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Team America: World Police (2004) Print E-mail
Friday, 15 October 2004
Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the “South Park” guys, launch a new direction with “Team America.” “South Park” proudly features extremely limited animation; this features extremely limited marionettes—puppets dangling on strings (and the strings are always visible). It is something of a spoof of the various puppet TV series of Gerry & Sylvia Anderson; ironically, the “Thunderbirds” movie released in the U.S., based on their TV series, is live action.

If you’re familiar with Parker & Stone, you know that they’re blunt and brutal satirists who have no point of view other than “everything stinks but us.” Here, the overall point is to spoof big, blundering action movies, the America-is-king attitude all too prevalent today, and movie actors who have the temerity to actually speak their political views publicly. Parker and Stone share the unshakable conviction that celebrities have no right to be serious, that anyone who does speak up—at least on the left—is a fool and worthy only of contempt. Since they omit all right-leaning celebrities, the film is as much propaganda for the right as “Fahrenheit 9/11” was for the left.

But it’s not likely that Parker and Stone are any more favorably inclined to right-wing viewpoints; their scorn and contempt is freely given to everyone in the world except themselves. It’s very easy, both in this movie and “South Park,” to see what they’re against; it’s harder to see not just what they are for, but even if they are for anything at all. For example, one of the puppets visits various Washington DC monuments; this is spoofing the cynical exploitation of such icons often engaged in by big action movies—but it’s ALSO cynical exploitation of the monuments, this time for laughs. And I’m sure Parker and Stone are well aware of this.

However, however contemptuous of everything they might be as people, they’re pretty funny filmmakers, and for at least the first half, “Team America: World Police” is pretty damned funny. When swarthy, turban-wearing sinister types turn up in a postcard-pretty Paris, Team America swings into action. They travel about the world in red-white-and-blue, star-spangled aircraft; they’re all heavily armed, well trained and all white. (Sarah may be Asian, but she has the same big round glassy eyes as everyone else on the Team.) They take on the terrorists, bringing them down—and also bringing down the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe and the Louvre. Collateral damage that Team America doesn’t even notice.

There’s a martial arts battle between a Team America member and a terrorist—the two puppets just dangle in front of each other and waggle their arms and legs. But still, they’re real enough so that one of the Team is gorily killed just at the moment he’s proposing to Team member Lisa (Kristen Miller).

Soon thereafter, Gary Johnston (Parker himself), star of the Broadway hit “Lease: The Musical” is approached by tough-talking but elegant Spottswoode (Daran Norris) and flown off in a hot limousine to Team America’s base inside Mount Rushmore. They need Gary’s incredible acting ability to infiltrate the terrorists’ camp; Spottswoode knows something big is planned, and wants to nip it in the bud.
Being a big summer action movie, even if released in the fall, “Team America” also features backstories for almost every character, and the action stops while the stories are told, no matter what else is going on, even the impending end of the world. Gary is attracted to Lisa who is loved by martial arts expert Chris (Matt Stone), and so on and so forth.

There is a big scheme going on with WMDs being passed out to terrorists by the chief villain, North Korea’s Kim Jong Il (Parker again), who wants to conquer the world by wiping out all Western civilization, so that ALL nations will be Third World Nations. Caution: this movie is not exactly PC. At one point, Kim Jong Il has a wistful song, “I’m So Lonely”—but it comes out “Ronery.” He meets UN representative Hans Blix—but he’s “Brix” to Il. (He also feeds Blix to sharks.) And so forth.

The movie tosses around references (to “South Park,” to “Star Wars”), and generally trashes the idea that America’s ideas are good for the whole world. The other main idea is that starring puppets in movies like this is inherently absurd. The movie has already gained notoriety for the big puppet sex scene (Gary and Lisa), in which they scamper through about half the Kama Sutra. The movie was given an NC-17 rating until this scene was toned down—but it’s still goofily graphic. When Gary feels he’s responsible for the destruction of the Panama Canal (actually a pretty spectacular scene on a tabletop level), he becomes a drunk, and we are treated to a scene of him barfing voluminously. And then beyond voluminously.

The movie seems peculiarly fixated on homosexuality, which the filmmakers evidently regard as a bad idea. One big plot point turns on whether Gary is willing to perform oral sex on Spottswoode (this scene is not so graphic as the one with Gary and Lisa). 11 of the actors belong to the Film Actors Guild, and the resulting acronym is mentioned—so often that it becomes tiresome. F.A.G. this, F.A.G. that, over and over and over and over.

That’s always been a problem with Parker and Stone: since the core of their work is excess, they don’t limit themselves even when it’s a good idea. Jokes aren’t just run into the ground, they’re squeezed to one-atom thickness. And then repeated. It’s sort of funny when someone warns what’s coming up will be ten times worse than 9/11—it will be 9,110. It’s not funny when they repeat the joke with larger numbers.

They gleefully attack mobs of liberal celebrities—Alec Baldwin, George Clooney, Matt Damon (big joke: all he says is his name), Janeane Garafalo, Danny Glover, Ethan Hawke, Helen Hunt, Samuel L. Jackson, Sean Penn, Tim Robbins (they’re especially hard on him), Susan Sarandon, Martin Sheen and Liv Tyler. Parker and Stone consider it ludicrous that these people hold strong opinions. But it’s the same joke for each one of the celebrities they spoof, there’s no clear variation in their personalities or behavior. Again with the repetition. It’s initially funny, but progressively less so. The contemptuous attitude also does not wear well.

As a movie, it’s awkward; often the pauses between sentences are a bit too long (waiting for laughs, maybe?) so that scenes don’t flow, they lurch. Futhermore, a spoof of a big dumb action movie does run the risk of becoming a big dumb action movie, and “Team America” has a lot of slow parts, especially in the second half.

But the dialogue is often clever, as are the songs, such as “America, F**k Yeah!” and the one that includes the line “I miss you more than Michael Bay missed the mark when he made ‘Pearl Harbor.’” Kim Jong Il has another song toward the end of the credits that follow the movie; amusingly, it explains the entire plot, at least from his perspective.

“Team America: World Police,” admittedly, is a lot of very sassy fun. Yes, it’s uneven; yes, the “screw everyone” attitude becomes irksome after a while, but there isn’t another movie like this one, and it deserves a lot of credit for its brash, ballsy originality.

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