’s trash-talking boxing nemesis Clubber Lang in “Rocky III” — “I pity the fool” being Mr. T’s unforgettable line. And after the film became a box-office smash, NBC built a hit series, “The A-Team,” around Mr. T. A winking extravaganza of cartoonish violence and witty repartee that ran from 1983 to ’87, it followed four Vietnam vets “convicted of a crime they didn’t commit”; they became soldiers of fortune to battle evil on a freelance basis. And portraying the Special Ops Alpha Unit’s snarling enforcer, Sgt. B.A. “Bad Attitude” Baracus, Mr. T became a global phenomenon.

In the process, he captured the imagination of one Quinton Jackson from Memphis, Tenn.

A wrestling prodigy who earned the nickname “Rampage” when he was 8, the young Jackson parlayed his physical talents and devastating punching power into a lucrative career as a mixed martial arts fighter, first becoming a sensation in Japan’s Pride organization and, later, a superstar in the UFC. His signature lights-out move: the body slam, which Fox Sports Net’s “Sport Science” measured as having a “head impact criteria” of 3,500 — a hurt index 3 1/2 times worse than what one would typically suffer in a car crash.

Inevitably, Hollywood beckoned but Jackson’s fight schedule precluded him from appearing in films, save walk-on parts in schlock fare such as 2008’s " Midnight Meat Train.” “I’ve had the chance to do other movie roles before but I took the fights instead,” he said. “I was supposed to do ‘Transporter 2,’ ‘Wolverine.’ But I couldn’t do it because UFC was in the way.”

That all changed, though, when Jackson caught wind that writer-director John Singleton (“Boyz N the Hood”) was moving an “A-Team” adaptation toward production. “It was the whole reason I wanted to act,” Jackson said. The two took a meeting about 2 1/2 years ago but the project stalled. Enter writer-director Joe Carnahan (“Narc,” “Smokin’ Aces”) with a revamped “A-Team” screenplay. And on the heels of casting call No. 2, the Ultimate Fighter bested a Who’s Who of pop cultural heavyweights — rappers Common and Ice Cube and celebrated street brawler Kimbo Slice among them — to nab the role. “I was destined to play this part!” Jackson exclaimed.

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In the movie, the butt-kicking B.A. decides to turn over a new leaf by embracing non-violence. But his Ghandi-esque resolve is put to the test when the team is backed into a corner by a bloodthirsty adversary. Despite his lack of acting chops, Jackson’s casting served as a reassurance. “I always thought from the beginning, if this movie is going to work, it’s going to rise and fall on the person playing B.A.,” Cooper said in Vancouver. “Mr. T was so iconic and so much a part of ‘The A-Team’ TV show — so much of what I think of when I think of ‘The A-Team’ — that whoever plays that, if you get it right, 80% of the movie’s already a success.”

So how’d Jackson do?

“In my opinion, he’s the best B.A. there could be,” Cooper said. “It feels like a real coming out moment for Rampage.”

At a downtown Vancouver conference facility, principal cast members Neeson, Jackson, Cooper and Sharlto Copley — as the team’s bonkers chopper pilot/getaway driver “Howlin’ Mad” Murdoch — stood shoulder to shoulder in full military dress for a court martial scene. The moment Carnahan yelled “Cut,” Jackson began to howl like a wolf in a circular clearing at the center of the room. Then, the Ultimate Fighter began calling out crew members to “get in the ring,” setting the stage for an epic battle royale.

Several of the film’s assistant directors and even a sound department worker stepped up for their beat-downs with Jackson — who can transform from fun-loving imp to glowering berserker with Jekyll and Hyde quickness — doling out playful sleeper holds, Superman punches and half-speed body slams.

Sitting behind the monitor, Carnahan cued Bill Conti’s “Rocky” theme song over the PA and smiled. He praised Jackson as no less than “this generation’s Mr. T” but he took pains to separate the man from the beast persona he cultivates for the octagon.

“You just saw him in the middle of this courtroom wrestling with members of this crew. He is Rampage at his core and, he would be the first to admit this, is like an 8-year-old kid,” Carnahan said. “He doesn’t have an ounce of ill will — he really doesn’t. But he gets painted in this negative way sometimes.”

It was an oblique reference to the legal hot water (and TMZ infamy) Jackson found himself in two years ago after committing a series of hit-and-run collisions in his pick-up truck in Newport Beach. The fighter ran several red lights, drove on the sidewalk and tried to outrun cops. (Last year Jackson pleaded guilty to one misdemeanor count of reckless driving and one felony count of evading arrest and driving against traffic.)

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On set, Jackson found an unlikely kindred spirit in Copley, the courtly South African star of last summer’s sci-fi hit “District 9.” Despite obvious differences in upbringing and temperament, the two bonded over their shared, lifelong love of “The A-Team.”

“He’s totally different from what I expected — I guess I expected more of a stereotypical thug-fighter with an arrogant attitude,” Copley said.

“Obviously there’s this other side where he smashes people’s heads in. It’s quite remarkable!”

Someone less than overjoyed by Jackson’s embrace by moviedom, however, was UFC President Dana White. Last year, when the fighter pulled out of the planned televised mixed martial arts event UFC 107 for “The A-Team,” White ridiculed Jackson’s decision — “You’re a fighter; you’re not a movie star” — and advised him to “Get a … grip.”

Jackson responded by challenging White to a fight. White, meanwhile, lost what he describes as a substantial sum on the canceled UFC bout. But the two smoothed over their differences, allowing Jackson to take part in the much-hyped grudge match this weekend against his bitter rival Rashad Evans (the event had not occurred as this story went to press).

“We got over it,” White said recently. “Listen, every day I get guys wanting to do all this crackpot stuff, to pull out of fights for movies that are terrible. In hindsight now, did it hurt us? It wasn’t the greatest thing in the world to happen. But having seen the trailer for the movie? He made the right decision. It looks like something he can be proud of and maybe make into a career.”

Back in his trailer, with his UFC future still in doubt, Jackson left little mystery about the downside of movie stardom. He blamed the film’s assistant directors for keeping him on-set needlessly and railed against what he calls moviemaking’s hierarchy system.

“Here, there’s a thing called ‘pecking order,’ ” Jackson said. “I’m not used to that. People can be really inconsiderate of people’s feelings. I wasted three weekends in a row waiting in my trailer when they didn’t use me at all. To be honest, my experience in this movie industry hasn’t always been good.”

And the day’s battle royal, it turns out, had been about settling old scores with the ADs. “I’ve been wanting to punch them for real for a while,” he said, before quickly clarifying his position: “I didn’t want to hurt the [individuals] but there was built-up aggression.”

Blame it on the emotional release of a long shoot finally coming to an end, blame it on fatigue, Jackson gave voice to second thoughts about choosing “The A-Team” over UFC 107.

“Overall, I was glad I experienced the stuff. But sometimes I have mixed feelings. Sometimes I think, ‘Damn, I should have taken that fight,’ ” he said.

clee@tribune.com


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