A film review by Craig J. Koban

TEAM AMERICA jjj

2004, R, 98 mins.

Featuring the voices of Trey Parker, Matt Stone, Kristen Miller and Daran Norris

Directed by Trey Parker /  Written by Parker, Matt Stone and Pam Brady

Team America: World Police Poster

Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s insidiously funny TEAM AMERICA: WORLD POLICE is not so much a clever political and social satire as it is a masterpiece of mockery,  buffoonery, and gloriously realized juvenile highjinks.  This just may be one of the first films I have seen in a long time that does not just bathe in the dark waters of its political incorrectness; it kind of revels and champions its nihilism. 

From political figures, communists, Middle Eastern terrorists, actors, homosexuals, UN Weapons inspectors, Broadway musicals and, yes, the military infrastructure of the United States…no one has been spared of the satiric and offensive shots that the filmmaking duo has unleashed. 

Many critics have pained to point out that the film is filled to the rim with scathing and unsavory ethnic and racial stereotypes.  Okay, maybe that is true, but TEAM AMERICA really makes great efforts to point out that it’s the American military establishment  that is the true center of comedic criticism.  The heroes of the film (and I use that term loosely) are kind of the embodiment of what many people have come to lament on when it comes to America - that their vast military might and overt political tunnel vision has led them to the belief that they can, in fact, police the world with a complete disregard to any negative side effects.  I think this is especially clear at the beginning of the film that shows the American heroes thinking that they are saving Paris from evil terrorists, but instead destroy the Louvre and the Eiffel Tower.  The term “friendly casualties” is nowhere on the radar for the members of Team America.  No wonder...they put the "'F' back in freedom!"

The film sort of succeeds or is defeated based primarily on Parker and Stone’s approach to the film.  What’s not altogether surprising is their use of incendiary, silly, infantile, and subversive humour;  rather it’s their use of puppets (aka marionettes alla THUNDERBIRDS) to tell their tale of a secret American super hero squad that fights terror the world over.  I think their approach sort of underlines and emphasizes the entire tone of the film.  This is not a satire or comedy to be taken too seriously or literally.  There is a sort of campy undercurrent to the proceedings that embellishes the sheer lunacy and audacity of the film.  I think it also helps to highlight that TEAM AMERICA is also a  wonderful parody of every bad, big budget, and bloated action film that Hollywood has churned out over the last decade. 

The film succeeds more as a funny satire of the collective works of Michael Bay than it does as a thoughtful social piece of commentary that was, say, DR. STRANGELOVE.   I guess that I didn’t think much of that Stanley Kubrick classic, especially after a musical number in TEAM AMERICA has an assemble sing “Everyone has AIDS!”, but I digress.  TEAM AMERICA relishes much more as being a spoof of overblown action films than it does as a raging satire of the terrorism hysteria that sweeps the world.  Nevertheless, it’s still a very painfully funny 90 minutes of extremist and sophomoric comedy and a wonderfully sly bit of escapist mayhem. 

TEAM AMERICA opens with a terrifically  realized moment of comedy, where Middle Eastern terrorists have arrived in Paris, and one of them is carrying an infamous WMD (weapon of mass destruction, for any of you that have been living under a rock for the past few years).  However, just when our group of wacky villains think they can destroy Paris without a care in the world, TEAM AMERICA shows up to spoil their dastardly plans.  They arrive in those cool looking ships that could only belong to an extremely wealthy Western power, and the five-member team arrives just in time to stop these terrorists.  Of course, they stop the bad guys, but not without losing one member of their team (in a great moment of high hilarity) and by destroying half of Paris in the process.  I guess that collateral damage does not concern our American heroes very much in the film…it simply does not matter how much pain, suffering, and physical destruction they leave in their wake…just as long as the terrorist are beaten.  This opening moment clearly is the film’s more clear cut and obvious example of social commentary, as the destruction of Paris is sort of alluded to in relation to the effects of American involvement in present-day Iraq.   

After their encounter in Paris, the team regroups to what must be the quintessential place of operations for an anti-terrorism team – Mt. Rushmore.  The faces of the presidents that occupy the structure open up to reveal secret (well, maybe not that secret) passages to their base of operations.  There the team meets up with their leader Spottswoode and they decide who will be an effective replacement for their fallen comrade in arms. 

This takes the team to Gary, a Broadway actor whose last work was in the musical LEASE, which includes the horrendously offensive, yet strangely and perversely funny, “Everyone has AIDS" which includes lyrics like, "The pope has got it, and so do you/Come on everybody, we got a lot of quilting to do."  Anyway, Spottswoode loves what he sees in Gary, as he notices that such a naturally gifted thespian has a great chance of infiltrating terrorist organizations in disguise.  "You're an actor with a double major in theater and world languages! Hell, you're the perfect weapon,"  Spottswoode gleefully explains to Gary.  Gary, albeit hesitantly, agrees to join the team, but Spottswoode encourages Gary to take his life if he’s ever captured with a weapon that is revealed in one of the film’s best visual gags. 

Gary enters into the team smoothly, but not without creating some awkward tension among team members.  His rise up the ranks does create some sparks, especially with the female team members.  Two of them, Sarah and Lisa, are both very attracted to the handsome Gary, while one of the men, Chris, is kind of overtly hostile and arrogant towards the new team member.  The other male, Joe, is one of those classic jock types that sits idle on the sidelines and secretly yearns to be the love of Sarah.  

These love triangles eventually lead to some of the film’s more amusing song numbers, including the inspired and quirky “Pearl Harbor Sucked and I Miss You” with wickedly droll lyrics like, "I miss you more than Michael Bay missed the mark in Pearl Harbor” and “ I need you more than Ben Affleck needs acting lessons."  This entire romantic subplot segues into the film’s real “money shots” that includes a Kama Sutra-esque love scene in which two of our marionette characters engage in every possible sexual position.  Explicit and gratuitous sex has rarely been this funny, and the recent MPAA decision to force the makers to cut down the scene in order to not get an NC-17 rating seems stupefying at best.   I mean, its puppet sex, for cryin' out loud!

Meanwhile, the evil villain of the film is a puppet version of North Korean leader Kim Jong II, who seems cognizant for the utter annihilation of the world with his WMDs.  His plan is an ingenious one: he will stage a huge world peace summit with a conglomeration of hundreds of world leaders and while they are distracted he plans to…blow up the world, I guess.  His plans are made all-the–more easy when he enlists in the aid of several prominent members of the Film Actors Guild, or FAG.  The Korean mastermind manages to secure the efforts of such celebs like Alec Baldwin, George Clooney,  Matt Damon, Tim Robbins, and Samuel L. Jackson to name a few, all of which sort of look like their human counterparts in puppet form and are played with such a laughably bad piece of voice over work that its hard to take them seriously at all. 

The presentation of the actors is one of the film’s more silly bits of comedy (“Spreading Peace…that’s the FAG way,” deadpans Baldwin).  Yet, Parker and Stone are not really making fun of individual actors and their respective beliefs more than they are lampooning the whole pompous and egotistical out-of-touch mentality that permeates the modern celebrity.  Oh, they even manage to take shots at Michael Moore, who is actually reduced to a suicide bomber with a remote bomb detonator in one hand and a greasy donut in the other.  No one ever said the creators of SOUTHPARK were sophisticated. 

I am not really sure, when the film was over and the credits rolled by, with whether the film existed on the level of making a pure and singular political stance or whether it was just a textbook exercise in spoofery.  I think the film leads heavily to the later zone, and it’s a real inspired bit of mockery of the action film genre, complete with bad throwaway lines, slow motion tracking shots, and lots of things being needlessly blown up.  As a political and social satire, there’s a bit going on here, but in a convoluted way.  Parker and Stone do send some clear messages (like that  the US and their manifest destiny vibes only breeds insensitivity and blind intolerance of other nations), but by and large the two don’t really take a side of a specific stance on matters, and maybe that’s the point.  Their methodical and relentless satiric jabs hit every target equally, which ostensibly leads to a somewhat murky and ill-defined political undercurrent.  Yet, for those that preach of the film’s overt offensiveness  to other groups, strongly consider that, in reality, it’s really TEAM AMERICA that’s shown in the least proud light.  They are so wrapped up in their own sense of messianic goodness that, gee whiz, they have no clue of how much damage they inflict on the world.  And maybe Kim Jong II is a misunderstood terrorist, as he does manage to have one introspective scene of melancholy when he sings how lonely he is.  Then again, he does feed UN Weapons Inspector Hans Blix to a tank of man-eating sharks. 

TEAM AMERICA is just too hilarious to be lamented upon, and it contains enough really big laughs to separate itself from any close and overt scrutiny.  It's amazing how “watchable” the film is when one considers that it uses cheap puppets and miniature sets for its entire running time.  It's insulting, rude, crude, and stridently silly and inane with its humour, but at least it does not back away and hide from it.  In a film that has puppets, endless marionette sex, a scene of projectile vomiting that rivals a similar scene in MONTY PYTHON’S MEANING OF LIFE, a Katana fight with Helen Hunt, and a theme song for the heroes that blares out lyrics like, “America….F- - k yeeeeeeah”, how much serious exploration into topical social and political themes were you expecting?  Enjoy this film for what it is, a joyous celebration of all things ridiculous and insensitive that only the pre-pubescent sensibilities of two adult filmmakers could muster.  I think it’s perfectly fine for any message in a comedy to be completely subservient to the content of it, and as much as I am ashamed to admit it, the content of the film made me laugh and laugh out loud often. 

And two words: Matt Damon.  You’ll see what I mean.

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