Despite some clever moments, 'Team America' is little more than an action-flick puppet show
The war against terrorism hasn't asked for its own scathing comedy, but now that it has one, the campaign deserves something better than "Team America: World Police." This is the new satire from Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the creators of, among many funny things, "South Park." On several occasions, it's audacious in tsk-tsking the notion of the United States as a heedless and conceited crusader of global peace, but the movie is awkward and curiously stiff. And it's not just because the whole thing is performed by marionettes, either. The filmmaking is only slightly more convincing than the puppeteering. "Team America" is a smart movie trapped in the body of a dead-end action flick. After
1999's "South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut" -- one of the greatest musicals and among the sharpest satires I've seen -- Parker and Stone could have shown up in "BASEketball 2" and I would have tried my darndest to look the other way. But "Team America" is actually ambitious, which makes its ultimate failure hard to dismiss. The world in this movie is besieged by terrorists, who are principally Arab and speak gibberish ("Durka durka," goes a typical line of their dialogue). It's up to the clueless crime-fighting quintet, Team America, to stop them, using a dangerous combination of shoulder-guided missiles and blissful ignorance. The movie opens with the squad destroying Paris without much concern for the monuments. When a terrorist thinks the Louvre is a sacred
place to hide, he and it are obliterated. And after one agent's errant shot sends the Eiffel Tower crashing onto the Arc de Triomphe, his only lament is that "I missed the terrorist."Team America is a joke on the notion of American realpolitik and the international disdain toward it. I don't think its members are meant to besmirch the soldiers in the Middle East fighting the war. And that Paris sequence seems designed to make you wonder whether so many treasured sites would be blown up if the war were in France and not Iraq. The movie is only rarely as intellectually engaging as it is in these moments, cleverly jabbing at the American ethos of the war on terror without ever dropping the name of the president who's waged it. (Perhaps Parker and Stone felt their enjoyably unfair, extinct, George W.-bashing sitcom "That's My Bush" was an adequate put-down.) From here, it's on to marionettes vomiting, marionettes cursing, marionettes dying grisly deaths, and marionettes having many kinds of sex, though frankly that last one is nothing a boy hasn't tried with his sister's Ken and Barbie dolls.
The movie's real act of irreverence is the way it roughs up bleeding-heart Hollywood stars. The likeness of Alec Baldwin is a Kofi Annan-like stand-in for a peace-seeking actors' guild that's meant to evoke the United Nations and counts Tim Robbins, Susan Sarandon, Sean Penn, Janeane Garofalo, and Matt Damon as members. Bludgeoning them -- sometimes literally -- is a canny way for Parker and Stone to distinguish themselves from their peers. They're not limousine liberals; they're locker-room liberals: "Team America" is doused in mock testosterone. (The music wouldn't be out of place on the "Top Gun" soundtrack.)
Parker and Stone's biggest problem is their decision to stuff their ideas inside what could be the plot of one of those "Iron Eagle" movies. After Team America loses a member, its mastermind, Spottswoode, recruits a Broadway actor named Gary Johnston to join the team as a spy. (When he's approached, it's while he's starring in "Lease," a crudely funny joke on the musical "Rent.") The other four soldiers -- a pair of cute women and two men, both hot dogs -- have mixed feelings about Gary, which they'll have to overcome if they're going to stop the Korean dictator, Kim Jong Il, from dealing arms and destroying the world.
Aside from the original songs (their lyrics are mostly unprintable and uniformly hilarious, where the rest of the movie is hit and miss), this all turns out to be less exciting than you'd think. The movie can't free itself from the predictable requirements of the action movies it's roasting. Parker and Stone's heroes are still heroes, their villains are still villainous, and the setup is as old as Telly Savalas. Their choice to superimpose a current political situation on the action flick only demonstrates a clever awareness of a current political situation.
"Team America" is stuck between point-blank ridicule and the obligations of a weary plot. Surprisingly, more than an hour of watching marionettes fight, curse, and fornicate turns out to be as dull as watching Michael Dudikoff do the same thing in one of his unremarkable soldier movies. That's a bummer for Parker and Stone: The genre has them on a string.
Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Team America: World Police