Somewhere Jonathan Frakes weeps. It seems a foregone conclusion that Team America: World Police, a puppet movie parody of Jerry Bruckheimer action films inspired by Thunderbirds, will make more money on its opening day than his live action big screen adaptation of that same show.
The second film from South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone, Team America doesn’t come anywhere near the sheer genius of South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut, but it offers plenty of good gags and lots of laughs – I found myself feeling headachey after cackling through most of the film’s running time.
What’s most impressive about Team America is that it’s a puppet movie at all – the entire film is done with marionettes on small stages, and after a while you actually forget that you’re watching a puppet movie. Until director Parker inserts a joke that’s all about puppetry – there aren’t many better fight scenes than the one where two puppets just sort of bounce off each other. As a technical achievement, Team America is a marvel.
Comedically it’s hit and miss. Part of the problem is that a lot of the comedy is derived from perfectly aping Bruckheimer films like The Rock, Armageddon or Top Gun. The scene swipes are often so perfect that they aren’t really funny until you realize that the guys don’t mean it – the meta-joke here is that you could take this script and, except for some of the more outlandish goofiness, make a pretty reasonable action movie out of it. As a parody of blustery action films, Team America: World Police is pitch perfect. From the recruitment of the maverick renegade who is the best at what he does (in this case it isn’t being a pilot or a martial artist or an oil driller, but an actor), to the montage training sequence (complete with a montage song, which you’ll be singing for days – just like the South Park movie some of the funniest parts of the film are the songs) to the angsty scenes where our hero loses faith in himself just before regaining it on the big day, it’s all here. As students of the genre Parker and Stone earn an A.
As political satirists they don’t do as well. The plot of the film has terrorists, sponsored by North Korea’s Kim Jong Il, planning a huge attack – 9/11 times 2356. As part of his plan, the evil dictator recruits peace loving activist actors, all members of the Film Actors Guild (a joke that wears quite thin) to aid him. They think he’s assembling a peace conference, but in their hurry to pass judgement on Team America and the United States, they don’t realize that they’re helping him destroy civilization.
I think politically active actors are a great target for satire, especially as they keep getting into office, which is terrifying. I just wish it was better satire. The movie seems content to have some puppets that are excellent likenesses of people such as Alec Baldwin and Tim Robbins without giving them voices or characters to match. There’s a certain amount of juvenile humor to be gotten out of subjecting these puppets to the ultraviolent deaths Team America dishes out, but it would have been even funnier if they were actually parodying the actors themselves. You have a Samuel L Jackson puppet handy – do something funny with it. You have Michael Moore, perhaps the most lampoonable person on the scene today – do something beyond fat jokes.
The conservative side of the equation does get a drubbing as well – Team America are mindless warmongering idiots who devastate cities and countries while trying to stop a handful of terrorists. Still, the swipes at liberal actors end up feeling less like a joke and more like anger, and so they’re just not as funny.
Luckily there’s a bunch more to laugh at in the film. The puppet sex scene is, as promised by the uptightness of the MPAA, great. There’s a vomiting scene that had me rolling. And Kim Jong Il’s panthers are one of the highlights of the movie. Still, the movie will get a lot of people up in arms. Much like recent seasons of South Park, Parker and Stone’s conservative side shines through, especially at the end. Their message is a mixed one, and it’s muddled under a lot of dick jokes, but they are essentially saying that while Team America might go a little overboard you need to have that in this world today.
If that’s what they believe, that’s what they believe. I think that they’re wrong and that they used satire so well in the first half of the film to illustrate why America’s foreign policy is such a mess that I almost can’t believe that the message I got is what they wanted to put across. But who cares, really? Is the movie funny? For the most part, extremely. Do I have to agree with every bit of it? Not at all. Is it OK that some of it possibly offends my political sensibilities? Thank God that it does – there’s this weird thing about going to see a “wild” or “line crossing” movie and agreeing with everything and finding nothing over the top. It’s nice to know that, just like the rest of the country, I can get a little incensed with what these guys are saying. And it’s nice to know that, unlike some parts of this country I can appreciate the right these guys have to say it and not want to pass some law so my kids can’t see puppet titty. And again, the message is so scattershot – while the puppets extol the virtues of America acting like a dick the end credit song extols other virtues of the US, like McDonald’s, The Gap and slavery.
My advice – don’t sweat the stuff you don’t agree with. Do I wish it had the brilliance of the South Park movie? Definitely, but the one thing a puppet action movie comes down to has to be: is it funny? If it’s funny it’s funny. And Team America: World Police is funny.
8.0 out of 10