McG made one truly great movie — Charlie's Angels is a masterpiece, one I'll defend with my dying breath. And after watching The A-Team, I was reminded that Hollywood could still take some lessons from McG on making nostalgia porn.
And there are a few minor A-Team spoilers below. Be warned!
Every type of trash cinema is hit and miss, but nostalgia porn has the lowest success rate of almost any subgenre. Just look at how many forgettable, shitty movies have been made based on old television shows and other bits of cultural detritus. For every stylish, fun outing like the first Charlie's Angels, there are tons of movies like Lost In Space, The A Team, Thunderbirds, The Avengers (the Steed/Emma Peel one)... and oh yeah, the dreadful Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle.
I'm not actually going to review The A-Team, because it turned out to have no science fiction elements whatsoever. I was sort of hoping there would be some wildly improbable gadgets that pushed it over the edge into the fantastical. Or a MacGuffin that was more sciencey — but no, the gadgets in this film were mostly pretty mundane, and the MacGuffin was straight out of the 1970s.
Suffice to say, The A-Team is pretty standard nostalgia porn. It's a halfway decent action film, with a few tropes from the TV show added. Like, the one guy has a mohawk, and the pilot is crazy, and the older guy says he loves it when a plan comes together. And there are indeed far-fetched plans, which don't entirely make sense but you run with it. In fact, none of this movie makes all that much sense, but it's sort of fun and a good distraction for a couple of hours. Sharlto Copley and Liam Neeson are both entertaining to watch in it. It's this year's G.I. Joe.
The thing about bad nostalgia porn is, it's not usually made because somebody really loves the original TV show, movie or toy. Or because anybody sees anything particularly special or great about it. The run-of-the-mill, bland nostalgia porn proliferates because someone decides that one of these moribund old properties has some lingering money-making potential. Because enough people grew up on it and will shell out to see it brought back out of mothballs.
You can tell when a particular group of nostalgia pornographers aren't filled with a burning passion for the material, because it'll all feel a bit generic. Either they couldn't think to a way to update the old Cold War stories and concerns without going to a stock villain and storyline, or they were just a bit lazy. But oftentimes with one of these classics of the 1970s or 1980s, you get something that feels like every other quick-and-dirty action movie, only with a few characteristics from the original classic added in.
Nostalgia porn sits in a weird space — it's fun, because it has splosions and because the people making it usually aren't taking it all that seriously. But all too often, it's also joyless, since everybody involved is just picking up a paycheck.
So yeah, it's actually a miracle that the first Charlie's Angels turned out so well, and everybody should learn from its success. It's notable that Charlie's Angels starts out with a sort of self-mocking disclaimer — you're on an airplane, and they're showing T.J. Hooker: The Movie. And one of the Angels (who's weirdly disguised as L.L. Cool J) makes a wry comment about movies based on crappy old TV shows. All of which goes to acknowledge that, yes, this is nostalgia porn of the highest order, and yes, it's part of a crappy trend. But wait! This movie actually will not suck after all, because we're jumping out of that stupid plane. This little moment of splode-irony is so important to our social contract with the filmmakers that they put it in all the trailers:
And the rest of the movie, after that moment of irony, is full of silliness and self-mockery, but also weirdly sincere. Drew Barrymore, Cameron Diaz and Lucy Liu seem totally committed to being the Angels, and we're actually supposed to be surprised by the big revelation about Sam Rockwell's character towards the end. (Of course, it helps a lot to have Sam Rockwell in a major role, as Iron Man 2 and so many other movies have proved. Just imagine if Sam Rockwell had played Picard's unaccountably bald young clone.)
Here are a couple things that I think Charlie's Angels did right, that other nostalgia porn movies should copy:
1) It's not an origin story. The more I think about this, the more I think it's crucial. Do you want to know how Drew, Cameron and Lucy became Charlie's Angels? Me neither. It's the least interesting thing about them. I want to see them report to Charlie's big speakerphone and get an assignment, and then go kick some ass. But almost every other movie based on an old TV show seems to feel the need to give us an origin story.
The problem with an origin story for a television show is, you're probably going to wind up with something that feels like a TV pilot. And if you've ever watched the pilot for a classic 1970s or 1980s TV show, you'll know that it's usually the worst episode. These shows excelled at setting up a premise during the opening credits — the more ridiculous the premise, the faster they skated over it. The A-Team is a perfect example:
They're wanted by the government, but you can hire them to solve your problems. Sure, okay.
The A-Team movie reaches this status quo by the end of the movie (and in fact, we get a sort of pastiche of these credits at the very, very end.) But the film is concerned with letting us know how the team got to that place. If they made a Magnum, P.I. movie, it would be two hours of Magnum meeting Higgins and wrangling over whether he gets to use the Ferrari or not. It's weird, because our nostalgia doesn't take the form of wondering how the A-Team really got together — we're nostalgic for the actual format of the A-Team, where they solve someone's problems with a set of far-fetched plans and crazy gadgets.
2) It's actually funny. This is crucial, at least from my standpoint. Most of these classic TV shows, movies and other "franchises" were silly as heck, and had their tongues in both cheeks at once. Even if they weren't out-and-out comedies, they had a large dose of the ridiculous hardwired into them. It was a different era in pop culture, and a certain level of silliness was par for the course, especially on television.
How do you turn one of these self-consciously ridiculous shows into a movie? The usual strategy seems to be to camp it up, and to treat it like a bit of a joke, with the hammy acting and plots that don't stand up to a cursory examination.
But Charlie's Angels took the braver, smarter path — it's an outright comedy, in which the characters are respected but they laugh at the situation. Of course, most nostalgia porn films are unlikely to be able to score Bill Murray for a major supporting role, and he's a huge part of what elevates this film above the usual drek. But the three female leads are all great as well, managing to make their characters into women you actual root for and laugh with, rather than at. (I was actually severely pissed when Sam Rockwell turned on Drew Barrymore.)
So yeah, let's hope somebody in Hollywood actually takes a look at the most successful piece of big-screen nostalgia porn the industry has ever cranked out. Of course, even McG couldn't learn from his own example, judging from the films he followed it up with.