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"Team America": Gunslinging Puppets? [Expletive] Yeah!

Commentary on American foreign policy has become such a popular global pastime over the last few years that it may soon be proposed as an Olympic event. It would be no odder than watching Team America, South Park-creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s ultra-violent, pornographic puppet movie on the subject. The film sets out to appease none and offend all, while reminding us to laugh at ourselves in the process. But mostly to laugh at other people, though.

For more puppet love try the unrated varietyForget groundbreaking stories, heartrending performances and method acting. For anyone still on speaking terms with his or her inner child, Team America is the very epitome of cool. We’re basically talking World War III with puppets. Combat all over the globe with jets, jeeps, choppers, subs, missiles, machine guns, and explosions and blood everywhere. It’s the contents of your toy chest come to life, and you can only sit back and marvel at the fantastic detail of it all. I know what I’m talking about, because back in junior high film class I attempted a very similar project using G.I. Joe figures. Needless to say, it was an insanely difficult enterprise, which I was forced to abort when Snake Eyes walked off the set for the second time.

Those who don’t think machine gun-toting puppets cool are at least sure to find Team America funny. The film swings back and forth between Adam West Batman camp and a straight adaptation of Jerry Bruckheimer action blockbusters. The former is hilarious and the latter occasionally so. Parker and Stone (henceforth “P&S”) assert in the extras that Bruckheimer essentially makes comedies, so all they had to do was mimic him. While I agree that Bruckheimer likes his cheese thick, I don’t necessarily find all of his clichés to be inherently comical. (The Rock, for example, is an excellent action film.) P&S have also packed in a lot of political commentary on the war on terror, which though not very deep does include some effective satire. Whether the main target was intended to be Bush or Bruckheimer, P&S hit enough bullseyes to keep you smiling throughout.

Stringed and dangerousWe begin in Paris, where a bunch of Al Queda-types are about to set off a nuclear device, only to be thwarted by the heroic Team America commandos. This regrettably involves trashing half the city. Later, back in New York, team director Mr. Spottswoode tries to recruit Broadway musical actor Gary Johnston to replace team member Carson, who was killed in the melee shortly after proposing to fellow team member Lisa. Gary, in turn, faces much hostility from the martial arts expert Chris, who mysteriously hates actors. The empath Sarah begins to fall for Gary, while team leader Joe silently carries a torch for her.

The team transports Gary, who has undergone surgery so he can infiltrate the terrorists’ hideout, to Cairo. Unfortunately, his flamboyantly uniformed teammates are spotted and a high-speed chase ensues in which the terrorists are killed and most of Egypt’s tourist landmarks destroyed. Back at Team Base, the gang celebrates their saving the world, but their troubles are only just beginning. The international and celebrity responses to their violent tactics are less than positive, and when Gary and Lisa get up close and personal tension rises between teammates. Meanwhile, in North Korea, Kim Jong-Il is advancing a dastardly scheme with a little help from Hollywood.

Team America lobs enough political grenades for most everyone to get hurt. Bizarrely enough, it presents one of the most evenhanded discussions of American foreign policy in recent years. Neither Fahrenheit 9/11 nor Fahrenhype 9/11, it makes both hawks and doves out to be extremist nutcases. The film is swimming in so much intentional political incorrectness that it’s hard to pitch it as a plea for tolerance, but in it own twisted, South Park way it encourages rational behavior by ridiculing ugly cases of irrationality. There is a speech Gary gives at the end of the film that heavily features three words I can’t repeat here. Still, it’s surprisingly insightful despite its crudeness, suggesting that those of different viewpoints can and must work together for the common good. Not exactly rocket science you might say, but a welcome concept that seems lost today.

The team is not only played by puppets but pretty much acts like them. Of course this is another of the film’s swipes at Bruckheimer productions, insinuating that Ben Affleck could do little better. Surely anyone who saw the trailers wasn’t expecting deep character development or award-winning performances. Still, it’s a mixed bag. Sometimes the wooden, melodramatic delivery perfectly serves the film’s camp tone, but at other times it’s a little dull.

The supporting cast thankfully balances things out by relentlessly mugging for the camera. Spottswoode is an over-the-top send up of the stern, macho spy boss one might find on the likes of Mission Impossible. Numerous left-leaning Hollywood celebrities are run through the grinder, some quite literally. No attempt is made to impersonate the real actors, but the likenesses are good and they amusingly turn out to be just as bloodthirsty as the team. One could say P&S are beating a dead horse here, but it’s just so fun to whack it. The undeniable highlight of the cast is Kim, who is part Elmer Fudd, part South Park‘s Cartman, and part Goldfinger. His broken delivery is sure to offend the PC police, but he actually comes across as somewhat sympathetic in spite if his intense evilness. My only complaint is that P&S do nearly all the voices, apparently because they despise actors. They are quite talented, but too many characters sound like South Park extras.

The numerous puppet stunts in the movie are a treat, not only because the artistry is so admirable but also because they are genuinely exciting. In particular, the jeep chase through the Egyptian desert is so frenetic and tightly shot that you’ll momentarily forget you’re watching a bunch of corny puppets. Not so with the puppet sex, but you’ll be too busy laughing to care. Gary’s makeover is absolutely preposterous: his face only half darkened with splotches of brown and little tufts of hair stuck randomly all over the place, he wears an actual bath towel on his head and remains clad in his trendy leather suit. When Spottswoode suggests Gary commit suicide if captured, he hands him a beat-up old hammer. And, shades of Top Gun, Chris routinely carps about Gary’s recklessness.

Just the good ol' boys...I’ve seen very little of the classic marionette series like Thunderbirds, but I have no doubt that Team America puts them all to shame. When it wants to, the action looks really good, and it should, since cinematographer Bill Pope previously did The Matrix. It’s such a relief to see actual models and explosions at work again after the Star Wars series went nearly all-CGI. In contrast, the hand-to-hand combat is intentionally shoddy, with the puppets aimlessly flailing about while the pounding soundtrack insists what we’re watching is exciting. And speaking of which, the music is fantastic in this film. You’ll bust a gut over R-rated G.I. Joe theme “America [Expletive] Yeah!”, the Rocky-training sequence spoof “Montage”, and that tender ode to broken hearts and crappy movies, “Pearl Harbor Sucked, and I Miss You.” Better still is Kim’s sorrowful ballad “Ronery”, which is not only funny but also genuinely moving.

My only complaint about special features—and it’s a big one—is the lack of a commentary track. Come on people, P&S are funny guys and I’m sure they would have had a blast riffing on this film. That gripe aside, the features are fantastic, exploring every aspect of production: story, set design, puppet design, puppet control, cinematography, and pyrotechnics. It’s all very thorough and quite fascinating. For one big explosion the large city set was shot at a ninety-degree angle so that the flames would naturally rise up toward the camera. There’s a piece that explains how Kim’s character was actually based on research on the real man, and a couple of silly screen tests for Spottswoode. Both the storyboards and deleted scenes/outtakes offer material that didn’t make the film, some of which is amusing. The only other thing they could’ve thrown in is the soundtrack CD, which I now will have to buy separately. Greedy puppets.

Team America: World Police could have had a few more laughs and sharper satire, but it has more than enough to satisfy. The catchy songs will stick in your head for days, although you’ll want to be careful about singing some of them in public. And did I mention it had puppet detonation, decapitation, immolation, and dismemberment? With tricks like that Bruckheimer might finally get those critics off his back. “Cue Affleck. BAWOOM!!”

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