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Team America: World Police

I’d normally be spending Friday by taking a selection among the weekend’s new releases, except that today is a holiday and I plan to spend it quietly at home. So instead of reviewing Earth to Echo, watching Deliver Us From Evil, or seeing what else is playing at the Fox Tower, I’ll be sitting down with something good and patriotic. Something to fit the occasion of my country’s birthday.

For better or worse, I chose Team America: World Police. The unrated cut, no less.

Trey Parker and Matt Stone are the kind of entertainers who Seth MacFarlane wishes he could be when he grows up. I don’t know of anyone else out there who can blend humor so crass with satire so incisive in such an intelligent way (and if you do know of any such filmmakers, I’d love to know about them as well). I’ve known about this movie for the past ten years, and I’m kicking myself for taking so long to finally see a picture that lampoons Michael Bay/Jerry Bruckheimer brainless action films, America’s brand of self-importance, and various matters of international politics, all by way of parodying the outlandish “Supermarionation” films of the ’60s (“Thunderbirds” being the most famous example).

Unfortunately, though the film is hilarious to watch, it’s not easy to write about. The movie opens with blatantly offensive international stereotypes, puppets flailing around in a laughable attempt at a fight scene, terrible one-liners (“Terrorize this!”), and cliched moments of overacting (a character dies in his lover’s arms after making a speech, prompting the lover to scream “NOOOO!!!”). Last but not least, it features an American task force destroying the Louvre, the Arc de Triomphe, and the Eiffel Tower, all to stop a terrorist bombing that probably would have caused far less damage. And this is all in the first five minutes.

The movie speaks for itself really damn loudly, is what I’m trying to say.

What’s more, the film is quite intriguing in that there is absolutely no suspension of disbelief. The characters are all entirely plastic and they don’t move a thing like actual people. The filmmakers don’t even try to hide the marionettes’ strings. In one scene, we see a character visit the actual Arlington National Cemetery, and the sight of a puppet leaning against a tombstone speaks for itself. Oh, and let’s not forget the sex scene, which is comprised of non-existent genitalia, clearly visible joints on the arms and legs, and sexual acts that can only be performed on camera because the characters involved are not actually human.

In effect, the filmmakers are calling attention to the characters’ artificial nature. To make the point even clearer, the script is written with all the dialogue and plot points we’ve come to expect from any paint-by-numbers blockbuster formula. And when was the last time you saw a character in some big-budget shoot-em-up that had any kind of dimension?

Oh, and let’s not forget the music. The score by Harry Gregson-Williams (with assistance from an uncredited Marc Shaiman) seems designed to point out “This is the love interest,” “This is when the heroes swoop into action,” “This is the bad guy,” “We’re having a moment of emotional introspection,” etc. That isn’t even getting started on the songs with lyrics. “America (Fuck Yeah)” is of course the most famous example, but the soundtrack goes so much bigger in its satire. For God’s sake, just read the lyrics to “Freedom Isn’t Free.” Or “Only A Woman.” Or my personal favorite, “Montage.” Again, these songs speak so loudly for themselves that there’s really nothing left for me to say.

The point being that the blockbuster formula is so blatantly fake that any characters produced by it will be inherently phony, whether they’re being played by flesh-and-blood people or not. At least this film is open about its plastic nature, and calling out other films for their phoniness in the process.

But just because it’s fake doesn’t mean it can’t be fun. That’s what fiction is all about, after all.

Much like the action films it’s poking fun at, the movie is much harder to watch when it’s just the characters talking with each other. Even for comical purposes, it’s not easy to watch boring characters advance a paint-by-numbers plot. But when the film actually gets to the action, the result is pure gold. Parker and Stone show wonderful skill at mixing Hollywood-scale mayhem with exaggerated American cockiness, and watching Team America blow up national monuments in blissful ignorance never gets old. Every time I saw innocent people get hurt and confused by the disasters caused by our “heroes,” I honestly wished the whole film could’ve been 90 minutes of that.

This brings me to another way in which the use of puppets works to the film’s benefit. For whatever reason, explosions and huge set pieces are simply more captivating the more lifelike they are. Case in point: George Washington’s mouth opens up to reveal a landing strip hidden inside of Mount Rushmore. That’s way more awesomely ridiculous as a model than it would have been as 2D animation or bad CGI. Plain and simple. Models and puppets can provide the same kind of visceral reaction we get from live-action stunts, while simultaneously making it clear just how fake everything is. It’s quite clever, really.

Moving on, it seems rather pointless to discuss the plot, so let’s take a closer look at our cast. The protagonist is Gary Johnston, an actor with a tortured past who’s recruited to go undercover and infiltrate some terrorist organization (the film makes a very clear point about refusing to distinguish between all the various terrorist groups and factions in the world). The field leader is Joe Smith, as boring as a blonde, blue-eyed, All-American quarterback from Nebraska can possibly be. Then we have Chris, the requisite jerk who hates our protagonist until they become good friends at some plot-convenient point. There’s also Lisa, providing the shallow love interest, and Sarah, whose reputed empathic abilities provide a running gag (“I sense that you are confused.”). Last but not least is Spottswoode, the grizzled old man who leads the team from the security of home base.

Then we have the bad guy. Though the proceedings are overloaded with four-color Muslim stereotypes, the Big Bad is actually Kim Jong-Il made into a Bond villain. He’s a ruthless killer who operates as a behind-the-scenes plotter, which satisfies the “formulaic action film” requirement. He lives in an opulent booby-trapped palace, so there’s the “Supermarionation” requirement taken care of. And all of this fits together into an overly simplistic view of North Korea, to parody America’s willing stupidity with regards to international politics.

(Side note: More recently, Kim Jong-Un has sworn “merciless retaliation” in response to an upcoming film called The Interview, in which a pair of talk show hosts are sent by the United States to kill the North Korean leader under the pretense of interviewing him. I dearly wish someone in Jong-Un’s counsel had the balls to say that if his daddy could survive Trey Parker and Matt Stone, he can survive Seth Rogen and James Franco.)

So all the action film archetypes are here and accounted for, with some new running gags thrown in for good measure (for example, I’m pretty sure the inclusion of an empath is more a “Thunderbirds” thing than a Bruckheimer thing). But of course, the stereotypes are heightened to an absurd degree. To wit, there’s a scene in Top Gun when Iceman says to Maverick, “It’s not your flying, it’s your attitude. The enemy’s dangerous, but right now you’re worse. Dangerous and foolish. You may not like who’s flying with you, but whose side are you on?”

Compare that to Chris, who says to Gary, “I don’t trust you. And if you betray us, I’ll rip your fucking balls off and stuff them up your ass so that the next time you shit, you’ll shit all over your balls, got it?!” That’s the degree of parody we’re dealing with here.

But of course, the film wouldn’t be complete if it only poked fun at warlike American ignorance. No, Parker and Stone have to poke fun at pacifist American ignorance as well. Thus we have the Film Actors’ Guild, comprised of several well-known liberal Hollywood activists portrayed with all the fairness and authenticity you’d expect from the creators of South Park. Why Hollywood actors? I presume it’s because the film needed to show some patently ludicrous gathering of Democrats on a huge scale.

So now you have three factions: Team America, the F.A.G., and the Kim Jong-Il regime. All three reside in absurdly ostentatious headquarters, all three of them are run entirely on bottomless wealth and inflated self-importance, and all three want to control the world even though there isn’t a single one among them who’s actually qualified to do so.

And then the Film Actors’ Guild turns out to be allied with North Korea. That’s when it lost me. I realize that we’re dealing in brainless action films, so everyone has to either be a hero or a villain, but that was just pointless. It doesn’t even work very well as action film parody, since so few of them are established action stars (Really, when was the last time you saw Helen Hunt or Martin Sheen kick ass?).

Then again, the protagonist of the film is an actor, so maybe this was done for our main hero to win at his own game. But why involve actors at all? That seems rather out of place in a genre full of soldiers, spies, cops, fighter pilots, etc. At a guess, I’d assume that the actors are there to represent diplomacy, and how it really isn’t any better at dealing with homicidal madmen than warfare is. Additionally, the F.A.G. and Team America are shown to be two sides of the same coin, in that they both believe violence is the only way to peace and neither of them recognize any hint of hypocrisy.

And come to think of it, isn’t there a place for speech in stupid action cinema? Independence Day had that famous rallying speech from President Bill Pullman, after all. Hell, even Pacific Rim had that moment in which Idris Elba so notoriously cancelled the apocalypse. And Team America? Well, this movie has a scene in which Gary goes on about dicks, pussies, assholes, and the various configurations between them. But of course, as with any action film climax, what he’s saying is ultimately far less important than the music that’s backing him up.

Team America: World Police doesn’t do much of anything halfway. Imagine all the bombast of your standard action blockbuster, multiplied to the power of mockery through exaggeration, and that’s this movie. It can be exhausting to watch, especially since all the mindless proceedings have been made even more insultingly bad on purpose. Unfortunately, the Hollywood satire takes a downturn when it focuses less on making fun of Emmerich and Bruckheimer, and more on burning Tim Robbins in effigy. On a similar note, the satire of Hollywood films and Americans acting like total dickheads on the world stage would both have been so much more effective with just one more action scene of Team America blowing up an international landmark while devastated locals looked on. It would have done a lot more good than a puppet puking his guts out for two minutes straight. Just saying.

It goes without saying that this film won’t be for everyone. Still, between the bold content and the novel Supermarionation style, there’s enough here to recommend for anyone who hasn’t seen it yet. Though for my part, I’m certainly glad I waited for a DVD rental.

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