Team America: World Police (2004, USA, Trey Parker)
Meisters of the savage skewer, Matt Stone and Trey Parker, whose South Park TV show has, since 1997, set the standard for balancing hilarity and misanthropy, and whose debut feature film, South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut upped that particular ante in rather staggering fashion, have apparently decided that the best way to face up to the dreaded sophomore jinx is to avoid comparison to their first film and skin a cat of an entirely different sort by shooting a film featuring puppets in the lead roles. Well, marionettes might be the more specific and accurate term to use, as the strings are most definitely still attached to these creations, and Stone and Parker are most certainly at the other end, yanking our collective chains in this full frontal assault on American ethnocentrism, overblown action movies, atavistic terrorists, lonely North Korean tyrants, self-righteous Hollywood actors and, most importantly, the mainstream audience’s delicate sensibility and good taste.
Team America: World Police is deadly funny throughout its first two reels, as the titular law enforcement agency roams the world thwarting terrorists and making the world safe for folks, whether they deserve it or not. In what is clearly a spoof of the testosterone-driven Bay/Bruckheimer/Simpson/Scott school of filmmaking, we bear witness to many a fine shoot ‘em up as the TA crew does what it does best, bust things up. Everything from the in your face close-ups to the “blowed up real good” explosions, from the blustery and buffoonish 80s soundtrack to the blatantly xenophobic patriotism and all-around global cluelessness, where nations are described solely according to their distance from America, prove fine fodder for satire. The latter is particularly well-spoofed in the sequences where Team America purports to be protecting people and their cultural landmarks, only to blow them to smithereens as they attempt to catch the film’s various nefarious terrorists. The opening scene in Paris, where Team America manages to simultaneously topple the Eiffel Tower and crush the Arch du Triomphe, then blast the Louvre into tiny little pieces, as well as a later episode in Egypt, where the pyramids and the Sphinx are reduced to rubble in short order, provide inspiring examples of this.
The choice of marionettes for this enterprise is particularly clever, given that their ability to emote is about on par with the sort of one-dimensional performances that such films generally feature, while the constant reminder of how these heroes are merely puppets dangling from the end of strings gives the film added ironic cachet. Also, and as you might expect with a Parker/Stone endeavor, Team America’s musical numbers are first rate, with Kim Jung Il’s “I’m So Lonely” the film’s emotional highlight, if such a qualifier can be used for this irreverent film. Unfortunately, after building up such a fine edifice of deadly-aimed humour, some cracks begin to show in the foundation as Parker and Stone allow puerile humour to dominate the film’s final reel. When Team America stoops to featuring an acronym for the actors it is taunting, it risks redefining juvenile humour. Perhaps it is the dour left-winger in me, but what were supposed to be whoops of laughter during the various decapitations of Hollywood activists failed to elicit much more than a shrug outta me, as they proved too easily and relentlessly targeted.
Still, don’t get me wrong, the press-obsessed self-serving-ness of many armchair Hollywood activists strikes me as a perfectly legitimate target for satire; however, you’ve gotta think that there are more interesting hypocrites to pick on in the holier-than-thou sweepstakes, like certain very powerful political leaders and their evil minions, mayhaps? Just think of the opportunity squandered as Parker and Stone could have used the marionettes to show quite literally just who is the puppet and who the puppet master in the current administration. Also, by reducing much of that attack on the actors—after opening with a very funny spoof of Rent, a Broadway show called Lease, where “everybody has AIDS”-- to an adolescent and homophobic pun is a wasted opportunity, the recurring shot at Matt Damon, which is funny in both concept and realization, notwithstanding. That complaint aside, the fact that the world’s fate is, in the end, determined by an acting competition between the protagonist Gary and his idol Alec Baldwin (“the greatest actor in the world!”) proves funny particularly given how the film has been mocking actor’s sense of self-importance throughout. If only the lads behind South Park had managed to maintain that level of comic performance throughout the entire running time of Team America: World Police, it just might have put the “F” back in Freedom, which, if you’re counting, is a bargain at a mere buck oh five.