Earlier this summer, Universal released a $57 million remake of the ’60s marionette TV show The Thunderbirds as a live-action special effects extravaganza. The film deservedly tanked at the box office. Ironically, the $20 million that Paramount spent on Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s Team America: World Police will most certainly turn out to be the smarter investment.
Featuring gorgeous low-tech sets and hilarious deadpan marionettes, cinematographer Bill Pope (Spiderman 2, The Matrix) manages to make Team America striking with a sumptuous wide-screen format that flatters production designer Jim Dultz’s detailed yet obviously fake world.
The hyper-clichéd story goes like this: A cadre of testosterone-fueled daredevils pursues terrorists from the team’s Mount Rushmore base with reckless violence. Innocent bystanders, the Eiffel Tower, even the Great Pyramids of Egypt are blown to smithereens in the team’s righteous quest to find WMDs.
Every bit as twisted, rude and shamelessly offensive as Parker and Stone’s South Park, Team America manages to be, at times, both piss-your-pants funny and vicious in its parody of post-9/11 America. Unfortunately, the movie does not consistently achieve either. The movie scores big laughs when newest team member, Gary, contemplates joining the fight against terrorism to a country music video entitled “Freedom Isn’t Free.” The notorious puppet sex montage, much criticized by the fools at the MPAA, is more silly than pornographic but very, very funny.
There’s also a hilarious gag (pun intended) that’ll make you wonder just how they got so much vomit into one marionette.
Inspired by the “supermarionation” work of Gerry Anderson (The Thunderbirds, Stingray and Fireball XL5), Team America comes closer in spirit to Peter Jackson’s Meet The Feebles — a profane and violent evisceration of celebrity worship featuring depraved Muppets. Parker and Stone aren’t nearly as daring, dark or profane here, opting for scatological gags in place of insightful political satire.
Today’s action films are little more than overblown puppet shows to begin with, and Team America gleefully lays siege to the genre by playing it straight — at least, for the first half of the film. The duo gives the finger to Jerry Bruckheimer as they hijack dialogue from blockbusters like Top Gun and Armageddon. Luckily, the stoic action film conventions are undercut by absurdist wit, shameless toilet humor and toe-tapping musical numbers.
As he does in the television show and in South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut, Parker spins comedic gold with his musical show stoppers. From the team’s hard rockin’ anthem, “America! Fuck, Yeah!” to a ballad that compares heartbreak to how much Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor sucked, the musical numbers are surreal and inspired.
Where the film stumbles is with its characters. The Team America squad is a pretty boring bunch with little to no personality. Only super villain Kim Jong Il is fully realized, and he’s little more than a Korean version of Southpark’s Cartman. Still, the shtick works and Kim’s plaintive musical solo, “I’m Ronery,” is one of the film’s highlights.
In its final act Team America starts to lose steam. Relying on an extended joke about the self-righteousness of liberal Hollywood actors (a popular target for Parker and Stone), the finale is little more than a series of puppet mutilations, feeding our supposed desire to see Tim Robbins, Susan Sarandon and Alec Baldwin disfigured a la Celebrity Deathmatch. It’s hardly subtle stuff and only occasionally funny.
Surely, Parker and Stone could have found more fitting targets … say, FOX News, or even the right wing’s biggest puppet, our commander in chief?
Even the terrifically crude final monologue about “dicks, pussies and assholes” (the movie’s “big message”) isn’t nearly as ambitious (or insightful) as Bigger, Longer & Uncut’s assault on America’s knee-jerk censorship.
Nevertheless, if you look past the shit, piss and vomit jokes, Parker and Stone’s South Park is the bravest, smartest critique of contemporary American culture on television today. The episode “Passion Of The Jews” is nothing less than brilliant. If you don’t get it, you’ll likely stay unconvinced after watching Team America … even if it is one of the greatest big-budget action marionette films of all time.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for MetroTimes. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.