Team America: World Police (2004)
The MPAA is mad, plain and simple. It’s an organization intended to rate movies so our wee ones don’t stumble into something not intended for their virgin eyes. They also have a long history of haggling with filmmakers over ratings and the necessary cuts to ensure a commercial rating. And, in their eyes, puppet sex was deemed too indecent. You see, the MPAA initially gave the all-puppet action movie Team America: World Police, the new film from South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone, an NC-17 for an extended scene of two marionettes engaging in enough sexual positions to make a G.I Joe blush. However, we’re talking about puppets, people! Puppets! They’re not even anatomically correct. Does anyone find it crazy that a governing board says watching two dolls bang together in “simulated sex” (is there any other kind with puppets?) is inappropriate for all ages under 17? Surely, if the MPAA is to be eventually reformed, this will be Exhibit A.
Team America is an elite team that fights terrorists and police the globe in red, white, and blue helicopters, jets, and flying limos (the team logo is a bald eagle with the earth in its beak). The team leader Spottswoode recruits Broadway actor Gary, star of the musical Lease (key song: “Everyone has AIDS”), because they need someone to pretend to be a terrorist and flush out their secret plan. Gary is reluctant at first but agrees to join the team.
Team America flies to Paris and Cairo to battle terrorists. They snuff the terrorists, but world monuments like the Eiffel Tower and Sphinx get lost among the collateral damage. Things look promising for Team America, and Gary expresses feelings for Lisa, a blonde psychologist haunted by the loss of a teammate and a lover.
Terrorists strike the Panama Canal in retaliation, and a group of celebrities led by Alec Baldwin condemn Team America. Michael Moore, with hotdog in each hand, protests outside Team America’s headquarters. In these moments of disarray, we learn the true source of the Weapons of Mass Destruction and brains behind the attacks is North Korean dictator Kim Jon Il, who has a plan for “9/11 times 2,358.”
While not reaching the satiric highs of the South Park movie, Team America is a political movie that lambastes both sides of the coin. This has been a very heavy year for political films, from leftist documentaries like Fahrenheit 9/11, The Hunting of a President and Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry, to more subtle jabs at the current administration (the very Cheney-like VP of The Day After Tomorrow), to more obvious indictments (the stuttering, axiom-loving dumbbell candidate in John Sayles’ Silver City). So in a year bursting to the seams with political screeds, it’s quite refreshing to have a movie that lampoons both the Right and the Left.
Team America satirizes the arrogant, shoot first ask later, cavalier foreign policy America has been accused of (“We’re going to bring democracy to you if it kills you.”). The film also criticizes Hollywood celebrities who feel that their uninformed, unsolicited opinions are germane to the political process. In the end, it’s the celebrities who get the worst of the beating (Matt Damon appears to be, um, challenged). Parker and Stone shrewdly satirize pretentiousness and ego, no matter which side it falls upon. They lose their focus as the film enters its final gory act, instead resorting to garish ways of killing puppets.
Team America has a good one-two combination with its political punch, but where it really shines is the knockout it delivers to bombastic Jerry Bruckheimer action films. This is a delirious send-up of a wide array of action movie clichés, including team members and their secret crushes as well as their hidden traumas. Characters will fight or die in slow-motion for dramatic effect. Characters will all have some special talent that will come into play at an important moment. Kim Jon Il has a typical villain lair, including large shark tanks and trap doors. When a character dies in the opening sequence he mutters the line, “I feel so… cold[.” Hilarious! There’s even an entire training montage set to a song called, “Montage” (sample lyric: “Show a lot of things happening at once, remind everyone of what’s going on!/ And with every shot show just a little improvement – to show it all would take too long!/ That’s called a montage!/ MONTAGE!/ Even Rocky had a montage!/ MONTAGE! “). There’s also a love song all about Pearl Harbor sucking as a movie.
Like all the other films by Parker and Stone, Team America is a robust musical. The songs aren’t as sharp as the ditties from the South Park movie, but they’re still quite amusing. The Team America theme is a rousing anthem called “America, Fuck Yeah!” which is a perfect example of the film’s simultaneous mixture of the profane and the brilliant. Later in the film, when Team America is taking a public backlash, there’s a somber remix of the theme that’s even funnier.
Some things are just funnier because of the limitations of puppets. Watching two marionettes try to fight is hilarious, because they really do nothing but kick their legs and limply slap each other. Before Team America, I never realized how funny it was just to watch marionettes walk. They’re so awkward and jumpy, that just seeing them step from side to side can put a smile on your face. When the music of Kill Bill comes onscreen, and the puppets walk in slow dramatic fashion, it’s even more absurd and funny.
Parker and Stone also have fun with self-awareness, like when they take Gary on a tour of the sights of Washington D.C. and he stands next to an actual tombstone at Arlington National Cemetery. There’s also a Matrix parody that actually comes off as fresh. There’s a giddiness to watching puppets swear, fight, vomit, stagger drunk, and even do the nasty. It’s a gimmick that doesn’t get old.
This is also one terrific looking movie. The sets are massively intricate and the photography by Bill Pope (who did shoot the Matrix films) bathes the proceedings in beautiful mixtures of light and dark. There may be moments you forget that what you’re watching are miniatures. It is filmed to look like a typical action movie. The music is a spot-on parody of action films, with its heaviness on flutes when the villain is around, to the foreign lady mournfully singing during scenes of tragedy. There’s fantastic craft and detail worked into Team America that I can unequivocally say Team America: World Police is the best looking, R-rated all-marionette musical action movie… ever.
Team America may be the funniest film of the year. There are some moments of drag, and sometimes less profanity would make certain punch lines better (unfunny homophobic jokes like the acronym F.A.G.), but the movie is a comedy that’s pee-your-pants funny. Team America is definitely not for kids (what kind of irresponsible parent assumes “puppets = for kids” and ignores an R-rating?). Because of the equal opportunity satire, this may end up being a movie that conservatives and liberals both claim to be their own. For fans of erudite satire, crude humor, and puppet sex, Team America will be a blast. Make sure to stay throughout the end credits to hear a special closing song not in the film.
Nate’s Grade: B