Every morning I thank God we no longer live in that sick, bipolar year of your lord, 2004. Were we still stuck back there, in one of the crappier years of one of the crappiest decades in world history (so far), I’d have to start this review out with an equally crap introduction. Tons of them litter our great series of tubes, all saying the same damn boring things:
“Boy, it sure has sucked, suffering through all these films with explicit political messages. Sure do wish all these filmmakers would just shut the fuck up. How dare they exercise their right to free speech in a supposedly-democratic society? Thank God for Trey Parker and Matt Stone, and their Great Gift, Team America: World Police. It’s a film that gleefully farts in the face of our entire political spectrum. Thank God someone’s finally made a film for apathetic, hipster douchebags whose main source of current events is cable TV news…or award winning satires of cable TV news, Monday-Thursday at eleven, on Comedy Central. (Now where’s my damn check, Paramount?)”
Seems every hack with a movie website cranked one of these out and unjustly tacked them on to reviews of this film. Reading them all in sequence is like reading a series of variant print-outs from some evil artificial intelligence: the Critic-Tron 9000. They may be perfectly accurate descriptions of the South Park episode writer/directors Trey Parker, Matt Stone and Pam Brady turned in immediately after this film premiered (“Douche Vs. Turd”)…but as a description of Team America, they sell the film far too short. Just like I did, at the time.
Yes, Trey Parker and Matt Stone are a-political douchebags who’d rather drink themselves into early graves than give a shit about the world outside their own, petty routines. The “messages” in their films and shows are little more than narrative conventions, support structures for what really matters: telling gross jokes at the expense of stupid movies. And who can’t get behind that? Honestly, it’s a pastime as American as baseball…or invading other people’s countries.
World Police is also a note-perfect satire of the Jerry Bruckheimer Action Movie, the kind of spoof we haven’t seen since Hot Shots! Part Deux broke the mold, back in the early-90s. Each and every frame of Team America is a conscious callback to some piece of Joltin’ Jerry’s cannon, from Top Gun to Bad Boys II. Its main character is a “Maverick” and/or “renegade,” whose extraordinary talent allows him to participate in an Action Movie plot no one should take seriously. Yet, when the actors are recognizable human beings with recognizable, celebrity faces, people take this shit way, way too seriously. Why? Do puppets (or Pearl script animations) suddenly push things past some Absurdity Event Horizon? Who the hell decided that? Sure wasn’t the MPAA.
And how can anyone, after watching Team America, take any Action Movie seriously ever again? Like Starship Troopers, World Police comes off as the kind of propaganda film the gun-worshiping, fascist regimes of the Not Too Distance Future might show to their kids. It does what all good satires should do and exposes the absurd, bleeding heart of its targets.
In fact, Parker (who, as usual, wrote, directed and provided 75% of the voice acting work for this film) did such a good job capturing the Bruckheimer zeitgeist “frag-waving Americans” mistook this film for one of their own, a mistake they continue to make today. Whole sequences (like the stunt-and-explosion-heavy car chase around the pyramids) from other, more-profitable Action Movies, constantly break through Team America‘s surface. And I’m not ashamed to say that, seven years ago, most of these references flew right over my head.
Now that I’ve suffered through Michael Bay’s entire oeuvre, Team America seems a different film, packed with more in-jokes then a independent podcast. Most will be unrecognizable to anyone who hasn’t put themselves through a similar wringer, being so subtle they might as well be subliminal. As the title suggests, World Police takes place in that same type of testosterone-soaked, Action Movie multiverse, where the Good Guys are inevitably an elite team of militaristic dicks and the Bad Guys are the only people in the world with standing armies.
Despite the puppets, it looks, feels and sounds exactly like the movies its nominally spoofing. A lot of that’s thanks to Parker’s eye for copying, and director of photography Bill Pope. I don’t get to call out DPs very often, but Pope’s really the most unsung hero of this film, along with so many others we’ve loved and/or hated. For the last thirty years, he’s photographed everything from Darkman and Army of Darkness to The Matrix and Spider-Man trilogies. Zero Effect, Bedazzled, The Spirit…this guy can film anything like it’s the star in a one hundred million dollar action movie. Including puppets.
Like every single film Michael Bay’s ever made, Team America begins with an introductory action sequence. We see the bucolic splendor of Paris, France (which, the subtitle informs us, is “3,635 miles east of America”) recreated through puppetry that will set the gold standard for years to come…mostly because puppets are so damn hard to work with, no one’s really interested in topping Team America‘s technical achievement.
Enter a trio of scar-faced men in Middle Eastern garb, speaking South Park‘s “derka, derka” faux-Arabic. Obvious terrorists. As if the suitcase they’re holding – with the big, red blinking button on the top – weren’t enough of a clue. But it’s okay because Team America’s here to introduce themselves by saving “the motherfuckin’ day, yeah.”
The team’s led by Joe (Parker), an all-American (and thus: blond) quarterback from Nebraska who maintains a secret crush on team psychic Sarah (Masasa Moyo). This despite the fact that, in the great tradition of TV psychics began by Star Trek‘s Councilor Troi, Sarah can only use her powers to state the bleeding obvious. (My favorite? As her damaged plane takes a header into the ocean, Sarah calls out, “I sense I’m going down!”)
Team martial arts expert Chris (Matt Stone) allows this film to squeeze in the same three Matrix jokes Unwritten Movie Law required every spoof comedy to make during the early-2000s. Lisa (Kristen Miller) rounds out the cast by being the Token Badass Action Girl, complete with a contemptuous tossing of her hair after she blows a terrorist through the window of a bagel shop. (Cuz, you know…it’s Paris.)
With the introductory action sequence (wherein Team America destroys the Louvre, the Arc de Triomphe, and the Eiffel Tower) out of the way, we meet the Team’s fifth wheel: Carson (Parker again), who asks Lisa to marry him…moments before a supposedly-dead terrorist comes back to life for one last shot. It hits, Carson dies in Lisa’s arms, she screams “NOOO!” to sky and we’re off to the actual plot.
Seeking to fill the new void in their ranks, Team leader Spottswoode (Daran Norris) recruits “Top Gun actor” Gary Johnson (Parker again) away from Johnson’s hit Broadway musical Lease (“Hey, sing that song about how everybody got AIDS.”) I.N.T.E.L.L.I.G.E.N.C.E. (the artificially-intelligent, data mining supercomputer inside Team America’s home base, voiced by LA DJ Phil Hendrie) indicates the terrorists are planning something, setting up three wonderfully deployed “it’ll be 9/11 times x” jokes. Ah, but “Top Gun actor” Gary Johnson graduated suma cum laudie from Iowa State, with a double major in Acting and “world languages.” In Spottswoode’s eyes, that makes Gary the perfect undercover operative. After all, spying’s just like acting…except people die if you fuck up (and, often enough, even if you don’t). And your makeup job consists of Ethnic Reassignment Surgery. Like in You Only Live Twice…or Die Another Day, which was probably what they were thinking of at the time.
Thankfully, this is a Parker/Stone production, so Gary comes out of his “Valmorphization” in absurd, Arab-face makeup, complete with an Eric Cartman, pubic hair beard. Which completely fools the terrorists Our Heroes find in the Star Wars cantina spoof this film uses to represent Egypt.
Gary’s infiltration leads to a gratuitous car chase that’s one part Bad Boys II, one part Condorman, and two-parts Mission Impossible II. (Lisa even saves Gary by riding in on a motorcycle, setting up their eventual love and the famous-before-it-even-came-out Puppet Sex Scene, about which too much has already been said).
In response, terrorists bomb the Panama Canal. In response to that shot-for-shot recreation of the post-Japanese attack scenes in Pearl Harbor (keep an eye out for Gonzo’s girlfriend, Camilla the chicken, among the dead…it’s truly is a sad day for Muppets everywhere), Pearl Harbor‘s own Alec Baldwin (voiced by Maurice “Be quiet, Pinky, or I shall have to hurt you” LaMarche) begins a public, PR crusade against Team America and their reckless, enemy-creating tactics. Baldwin, in true “Parker and Stone shit on people more famous than they are” fashion, rallies the entire Film Actors Guild to his cause. A cause Our Villain is all too happy to hijack for his own, villainous purposes.
Because it turns out this was all a plot by North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il (Parker again), who, in true Movie Villain fashion (he even has his own pet shark tank), has allied himself with international terrorists in a bid to destroy the world. When the time’s right, multiple, coordinated WMD strikes will reduce every nation to North Korea’s level of squalor. Kim Jong calls it “9/11 times 2356.” The resulting chaos will leave Earth wide open to invasion by the alien cockroaches of Space Hunter Nebula M. Not even an army of karate comic book artists will be able to stop them this time. (Muwah-ha-ha-ha-ha!)
No, really. Let the end credits play out and you’ll hear Kim Jong sing all this to the audience. That’s the real tragedy of Team America. Mainstream critiques of Parker and Stone’s work mistake them for brilliant “absurdists” because mainstream critics haven’t watched the movies they watch in years…if ever. I, on the other hand, own most of them.
Take Kim Jong Il’s death scene (spoiler alert, I guess, though “the villain dies” is about as revolutionary a plot twist as the end of Signs), which would seem absurd to anyone who hasn’t seen 1980’s Flash Gordon. Or 1972’s Godzilla vs. Gigan. Carson’s dying words to Lisa (“You knew this would be a one way trip”)…and, hell, the whole “fiance-dies-at-the-beginning-of-the-movie” thing…are straight lifts from The Abyss. Team America’s headquarters, inside the faces of Mt. Rushmore, is yet another in the long line of North by Northwest references. Spottswoode recruits Gary in a flying car, just like The Last Starfighter. The entire movie is one big riff on Thuderbrids.
In fact, Team America is a better remake of Thuderbirds than the actual remake of Thunderbrids, which came out three months prior. Parker apparently lived thirty years without seeing a single episode of that old show, or its two feature films from the mid-to-late-60s (and if you can say the same, fix that; they’re hilarious). Stone, being a true friend, sat Parker down, showed it to him, and the two emerged with the idea of doing an all-puppet remake of Armageddon.
Copyright issues (sadly) intervened. So they expanded their focus, and the various (poorly impersonated) celebrities of F.A.G. show how wide a net they wound up casting. Alec Baldwin, Matt Damon, Helen Hunt, Samuel L. Jackson…all have bad Action Movies under their belts. They all answer for them in true Trey Parker fashion, since he recasts them all as the random, bump-in-the-road thugs Heroes have to slog through in order to drag out the climax.
And I can’t tell you how much of a relief it is to watch a movie and know, for once, all the Standard Action Movie plot-holes are intention. They’re most of Team America‘s point, in so far as it could be said to have such a thing.
Yeah, Gary gets to make a Big Damn Hero speech at the end, presenting a tri-fold picture of the world where everyone’s either a “dick,” a “pussy,” or an “asshole.” Since everyone in ’04 was (apparently) so busy trying to squeeze themselves into one of these arbitrary, vulgar categories, no one seemed to notice this flick has the same problems and possibilities of every Trey Parker film, going all the way back to Cannibal! Seeing good work go unappreciated always pisses me off, even more than seeing bad work lionized by douchebags.
Regardless of personal politics, Parker and Stone are professionals with an intuitive understanding of both comic timing and the Three Act Structure. Years of experience running a weekly ensemble TV show have helped them sand down the rougher edges of their craft. Team America‘s a tighter film than either the Cannibal! or Orgazmo, and since we haven’t watched these characters develop over three and a half TV seasons, it can’t get the South Park pass. Even the South Park movie is a rambling, digressive clusterfuck next to this, which has none of that film’s (or Cannibal!‘s or Orgazmo‘s) structural and/or pacing problems.
Except, of course, for the inevitable Third Act Blues, where the large number of characters combines with all the usual, Action Movie cliches. After several time-filling montages (that provide an excuse for the filmmakers to slip in more songs – including my personal favorite, “Pearl Harbor Sucks and I Miss You.”) Our Heroes have to stop the Villain’s Ticking Clock. But first, they must escape his jail. Then they must split up and face the usual, video game runaround of thugs, deathtraps and more thugs. All while Team Love Interest, Lisa, sits tied to a chair in the Villain’s Opera box, suffering through the usual Villain Monologuing.
After the previous hour of honest-to-Allah belly laughs, this ending feels deflationary. Orgazmo and South Park both end with enormous, set-piece battles that both films do a great deal to build up. But what ending could live up to Team America‘s first two-thirds? Well…how about a gigantic explosion? Jeeze, you guys were smart enough to start the film with an Earth-shattering ka-boom…so where the fuck’s the parallel explosion, bracketing this film in fire?
Sad to see that one piece missing from a otherwise-complete puzzle. Hell, Team America‘s so good (and so knowledgeable about its source material) it even turns the homoerotic/homophobic subtext of most Bruckheimer Action Movies (but especially Top Gun and Bad Boys II) into a key plot point, foreshadowed in Gary’s first meeting with Spottswoode:
“Please, Gary, I’m not from Hollywood, I’m not going to fuck your mouth and my time is extremely valuable.”
Technically genius, Team America: World Police is a gigantic in-joke, made for all of us who realize Jerry Bruckheimer’s actually been making comedies these last thirty years…and the real gag is, he doesn’t even know it. But we know. And if you’re in on joke, Team America won’t disappoint. So there. Now suck my cock.
Ha! Just kidding.