Bradley Cooper, Liam Neeson, and Co. help give the hit '80s-TV show a big-screen makeover

By Benjamin Svetkey
June 11, 2010 at 04:00 AM EDT
  • Movie

Somewhere in Joe Carnahan’s video collection is a tape he shot but has never watched. He made it six years ago, at a low point in his life, after yet another in a long series of difficult conversations with Tom Cruise — the final one, as it would turn out. ”I figured I’d never be more freaked out than when I quit as director of Mission: Impossible III,” the 41-year-old filmmaker says. ”So I went home and videotaped my face. I wanted to capture my expression on tape. I didn’t even look at it after I shot it. I just put it away.”

Today, on a sunny afternoon in late May, Carnahan has an altogether different sort of look on his face — let’s call it guarded optimism. In just a couple of weeks, on June 11, he’ll get another shot at a big summer hit. This one doesn’t star Tom Cruise — try Liam Neeson, Bradley Cooper, Sharlto Copley, and mixed-martial-arts champion Quinton ”Rampage” Jackson — but it too is based on a beloved old TV series, an iconically cheesy 1980s action show about a crack unit of commandos-turned-soldiers of fortune. You know, the show with the deadpan voice-over during its opening credits: ”If you have a problem, if no one else can help, and if you can find them, maybe you can hire…the A-Team.” Cut to a jeep flipping over.

”I was not a huge A-Team fan when I was a kid,” Carnahan confesses over a turkey Reuben sandwich at a diner near his Brentwood, Calif., home. ”But I was aware of the popularity of it.” At its peak, 40 million viewers — more than the audience for an American Idol finale — were tuning in weekly to watch this motley band of heavily armed misfits. And it wasn’t just here in the U.S.; like Baywatch and Spinal Tap, The A-Team was huge in Japan, along with Europe, Australia, and even Africa. Which isn’t such a bad pedigree for a TV show that’s being turned into a potential film franchise, considering as much as 60 percent of box office comes from overseas.

In any case, Carnahan’s mission this summer — and lots of folks are praying it’s not impossible, including Fox Studios, which is gambling $100 million on the PG-13 film, and Tony and Ridley Scott, whose company is co-producing it — is to make people fall in love with The A-Team all over again. To do that, Carnahan has updated the concept with an Iraq-war backdrop: The plot involves a Blackwater-like mercenary group trying to steal U.S. currency plates. But he’s also sticking close to the original characters. Neeson, hair dyed silver in homage to the late George Peppard, stars as Col. John ”Hannibal” Smith, the cigar-chomping team leader whose cockamamy plans always come off with clockwork precision. Cooper plays Lieut. Templeton ”Faceman” Peck, so handsome no woman can resist him (except Jessica Biel, who plays his ex-girlfriend, an Army intelligence officer). Sharlto Copley, last seen in a prawn costume in District 9, is Capt. ”Howling Mad” Murdock (the name says it all). And Rampage Jackson plays Sgt. ”B.A.” Baracus, the role that put Mr. T on a million lunch boxes.

There had been talk of an A-Team movie for years. At one point, it looked like John Singleton might direct, with Bruce Willis playing Hannibal Smith. But nobody could agree on a script, so the project stayed in limbo at Fox. ”The studio kept giving us screenwriters who had never seen the show,” remembers producer Stephen J. Cannell, who created the original 1983-87 series for NBC. ”The first screenwriter we had was an Irish guy who kept giving Hannibal lines like ‘Whilst you are going here…’ He had no ear for American idiom whatsoever.”

Whilst the A-Team movie was spinning its wheels on the Fox lot, Carnahan was enjoying a stint as the new favorite director among Hollywood stars. His first studio movie, a gritty 2002 cop thriller called Narc, had been a huge hit in the private screening rooms of Beverly Hills. Dustin Hoffman and Warren Beatty contacted Carnahan after seeing it. Harrison Ford called to say he wanted to make a movie with him. Cruise all but adopted the Delaware-born director, putting his name on Narc’s credits as an exec producer and — the ultimate compliment — hiring him in 2003 to write and direct M:I-3. Carnahan spent 15 months working on the script, until it became clear that he and Cruise were never going to see eye to eye. ”We just didn’t want to make the same movie,” Carnahan says. ”I wanted to do something darker and geopolitical.”

After he quit M:I-3 — some guy named J.J. Abrams took the job instead — Carnahan figured he’d be ”directing community theater for the rest of my life.” But he managed to shoot a low-budget Vegas crime thriller, 2007’s Smokin’ Aces, and eventually found new friends in the film business, such as Tony and Ridley Scott, who loved The A-Team and had a production deal over at Fox. As Hannibal Smith so often said, don’t you love it when a plan comes together?

Neeson was the first actor Carnahan cast. The Oscar nominee, 58, remembers The A-Team being a hit on European TV when he was an up-and-coming stage actor, even if he wasn’t dashing home from rehearsals of Coriolanus to watch it. ”When my agent called, I thought, ‘The A-Team, how boring is that?’ ” he says. ”But then I read Joe’s script and it was really good. It had balls and heart.” Bradley Cooper was doing overseas publicity for The Hangover when he heard he’d been signed to play pretty boy Peck. ”At that time it was a false rumor,” he recalls. ”I hadn’t been cast yet. But I was amazed at how many people abroad even knew about the show.” For a while, Carnahan contemplated Seann William Scott and Rob Corddry as Howling Mad Murdock, but ended up hiring Copley, who was crazy about the show as a kid in South Africa. ”I have a picture of my 12th birthday,” he says. ”There’s a cake with Mr. T’s face on it.” The studio had strong ideas about who should get the B.A. role; they pushed Carnahan to hire a famous rap artist whose name he won’t reveal. But the audition was a disaster: ”literally one of the worst performances ever committed to tape.” When Jackson came in for a reading, though, Carnahan had a ”That’s our Baracus!” moment. ”He just got it,” the director says.

Virtually every scene in The A-Team, including the sequences set in Baghdad, was filmed on soundstages in an industrial section of Vancouver. From the way the actors describe it, Carnahan shot the movie in much the same way he’s devouring that Reuben sandwich. ”He has a real hunger for life,” notes Cooper. ”He’s a ball of energy.” Even just talking with Carnahan about his cliff-hanger career can feel kinda cinematic. And now, with The A-Team, Carnahan is once again taking a hairpin turn at full throttle. Who knows, maybe when he videotapes his face this time, he’ll actually be able to press playback.

Where are they now?
Save for Peppard, the original A-Team is still working, but in some surprising places.

George Peppard, ”Hannibal” Smith
The suave Breakfast at Tiffany‘s costar died of pneumonia in 1994.

Dirk Benedict, ”Faceman” Peck
Currently donning Columbo’s raincoat in a U.K. stage tour of Prescription: Murder.

Mr. T, ”B.A.” Baracus
Recently unveiled World of Warcraft‘s ”mohawk grenade,” which turns victims into Mr. T look-alikes.

Dwight Schultz, H.M. Murdock
Lends his voice to many videogames and animated shows like Ben 10. — John Young