The latest slice of 60s/70s/80s TV folklore to be opportunistically remodelled for a restless modern cinema audience – after Starsky & Hutch, Charlie’s Angels, Bewitched, Lost In Space, Miami Vice, Dukes Of Hazzard, The Fugitive, Inspector Gadget, Scooby Doo, Mission: Impossible, I-Spy– is an unsubtle update of the 1980s teatime action series (1983-1987) about four military mercenaries in a van: The A-Team. Though the “team” dynamic is identical, by ratcheting forward the special-ops action from Vietnam to the Gulf for its genesis, Joe Carnahan’s origins-style reboot mainly allows for more spectacular, laser-guided weaponry. And death. (Sorry, fans of the original, people get, like, killed up in this one.)
It’s not a bad film, but for me it just sits uneasily between nostalgia for parents and wham-bang teen demographic-chasing. Unflappable, cigar-chomping, plan-devising leader Hannibal (a suitably rugged Liam Neeson, with his usual halfway-house Irish-American accent), smoothie Face (straight-from-the-gym Bradley Cooper, who looks like he’s moulded in rubber, like Stretch Armstrong), crazy pilot Murdock (Sharlto Copley, running before he can walk after shining in sleeper hit District 9 and conspicuously given an opportunity to “put on” his own South African accent) and aerophobic BA Barracus (mumbling martial artist Quinton “Rampage” Jackson) basically enact jerry-built schemes to expose those who had them imprisoned for a crime they didn’t commit – here, the assassination of a US general in Iraq over some printing plates for dollars, the film’s MacGuffin. While it’s dumb fun to see a parachuting tank “steering” by firing its gun, or an exploding container ship, it’s not enough to sustain two hours, and the mid-section, unlike Bradley Cooper’s, is pretty flabby. At one stage a plan is acted out on a tabletop using little models, and this is intercut with the resulting action; quite a clever way of explaining as you go along, or a massive narrative surrender? You decide.
Meanwhile, I suspect the knowing, box-ticking catchphrases and cameos (stay to the end of the credits if you want to see Dirk Benedict) will mean little to a new generation. Unless, as Richard Herring optimistically suggests, dads of our age will take their sons and bond over a shared brand.
If so, then perhaps The Karate Kid will work magic, too. I don’t have any particular fondness for the 1984 original with Ralph Macchio and Mr Miyagi, so it’s no heresy as far as I’m concerned for it to be remade for the new century. Hey, why not be the 1000th person to point out that, by transplanting the action to China, the new film is no longer about a kid learning karate, which is a Japanese discipline, but about kung fu, a definitively Chinese martial art! This is true, and quite unsatisfactorily explained away in the new film (Jaden Smith, who plays the African-American Ralph Macchio, apparently did some karate once), but it simply points up the vital nature of the recognition factor when brands are updated. If it was called The Kung Fu Kid, no dads would want to go and see it.
Also, they have lifted the story wholesale from The Karate Kid: kid and mom move to new town (from New Jersey to LA; from Detroit to Beijing), kid is bullied by bigger boys who know martial arts (karate; kung fu), kid is adopted by kindly, moves-capable janitor (Mr Miyagi; Mr Han – played for reasons of rhyming by Jackie Chan), janitor has sad backstory in which wife and kids were lost (in internment camp; in accident), janitor enters kid for martial arts tournament and trains him up in seemingly boring, mundane way (wax on, wax off; drop jacket, pick it up), etc. etc. It’s something of a tourist board film for China, with narratively superfluous but scenically essential training scene on the Great Wall, and has been part-funded by Chinese investment, but the new setting works. And even though Jaden Smith is a chip off the strutting block of his dad, Will Smith, his innate cool has no currency in China, and his bullying is believable and heart-tugging. Meanwhile, Jackie Chan is genuinely tender in what is largely a dramatic role, except when he is slamming boys into other boys and tying them up by way of their jacket sleeves.
I must admit I was kind of dreading seeing The Karate Kid, mainly because it’s an indulgent two hours and 20 minutes long, but I wound up enjoying it. I can actually see why they remade it. And I can sort of see why they remade The A-Team, although what they really wanted to do was make another explosive, wisecracking, big boys’ action movie with some octane on the side, and by rooting it in a recognisable 80s brand, they have in a way been cowardly about it. Interesting that the martial artist in The A-Team is the weak link, whereas the martial artist in The Karate Kid is its strongest link. Or not that interesting at all.
Oh, and the man who played Mr Miyagi was called Mr Miyagi in real life. That was his name. It is on his gravestone.