It's hard to know where to start and what to say about "Team America: World Police." This movie-going experience is quite like no other, though reasons for that range from its clever production to its unbelievably crude humor.
Marionettes are the stars of 'Team America: World Police.' (Paramount)
"Team America," from "South Park" creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone, deals with terrorism and international politics—and the notion that America needs to police the world, even if world destruction is the result.
But here's the kicker: The film is made with marionettes, very much in the tradition of the classic British TV show "Thunderbirds." You're watching puppets on miniature sets.
On the one hand, it seems odd to have this childish sort of take on world politics. On the other hand, I'm not sure anything could be more appropriate.
The film begins in Paris which, the filmmakers note in a subtitle, is "6,635 Miles East of America." It seems that several Arabs—wearing turbans and speaking a gibberish Arabic consistently punctuated by the word "jihad"—have procured WMDs and might unleash them on this unsuspecting European capital.
Not to worry. Enter "Team America," a small handful of male and female commandos sporting red, white and blue, not to mention to prominent jaw lines and nice hair. They take care of the terrorists, even if it means destroying the Eiffel Tower, Louvre and Arc de Triomphe in the process. (Other landmarks like the Great Pyramids will later suffer the same fate.)
The plot hinges on Team America's decision to hire an actor to impersonate and infiltrate a terrorist cell in order to stop the next big attack. The actor, Gary Johnston, endures every cliché assigned to a reluctant action hero: disinterest, self-doubt, romantic involvement, etc. These critical moments are all tongue-in-cheek, often developed in montages set to a hyper-country ballad laced with patriotic fervor.
The film skewers more than just the political right. The left, especially the Hollywood left, gets blasted as well, for the plot also details how North Korean leader Kim Jong Il snows Hollywood liberals into thinking he's committed to peace. Thus, marionettes of Alec Baldwin, Tim Robbins, Sean Penn, Michael Moore and others play a significant role—one casting them as, essentially, enemies of American security.
The film pays homage to many other movies, including "The Matrix, "Star Wars" and "Return of the Jedi," "Airplane," "Jerry Maguire" and "Men in Black."
It would be hard to deny the impressive production values of the movie. The marionette action is delightful, the sets are wonderfully constructed, and the way Parker and Stone satirize action-movie clichés is spot-on.
The filmmakers are no doubt talented, and "Team America" offers some genuine moments—free of debauchery—brimming with hilarity. For example, Kim Jong Il sings a solo about how lonely he is as he strolls through his palace (admiring, of all things, his Hummel collection). There's also something hilarious about watching marionettes play pool, drive a jeep, or even shut a door.
"Team America" originally received an NC-17 rating, largely on account of a sex scene—between marionettes, mind you—that went on for about two minutes. Parker and Stone trimmed it to about 45 seconds to get the R rating, but it's still a graphic and raunchy 45 seconds.
There's also graphic violence—if graphic is the right word for a blood squib on a marionette.
This movie raises the same issues as Parker and Stone's "South Park" cartoon on Comedy Central. The form, and maybe even some of the content, appeals to kids, but most of the content is simply inappropriate for young minds, and some would say any minds.
Don't be fooled by the marionettes, and don't take the kids.
Cliff Vaughn is culture editor for EthicsDaily.com.
MPAA Rating: R for graphic, crude and sexual humor, violent images and strong language, all involving puppets. Reviewer's Note: This movie probably still deserves the NC-17 rating. Much of the humor and almost all of the jokes are unbelievably crass … not to mention the sex scene.
Director: Trey Parker
Writers: Trey Parker & Matt Stone and Pam Brady
Cast: Marionettes, many of which are voiced by Parker and Stone.
The movie's official Web site is here.