[15 October 2004]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
I don’t think anyone will come out of this movie with a different opinion than they had going in, and say, “Wow, I’m going to vote for Bush now.” If you’re that easily swayed, you should not be voting. If your vote is going to change based on what Michael Moore tells you, or based on what we tell you, then don’t vote!
The trouble starts in frame one. Team America: World Police opens in “Paris, France, 365 miles east of America,” where a marionette is bobbling herky-jerky before a childishly drawn Eiffel Tower. The camera pulls back to reveal that this puppet is being manipulated by another puppet, whose background is a three-dimensional Paris, specifically a sunny park and fountains populated by artists, poodles, and a child in a sailor suit singing “Frere Jacques.” So peaceful, so charming. And so soon done.
But the primary source of the trouble isn’t who you’d think. To be sure, the first sign of ruckus takes the form of Terrorists—men with beards, turbans, and a “Middle Eastern” soundtrack, carrying a briefcase-bomb and giving the evil eye to the sailor suit kid—but they’ve got nothing on Team America. Arriving in a red-white-and-blue jet plane and chopper, brazenly costumed in matching red-white-and-blue jumpsuits, these self-proclaimed heroes of the free world take charge, as civilians quiver, eyes wide (the puppets’ faces are separately controlled and curiously emotive). “You in the robes! Put down the WMD and get on the ground!” The terrorists resist, but haven’t planned on the Lisa (voiced by 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.
Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s much-ballyhooed parody of Jerry Bruckheimer-style action pictures is aptly violent, delirious, and outsized (in its miniature-puppet way). The scene goes so far as to bring back a dead-seeming terrorist, Terminator-style, to kill off a team member, in order to allow one of those patented action-movie utter woe moments, the camera pulling up and out as Lisa screams out, “Noooo!”, her fiancé bloody and limp in her arms.
Feeling all tragic and minus a member, TA must replace him, and fast. Professor X-ish Spottswoode (Daran Norris) attends a Broadway production of Lease, where the dashing “top young actor” Gary (Parker) leads the cast in a rousing finale: “Everyone has AIDS!! AIDS! AIDS!” A giant red sequined ribbon rises up through the floor, singers wail and dancers writhe. “The Pope has got it! So do you!” Spottswoode, deep in shadow, smiles. He has found his man, in every sense. That is, 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.”
The other major plan here has to do with Team America’s war on terror, now 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.
While Penn is apparently fine with the parody, he has publicly responded to the filmmakers’ assertion in a Rolling Stone interview that recent celebrity-driven get-out-the-vote movements, say, P. Diddy’s “Vote or Die,” are only encouraging ignorant action. “If you don’t know what you’re talking about, there’s no shame in not voting.” Says Penn: “Not so well to encourage irresponsibility that will ultimately lead to the… death of innocent people around the world. The vote matters to them. No one’s ignorance, including a couple of hip cross-dressers’, is an excuse.” Parker and Stone have put their blustery Sean Penn puppet on the front page of the film’s official website.
So there it is, the complaints that Team America simultaneously invites and preempts. Go ahead, call the boys idiotic and despicable, call their film frivolous and obnoxious. Nyeh nyeh. There’s no winning this argument. Reflecting 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. Yes, it’s excessive, hypocritical, rude, and often funny. Its mostly sophomoric humor doesn’t ask much of viewers, other than to recognize that its silly tricks pass for drama in other contexts, in life and on screens.