washingtonpost.com  > Arts & Living > Movies > Reviews > Desson Thomson on Movies
On Screen

Puppet Masters

By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 15, 2004; Page WE33

"TEAM AMERICA: World Police," as various teachers of mine used to say of me, is very, very rude. Parents, do not listen to your impressionable kids begging you to take them to this movie. It's not even close to a good idea.

But for anyone who can handle a movie that doesn't just go into the gutter but unearths new subterranean canals below it, this is wickedly funny and devilishly subversive. It is satire at its most fearless. Not subtle, in the manner of Swift. Crude, in the sense of "American Pie." In fact, cruder. And yet, dead on target.


Puppets Joe, Gary, Chris, Lisa and Sarah are on patrol in the very politically incorrect, yet oh-so-funny satire "Team America: World Police," from TV's "South Park" creators, Trey Parker and Matt Stone. (Melinda Sue Gordon -- Paramount Pictures)

_____More in Movies_____
'Team America' Details
Watch the Trailer
Feature: 'Puppet Love'
Latest Movie Openings
Fall Film Guide
Arts & Living: Movies
_____Desson Thomson_____
More Reviews
Live Online: Behind the Screen
Arts & Living: Movies

What is that target? Plain old couch-potato us and our perception of the post-9/11 world thanks to a composite prism of fear, cultural ignorance and government spin. Filmmakers Trey Parker and Matt Stone, creators of "South Park," are holding up a mirror to our worst sides and making us laugh hysterically for the privilege.

Did I mention they're all puppets? That's the funniest element of all: the spectacle of these characters (from turbaned terrorists to stiff, upstanding members of Team America) moving around with literal and figurative woodenness. Their faces are fixed. Their strings show. But the words that come out of their mouths imbue them with an out-there liveliness.

Team America consists of commando-style, gung-ho, special-ops, well, puppets. When we meet them, they are storming Paris on the trail of terrorists.

Their helicopter swoops above a man in a turban carrying a briefcase.

"You in the robes," booms the Team America loudspeaker. "Put down the weapon of mass destruction and get on the ground."

What follows is a "Mission: Impossible"-style shoot-'em-up, which leaves Paris devastated by Team America's shoulder-fired missiles (including the toppled Eiffel Tower) and the team's apparent satisfaction at another successful mission completed.

"We stopped the terrorists," announces Team America to the stunned, terrified citizenry.

The team is now a man short (his William Shatneresque death speech is hilarious, by the way), so group leader, Spottswoode (voice of Daran Norris), recruits . . . a Broadway actor. His name is Gary (voiced by Parker), and he's fresh from a triumphant stage musical about AIDS called "Lease." His acting, they reason, will help him infiltrate the bad guys.

Gary's new teammates include a clairvoyant named Sarah (Masasa), who claims to sense everything, even though the evidence is usually staring her in the face; stud and ex-quarterback Joe (Parker again), who has terrible luck with the babes; and Lisa (Kristen Miller), who finds herself attracted to the new actor-agent.

Their mission is to trot the globe in search of bad guys and WMDs, but the real evil, it turns out, is closer to home. We're talking about an American group that wants to thwart Team America's noble aims at every turn: The Film Actors Guild or, by their oft-cited acronym, F.A.G. Their leading lights? The usual crowd: Alec Baldwin, Martin Sheen, Sean Penn, Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins.

That's the thing about Parker and Stone: They go for the taboo with such confidence and irony, they give you a wicked glimpse of a lighter side. Thus, when we see Arab and North Korean terrorists, all of them muttering in ethnically pejorative accents (including "axis of evil" leader Kim Jong Il, who speaks in obscenity-laced, Charlie Chan-accented English), it's not about racial derision. (Although, clearly, Parker and Stone are mischievously probing the audience's politically incorrect sense of humor.) It's a satire about all too many perceptions of the World Out There as a bunch of "haters" with funny accents. And in Gary's musical, one of the ensemble's chipper numbers goes: "Everyone is dead from AIDS!" It may not sound funny here, but in context, it's satirically hilarious.

It would be amiss not to mention, again, that "Team America" is riddled with obscenity and extremely low-rent humor that will curl almost anyone's hair. When one puppet gets sick from a night of partying, he pukes. And pukes. And pukes. And as for the movie's flashpoint scene -- a lovemaking session between two marionettes that had be trimmed to avoid an NC-17 rating -- I'd be dishonest if I didn't confess I laughed so hard I made little moaning noises. Guess those teachers were right.

TEAM AMERICA: WORLD POLICE (R, 98 minutes) -- Contains puppet sex, puppet violence and extremely graphic language. Oh yeah, and major pukeage. Area theaters.


© 2004 The Washington Post Company