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Team America: World Police   B+

Paramount Pictures

Year Released: 2004
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Trey Parker
Writers: Trey Parker, Matt Stone, Pam Brady
Cast: Trey Parker, Matt Stone, Kristen Miller, Masasa, Daran Norris, Phil Hendrie.

Review by Rob Vaux

Most people wouldn't think of making a Jerry Bruckheimer parody with political overtones, and then shoot the whole thing using marionettes. Then again, most people aren't Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the juvenile iconoclasts behind the hugely successful South Park TV series. Team America: World Police is the same type of comedy as their other work. It's class-clown cleverness run amok, a sacred-cow hunt whose intelligence walks hand in hand with a junior-high fixation on sex and bodily humor. It would be abhorrent if it weren't so screamingly funny... or if it didn't find a genuine philosophical ethos in the midst of the snickers and fart jokes.

Indeed Team America is so close to South Park in tone and style that you wonder why they didn't just fold it into a few episodes of the show. Then again, the film's marionettes provide a brilliant fulcrum for physical gags, lampooning the old Thunderbirds series while undercutting every action film cliché in sight. Do this with live actors, and it would be fumbling and desperate. But there's so much inherent absurdity in those funky little puppets -- so much in their awkward jerks and bulbous heads that just cries out to be mocked -- that every shot has the potential to send soda spewing out of your nose.

The film's surface target is bombastic action movies, particularly those of the 1980s, whose jingoistic supermen remain as ripe for the plucking as ever. The title team -- a five-man death squad on a global mission to wipe out terrorists -- have a two-pronged methodology which consists of either landing their star-spangled vehicles in foreign locales and laying waste to everything they see, or walking into seedy bars clad in fake turbans and asking, "Say, do you guys know where we can find some terrorists?" Their knowingly crude tactics are matched by the film's hysterically feeble emulations of car chases, gunfights, and kung-fu duels, all delivered with the unflinching straight face that only blocks of carved wood can provide. Chuck Norris went through the same rigmarole countless times, only he wasn't in on the joke. Team America knows exactly what it's doing, and it spins the oyster of its premise into a 90-odd minute stew, despite the fact that it's all a variation of the same basic joke. Director Parker finds plenty of new ways to exploit the mechanical clunkiness of his "cast," and every time it appears that he's run out of gas, he comes up with something new to keep us giggling.

Of course, the scale-model mayhem is also a jab at America's current misadventures abroad. The puppets' simplistic world of right and wrong feels eerily similar to our government's justifications in Iraq, and the folly of that parallel doesn't escape unscathed. We see Team America descending into foreign nations at will, destroying property and traumatizing the populace before departing with a friendly wave and a "Happy to help!" But Parker and Stone don't limit their attacks to the right. Hollywood activism takes it on the chin as well, with such figures as Alec Baldwin and Michael Moore playing patsy for the film's villain Kim Jong Il... and eventually being messily dispatched as punishment for their hubris. Sadly, neither half of the satire works quite as well as it should. The celebrity jokes are too obvious to be really funny, and the geopolitical digs work much better as anti-Stallone than anti-Bush.

Against that, however, Parker and Stone bolster Team America with a strangely compelling point of view: a political philosophy that reflects both pragmatism and sensibility. That, in and of itself, isn't noteworthy (the points they make are largely no-brainers), but the way they express it becomes a weird sort of genius. It's a nasty, offensive, and very, very funny metaphor involving lower-body orifices, that incites peals of sophomoric laughter before finally sinking in and eliciting a bewildered nod of understanding. Add to that a plethora of Parker-penned songs (in the same vein as his wonderful ditties from the South Park movie) and a puppet sex scene that may be the funniest thing put on-screen this year, and Team America confidently overcomes its few periodic misfires. Obviously not everyone will be inclined towards its particular kind of lunacy, but Parker and Stone made their agenda clear a long time ago. Their fans know what to expect, and the rest have been duly warned. Team America delivers plenty of the same sick fun: delightful to those attuned to it, and clever enough to make a few new converts as well.

Review published 10.15.2004.

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