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A-Team, Karate Kid, Killers
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"Overkill is underrated," opines group leader "Hannibal" Smith (Liam Neeson) at one point during the course of The A-Team. Clearly, the man isn't talking about summer films, wherein the whole point of many of these heavily hyped efforts is to render everything louder, larger and more expensive. Still, as far as costly packages go, this is one of the better ones in recent memory -- unlike the schizophrenic Iron Man 2, the somnolent Robin Hood or the tepid Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, this at least has some inkling how to keep the adrenaline pumping.

The film is of course based on the wildly popular TV series that aired during the middle stretch of the 1980s ('83-'87, to be exact). The series was, let's be honest, crapola, a cheesy crash'n'smash rally that often played like The Dukes of Hazzard stripped of the hick accents. Its appeal largely came from its colorful characters: the brainy Hannibal, the suave Face, the nutty Murdock and the imposing "B.A." Baracus, the last-named played by Mr. T in the role that built on his Rocky III stepping stone and allowed him to emerge a full-fledged media star.

This new film is occasionally cheesy in its own way, but it's also far smarter than the series ever was. There, the plots were as rudimentary as, say, someone stealing his neighbor's toothbrush and The A-Team being hired to retrieve it (well, I can't swear this was an actual plotline, but ya never know...). This big-screen version, on the other hand, is packed with the dirty double-crosses and constant reversals of fortune we've come to expect from our modern thrillers.

Some of it is clever, some of it is obvious, but there's always a sense that writer-director Joe Carnahan and co-scripters Brian Bloom and Skip Woods are repeatedly trying to up the ante.Expectedly updating the action, the movie makes the quartet Iraq war participants rather than Vietnam War vets, but the basic thrust remains the same: Wrongly accused and convicted for following sketchy orders they cannot prove were ever issued, the men bust out of jail and set about clearing their names.

As in the series, Hannibal always has a plan or two brewing, Face (Bradley Cooper) is irresistible to the
ladies (Jessica Biel co-stars as an army captain who once dated Face and now pursues him and his cohorts), and the otherwise brave B.A. (wrestler Quinton "Rampage" Jackson) is scared to death whenever he's forced to board a plane being flown by the crazy Murdock (District 9's Sharlto Copley).

As B.A., Jackson isn't nearly as memorable as Mr. T -- the latter always looked like he could beat you to a pulp just by staring -- but in the case of the other three actors, they're actually improvements over their small-screen counterparts. They provide the human hook that draws us into the action, much of it more imaginative than what we
usually encounter in CGI-heavy efforts: The cheerfully ridiculous sequence involving the "flying tank" rates a half-star all by itself.

The climactic set-piece is far too chaotic for its own good, but by then, the film has already delivered on its promise.The A-Team is basically a B-movie writ large, and in that respect, it gets the job done.



"Hi, Dad!"

"Hi, Jaden."

"I'm bored. Will you and Mom finance a movie that I can star in?"

"Of course! Let's do a remake, so we don't have to spend too much time looking for original scripts. The 1980s are popular right now. What would you like to star in?"

"Well, let's see. I love The Terminator, Beverly Hills Cop and The Karate Kid."

"OK. You're too young for The Terminator, and I don't want you cussing like a sailor like Eddie Murphy did. So how about The Karate Kid?"

"Cool! Thanks, Dad!"

If your parents are Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith, you're probably going to get what you want, no matter how ill-advised. And certainly, mounting a remake of one of the 80s' definitive crowd-pleasers, a movie that led to major box office, a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for Pat Morita and (alas) three inferior sequels, probably constitutes some sort of career death wish.

Yet The Karate Kid turns out to be a pleasant enough surprise. To be sure, there's absolutely no area in
which it improves on the original, yet the basic plot remains durable enough that there's no harm done by this easy-to-take update.

Jaden Smith plays Dre Parker, who's forced to move from his Detroit home when his single mom (Taraji P. Henson) lands a job in Beijing. Dre catches the eye of a cute schoolmate (Wenwen Han), but most of the time, he's being beaten to a pulp by a local bully (Zhenwei Wang) and his sycophants, a situation that leads Dre to despise his new surroundings. But just as he resigns himself to a childhood full of bruised ribs and black eyes, he learns that his building's maintenance man, Mr. Han (Jackie Chan), is actually a kung fu expert. Realizing that the boy needs to protect himself, Mr. Han sets about training his young charge.

This Karate Kid clocks in at 135 minutes, which seems absurd until one recalls that the original itself runs a lengthy 126 minutes. But that version, expertly directed by Rocky helmer John G. Avildsen, flies by; this new take, overseen by The Pink Panther 2's Harald Zwart, proceeds in fits and starts. Even the climactic championship bout, an edge-of-the-seat affair in the '84 model, here gets by more on the intrinsic dynamics of the situation (i.e. the one-on-one, last man standing angle) than on Zwart's rather pedestrian orchestration of the segment.

As Mr. Han, the likable Chan is in fine form, though his performance isn't nearly as delightfully subversive as Morita's turn in the comparable role of Mr. Miyagi. As for Jaden Smith, he shows some limited range, though he's still a long way from displaying the natural charisma of Will Smith -- or even original Karate Kid Ralph Macchio.

And no, there's no truth to the rumor that Will and Jada plan to next cast Jaden in a remake of Citizen Kane.



Just how wretched an actress is Katherine Heigl? Ashton Kutcher, her co-star in Killers, has delivered his own share of poor performances (most recently in Valentine's Day), yet whenever he's asked to share a scene with Heigl, he comes across like Laurence Olivier by comparison. Heck, he looks like any of the giants of cinema: As he interacts with the hopelessly inept Heigl, you feel as if you're watching the rebirth of Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire or De Niro in Raging Bull.

OK, so I'm getting a bit carried away, and, truth be told, remove Heigl from the equation and it's evident that Kutcher also has trouble keeping his head above water. In Killers, he's asked to play a seasoned CIA assassin, which is only slightly more believable than witnessing Miley Cyrus portray Scarlett O'Hara or David Spade tackle General Douglas MacArthur. His character, Spencer Aimes, is tired of his bloody lot in life, though, and he desires nothing more than a bland, safe existence. So after he meets the sheltered Jen Kornfeldt (Heigl), who's vacationing on the French Riviera with her parents (Tom Selleck and Catherine O'Hara) after recently being dumped by her boyfriend (smart fellow!), he quits the hitman biz and marries her, never bothering to tell her about his dubious profession.

Cut to three years later, where we find the pair living in petrified suburban bliss -- that is, until Spencer's past comes back with a vengeance. Suddenly, the 'burbs become a battlefield, as Spencer must figure out which of his longtime neighbors are legit and which are trained killers out for his blood. The idea of a suburban setting as a front for illicit activity is a fairly original one (although an episode of Alias did tackle it a few years ago), and in the proper hands, this might have made for a sharp satire. But in this case, everyone blows their assignment.

The ham-fisted direction is by Robert Luketic, who previously teamed with Heigl on the worst film of 2009, The Ugly Truth. The forced banter between the stars comes courtesy of scripters Bob DeRosa and Ted Griffin, who apparently never met a dreadful line of dialogue they didn't like.

Yet reserve the main brickbats for Heigl, who once again uses variations on her single, solitary, thespian expression (wide-eyed wonder) to play the only role she ever tackles in movies: the annoying, neurotic pill whose ill-placed air of superiority can't disguise the fact that she's an intolerant nincompoop.

While independent, intelligent actresses like Meryl Streep, Cate Blanchett and even Angelina Jolie try to elevate the status of women in what's largely become a male-dominated industry, it's disheartening to see Heigl doing her damnedest to keep her gender hunched over the cinematic equivalent of that kitchen stove.