[16 May 2005]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
Now we can have all the celebrities made into puppets, and we can kill them.
—Trey Parker, “Team America: An Introduction”
—Matt Damon, Team America: World Police
“The scope of this movie is really, really huge,” says production designer Jim Dultz, “because we’re theoretically all over the world in huge, huge environments. We have a hundred sets in this movie. Without question, this will be the biggest puppet movie ever made.” Setting up “Building the World,” one of several, brief making-of documentaries for the DVD, Team America: World Police: Special Collector’s Edition, Dultz appears as enthusiastic and sarcastic as his director-boys, Trey Parker and Matt Stone. They all plainly love the size of this outrageous project, but they also understand and show off how silly that love is.
The film parodies Jerry Bruckheimer movies, which Dultz says, called for a framework of “gritty reality, but within that framework, it was open to a lot of theatricality.” What this comes down to—aside from the literal stage where marionettes in a Rent-like production sing about “AIDS, AIDS, AIDS”—is “that every place in the world was the way America sees the world… the dumbed down version” of locations like Cairo or Paris or Panama, in this movie, all cities that Team America, World Police, attack with gusto.
The world-baiting mayhem begins in scene one, when Team America arrives in “Paris, France, 365 miles east of America.” Following the appearance of several obvious Terrorists—men with beards, turbans, and a “Middle Eastern” soundtrack, carrying a briefcase-bomb and giving the evil eye to the sailor suit kid—the good guys speed into frame in a red-white-and-blue jet plane and chopper, brazenly costumed in matching red-white-and-blue jumpsuits. Self-proclaimed heroes of the free world, they take serious charge, as civilians quiver, eyes wide (the puppets’ faces are separately controlled and curiously emotive). “You in the robes!” a voice booms from the helicopter. “Put down the weapon opf mass destruction and get on the ground! You’re under arrest.” The terrorists resist, but haven’t planned on the Lisa (Kristin Miller), blond, vavoomy, and armed to the teeth: “Hey terrorist! Terrorize this!” Within seconds, TA strikes, kicking martial arts ass and blasting every possible hidey hole they see, their insta-launch missiles taking out Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, the pretty park and fountains. Parisians stand with mouths agape, shocked at the devastation brought by their saviors.
As indicated throughout the DVD’s making-of mini-docs (“Capturing the Action” [concerning Bill Pope’s cinematography], puppet tests, animated storyboards, deleted/alternate scenes and outtakes; and the wholly entertaining “Up Close with Kim Jong-il,” in which Pope describes the character as equal to Elmer Fudd, Bugs Bunny or Yosemite Sam), the film is violent, delirious, and outsized (in its miniature-puppet way). The menace posed by Kim Jong-il jump-starts the plot, in which TA must replace a lost member with an actor, someone who can “play a terrorist.”
Team director Spottswoode (Daran Norris)—part Phil Hartman as tv host, part Professor X—attends a Broadway production of Lease, starring “top young actor” Gary (Parker). Spottswoode is convinced he’s found his man (in multiple senses—Team America‘s version of Bruckheimerian motions (via Thunderbirds) include making explicit the homoerotic/homophobic tensions that propel all that explosive action. As he says repeatedly and ostensibly in jest, Spottswoode means to have Gary “suck my cock. Ha ha ha.”
Oh yes, Team America is also waging its own war on terror, personalized, of course. Spottswoode brings Gary to the Team’s secret headquarters, inside Mount Rushmore, where he explains his plan to send Gary undercover into a Chechen terrorists’ cell, surgically altered to resemble the standard-issue terrorist—dark-skinned, patchy beard, and, er, blue eyes. No matter that Gary has no military or international espionage training; as Spottswoode reasons, spying is the same as acting (the film takes this logic a step further, such that really good acting is a kind of “force,” allowing you to run Jedi mind control tricks on your audience). Gary is initially skeptical, noting that it’s not his job to save the world. Spottswoode explains the current us-versus-them breakdown: “There are people out there who want you dead,” he asserts. “They’re called terrorists, Gary and they hate everything about you.” Okay then.
Even when Gary’s on board (following a montage that has him gazing up at a series of real-life DC monuments, from Lincoln to Iwo Jima, making him look especially puny, accompanied by a song that asserts, “Freedom isn’t free. / Freedom costs a bundle”), the other TA members must be convinced of his worth. Empathic plastic surgeon Sara (Masasa) senses he feels uneasy; martial arts expert Chris (Stone) doesn’t trust him; and nice guy Joe (Parker) competes with him for Lisa’s affection. “Psychology expert” Lisa, meanwhile, believing she can’t love again, at least not so soon after losing what’s-his-name, resists Gary’s charms for about two seconds, then hops into bed with him.
Their woody desire results in the already-infamous marionette-sex scene, which had to be trimmed and re-trimmed to accommodate an R rating. As Parker and Stone are fond of pointing out, any number of violent acts and even a good amount of foul language can make their way into an R movie—and here the “cocks,” “dicks,” and “fucks” fly freely—but sex, even between puppets, reportedly makes ratings broad members stutter and twitch. Granted, this puppet sex, initiated as a close-up of hands held, soon extends beyond missionary, but it’s also “censored” by definition, as Gary and Lisa are anatomically incorrect and literally clunky as they succumb to their ardor, again and again.
Just so, this $32 million extravaganza works its way through the Bruckheimer inventory: dead comrade, check; newbie’s successful first mission, check; sexual tryst, check. And then comes the climax, the mission against the madman attempting to blow up the world, in this case, Kim Jong-il (Parker). Refusing Hans Blix’s efforts to inspect his weapons cache (and yes, sending that nosy Blix to meet a dreadful fate), Kim Jong-il devises to exploit the naiveté of the “activist actors,” namely, Alec Baldwin, Sean Penn, Samuel Jackson, Janeanne Garafolo, Danny Glover, Susan Sarandon, Tim Robbins (who carps that corporations are “corporationy and bad”), and Helen Hunt. Even their friend Michael Moore comes in for nasty caricature. The showdown is predictably ludicrous, with heads of state, actors, and Team America members all equally moronic. As Gary learns the hard way, heroism in a Parker-Stone movie affords no high road, only puke, crude jokes, brutal violence, and more puke.
The film is sublimely preemptive, in the sense that it includes derogation of every offensive move it makes. As it reflects the blatant self-interest and gaudy aggressiveness of U.S. patriotism, in action movies and world affairs, it’s hard to argue with Team America. Excessive, hypocritical, rude, and often funny, its mostly sophomoric humor asks only that you recognize that its silly tricks pass for drama in other contexts, in life and on screens.