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October 18, 2004

Review: Team America: World Police

It’s rare to go into a film with certain expectations, be initially disappointed, and come out utterly impressed. It’s even rarer when there are puppets involved.

My expectations for Team America: World Police were simple. I wanted a barbed political comedy. I wanted satire. I wanted a film that took one sided pot shots. I was completely under the impression that I was getting a film intended to influence, or at least released to coincide with, the upcoming American Presidential election. Was I alone in anticipating a Michael Moore film with puppets?

Instead, I got Michael Moore as a puppet in a film that took the median between left and right (or close to it) and, to my dismay, just wasn’t very politically funny. Fortunately, about ten minutes into the film, when a Team America member is gunned down by a turban-wearing terrorist in Paris beneath an impotent Eiffel Tower while asking another Team member to marry him, I let my expectations go and started to enjoy Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s hilarious, multilayered comedy on its own terms. Because what it lacked in jabs at Bush, the film made up for in its other approaches to comedy.

For anyone unfamiliar with the film’s premise it’s: A parody of brainless action films done with puppets. That’s it. There’s a plot with terrorists and Kim Jong Il, but it’s merely functional.

Parody is the film’s first layer. Most of laughs are derived from just how well the filmmakers manage to mimic a real Michael Bay action movie. From swelling music at times when characters spill their guts (and really spill their guts), to slow motion deaths and exploding heads, to simplistic character motivations, traumatic childhood experiences, and romantic chitchat at the most inopportune moments, to the pre-climactic montage, to cornball dialogue, it’s all here. And it’s done in a way that doesn’t deviate much from the sources it’s parodying. I could imagine Ben Affleck looking Kate Beckinsale in the eyes and sweetly professing, “I promise I will… never die.” Michael Bay probably would have made this film, had Parker and Stone not made fun of it first.

Politics, arguably, makes up the film’s second layer. And the aim is at everything in sight (except for the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, which must be a non-issue anyway because neither Bush nor Kerry mentioned it at their debates). Team America is shown as arrogant, blunt, and inconsiderate. One member proudly proclaims, “Cairo… that’s in Egypt.” There’s also a great scene in which the Team America chopper descends onto a marketplace in Cairo, before blowing up most of Egypt’s well known attractions.

The terrorists are, well, terrorists. They range from Middle Eastern, to Somali, to Chechen, to North Korean. Then there are the actors. Alec Baldwin, Martin Sheen, Matt Damon, Susan Sarandon, Tim Robbins, Sean Penn, and others all make appearances. The Penn puppet even mentions his visit to Iraq, where children cheerfully played with gumdrop candy in rivers of chocolate. One by one, the members of the Film Actors Guild suffer horrible deaths at the hands of Team America after declaring their allegiance to the terrorists. It seems like, for some reason, Parker and Stone have the most venom toward them. Michael Moore is called a “socialist weasel”. The film ends with a naughty monologue given in front of a crowd of world leaders that, while played for laughs, isn’t all that dumb.

The third layer of laughs is puppet slapstick. There’s a sex scene that had to be trimmed in order to avoid the dreaded NC17, and plenty of swearing because puppets that swear are funny. And, even though it sounds childish, it made me chuckle whenever two puppets swore at each other. Also funny are gimpy puppet legs that are fairly useless. And vomiting. I’m serious! On a more mature note, watching a well made puppet car chase is exhilarating.

The final layer of Team America is its references to other films. It seems like this is in fashion, but it works for this film because it actually is a parody. I spotted quite a few, and probably missed about the same, but the most unexpected was a nice throwback to Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider.

If you’re wondering whether to see Team America, you should. It’s funny, crude, maybe a guilty pleasure, and, most of all, even if it doesn’t always hit the mark, there’s always something different going on. You’re bound to find something to laugh at.


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