An Oct. 15 Style review of "Team America: World Police" compared the film's parody of a patriotic country ballad to the work of singer Alan Jackson. A more appropriate comparison would have been to the work of singer Toby Keith. (Published 10/19/04)
Nothing escapes the cruel and frequently spot-on abuse of "South Park" creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone: Jesus Christ has taken his lumps right along with Saddam Hussein, rednecks, Satan, the PTA, innumerable celebrities and unctuous politicians. And do not forget poor, silent Kenny, who died over and over for "South Park's" perpetual sin of crossing the line.
But as we all know, it takes more to cross that line now. It's going to take puppets on strings -- puppets who abuse their superpowers, wreak havoc on world affairs, splatter Janeane Garofalo's brains on the wall and force subordinates into performing oral sex. Parker and Stone's new offensive blast, "Team America: World Police," is a profane and sometimes bitingly funny sociopolitical-musical-action-adventurical story, told entirely with clumsy marionettes (and two kittens) performing in a 1/3-scale, post-9/11 world.
The movie -- shot in the manner of those short-lived, 1960s-style Saturday-morning puppet melodramas -- is a testament to the deeply dissociative powers of American entertainment consumers: Whatever anxieties and tragic losses have been caused by terrorists, it's all a big joke here. It's a wonder that some people, in a fit of pop sobriety, actually declared the death of cynicism and irony after the World Trade Center attacks. If by now you're not ready to laugh off the state of the world, then "Team America" will make you feel very unhip indeed.
When the men and women of Team America jet out of Abraham Lincoln's mouth or Teddy Roosevelt's head (they HQ at Mount Rushmore) in the name of "Top Gun" liberty, the rest of the world only suffers: Out to stop a decidedly Osama-looking terrorist and his swarthy al Qaeda-like hoods in Paris, the Team unwittingly blows up the Eiffel Tower, which falls over and crushes the Arc de Triomphe, which leads to an explosive leveling of the Louvre. Mission almost accomplished (and with one Team member dead), the heroes declare victory and leave the stereotypical French (a mime, a boy in a sailor suit, women in sunglasses) agape at the destructive price of freedom.
A replacement Team member, Gary, is recruited from his current job on Broadway, singing the lead role in "Lease: The Musical," a sufficiently mean sendup of the schmaltzy and now outdated "Rent": "Everybody's got AIDS," Gary sings, while the rest of the cast, dancing on scaffolding, upbeatly sing, "AIDS, AIDS, AIDS!" and a sold-out marionette audience bounces in time and gets weepy.
Mr. Spottswoode, the Team's Leslie Nielsen-esque leader, convinces Gary that his acting skills are needed to infiltrate a band of Islamic terrorists in Cairo. Gary reluctantly joins (thanks mainly to a parody of one of those horrible Alan Jackson patriotic ballads: "Freedom isn't free / There's a hefty [bleepin'] fee").
Back at Mount Rushmore, the Team's victory cocktail party (and a graphic marionette-on-marionette sex scene that makes you wonder if the MPAA has just given up on Parker and Stone at this point) is interrupted by yet another terror attack, this one at the Panama Canal. Asked to explain this, the Team's surfer-voiced supercomputer, Mr. I.N.T.E.L.L.I.G.E.N.C.E., can only offer the excuse that he got bad intelligence.
Turns out the real terrorist mastermind is Kim Jong Il, who gets the same hilarious treatment that Parker and Stone so presciently bestowed upon Saddam Hussein in their 1999 movie, "South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut." (And if you're wondering, that movie was much better than this one.)
The North Korean dictator speaks in the voice of "South Park's" Eric Cartman, (if you don't know it, ask any 11-year-old to do it for you, then turn on your TV's V-chip) only with an Engrish accent. "I'm so ronery," Kim confesses in a pitiful ballad to himself, which explains his evil-doing -- he just needs to be ruvved. Here, observant "South Park" fans will begin to suspect that the ingenious song stylings of the Parker/Stone canon are waning.
Kim has wisely aligned himself with the Hollywood members of the Film Actors' Guild (FAG), who, in their lefty peacemaking zeal, have unwittingly and arrogantly become part of his plan for world destruction. It's up to Team America to save the day -- if only they can defeat the rabid celebs, including Alec Baldwin, Helen Hunt, Tim Robbins and an apparently brain-damaged Matt Damon. This is all terrifically nasty and shocking stuff, and the puppetry and carefully handcrafted sets are a quaint wonder to behold against the glut of computer-created landscapes in other movies.
Stunned by all the fun, I am almost moved to salute Parker and Stone for their nuanced and careful takedown of American jingoism and the seemingly disastrous foreign policy that Team America stands for.
Only that isn't quite how it played to an audience on Tuesday night, at one of those free-ticket radio station giveaway previews in a packed cineplex in Northwest Washington. The biggest laughs came when "Team America" assaulted any and all concepts of ethnicity, or when the joke was on gays, Michael Moore or a vast left-wing idiocy.
The movie feels like an elaborate inside joke on the very Americans laughing hardest at its easiest gags, oblivious to the sly, allegorical digs at a USA brand of bravado. What I took as a lampoon of Bushworld seemed to be received, in the seats around me, as a triumph of Bushworld. Pollsters and campaign workers, take note: "Team America" will only further confound your election-year data.
Team America: World Police (98 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for incredibly naughty language, puppet sex, puppet gore and extreme violence.