Team America: World Police
Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the boys behind South Park, strike again with Team America: World Police, their new adventure comedy about a U.S. rapid-response force in the war on terror. Whenever terrorists show up with their weapons of mass destruction, Team America swoops in to blow them away—along with any unfortunate bystanders and landmarks that happen to get in their way—the Louvre, the Eiffel Tower, the Sphinx and the Pyramids.
As all the world surely knows, Team America has a gimmick: It’s a puppet show. This is actually a canny move on the part of Parker and Stone; it seems as though whenever they move into regular filmmaking—with 1997’s Orgazmo, say, or 1998’s Baseketball—their movies stink, and they don’t make a dime. But when they stick with the gimmicks, as they do with their animated, foul-mouthed spin on the Little Rascals in South Park, the novelty puts a shine on what otherwise might be some pretty lame jokes.
Like South Park, a cartoon about kids but definitely not for kids, Team America takes a children’s genre and twists it into something aimed at an older set. Exactly how much older is hard to say. The movie is rated “R,” but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s suitable for adults. Let’s just split the difference and say it’s aimed at 14-year-old heads on 17-or-older bodies.
The movie opens with a Team America raid on Paris that leaves the city a flaming shambles, with one Team America member dead. I forget his name (Dirk? Trent?), but he was the fiancé of Lisa, another member of the team (the rest are Chris, Sarah and Joe; the team leader—the guy who sits in his command chair back at headquarters, barking orders in a stentorian voice—is named Spottswoode). Dirk/Trent’s replacement on the team is Gary, a great actor from the hit Broadway musical Lease; Spottswoode decides that what the team needs most is an actor who can go undercover with the terrorists and expose their evil plans. Eventually, they square off against North Korea’s Kim Jong Il and his plans to destroy the world with the unwitting, unthinking assistance of Michael Moore, Alec Baldwin, Tim Robbins, Susan Sarandon, Sean Penn, Helen Hunt, George Clooney and other Hollywood lefties.
I don’t really want to go into any more detail than that. Not because I’m worried about spoiling anything, but because I feel like I’ve already spent more time on the story than Stone, Parker and Pam Brady did when they whipped up their script (for which I’m sure they got paid a lot more than I’m getting for writing about it).
The most striking thing about Team America: World Police is its contradictions. The movie’s sophomoric naughty-boy humor masks what is, just under the surface, a carefully calculated piece of mass-market commerce. And despite its blithe profanity, studious “bad taste” and eagerness to be an equal-opportunity offender, it’s really rather timorous.
The first half of the movie is a merciless putdown of blundering American jingoism, bragging about fighting the forces of evil while destroying everything in sight. Then, at almost exactly the halfway point, Stone and Parker suddenly pivot their guns and start firing in the opposite direction. In their little table-top puppet world, Kim Jong Il really is evil (we see him literally feeding Hans Blix to the sharks) and bent on bringing about the end of civilization. Hollywood’s most outspoken political activists are abetting his plans with their knee-jerk anti-Americanism and mealy-mouthed give-peace-a-chance platitudes. Stone and Parker are covering all their bases; they pretend to spare no one while giving everyone something they can agree with and laugh about.
And even if you never laugh at any of the jokes, there’s the puppetry to hold your interest, with its retro-Thunderbirds/Fireball XL-5 nostalgia. (The puppets were designed by Norman Tempia and built by the Chiodo brothers, Charles, Stephen and Edward; the production designer was Jim Dultz; cinematography is by Bill Pope.)
Team America: World Police makes a show of pretending to offend everyone. In fact, though, it reaches for the widest possible audience, and it doesn’t miss a beat.