You make a comedy about terrorism. With puppets.
Using England's Thunderbirds TV series as a jumping off point, South Park progenitors Trey Parker and Matt Stone return with a hilariously bawdy no-holds-barred satire, using marionettes to string together a tale of WMDs, rogue states, the War on Terror, and Alec Baldwin. And while the all-puppet cast may sound like a one-note gimmick, Team America: World Police actually delivers an irreverent overview of the current geopolitical mess.
After an operation in Paris takes a tragic turn, gung-ho counter-terrorism unit Team America ends up one soldier short of a full platoon. Hoping to replace a fallen colleague with an undercover agent, Team America's chief travels to New York's theater district to enlist the talents of Gary Johnston -- America's most talented Broadway performer. Riding on the back of Gary's acting skills, Team America infiltrates a global terror network and uncovers a plot by North Korean dictator Kim Jung Il to distribute powerful weapons to thousands of terrorists around the world.
Unfortunately, Team America's ham-fisted tactics against global terrorism (including destroying the Eiffel Tower and the Sphinx) get them in trouble at home. Alec Baldwin, Sean Penn, Tim Robbins and other members of the liberal Film Actor's Guild (or F.A.G. in the film's most uninspired and overused running joke), lobby against TA's violent ways, favoring instead a platform of compassion, conversation, and hybrid cars. After a Michael Moore-led attack on their headquarters leaves the squad in shambles, Team America must find a way to regroup, reveal the North Korean plot, and save civilization. No small task for a bunch of dummies.
Fans of Parker and Stone's South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut may see some similarities between the two movies: an insane dictator driving the Earth to the brink of Armageddon, silly situations being interrupted by sillier songs, the treasured Baldwin acting dynasty is left savaged. And the point is, once again, that people spend too much attention on petty distractions and self-serving crusades while the world is falling apart around them. Despite these parallels, Team America: World Police may be the funniest film of 2004.
South Park faithful will be happy to know that despite the heavy subject matter, TA:WP pulls no punches in the crass humor department. "Arab" terrorists speak in a stereotypical jumble of "durka, durkas," and "Mohammad jihads." A prolonged vomiting scene reveals the finer details of puppet puke, chunks and all. You'll be hard pressed to find another film with more oral sex references, and Gary's final speech breaks down the crucial differences among various sex organs. But nothing tops the graphic, multi-position exchange between amorous marionettes. Mind boggling, but mind blowingly funny.
But the coarse humor is offset by Parker and Stone's commitment to the puppet world they've created. Terrorist attacks on Paris and the Panama Canal are the height of adolescent male action figure fantasy, paid for with a million-dollar budget. The marionettes, in close ups and quieter moments, actually deliver some nuanced facial expressions. But TA:WP is also filled with jokes that poke fun of the form's limitations. After much buildup, the film's first fistfight is played like two limp fish being slapped together. A gentle touch is stopped short when the string runs out. House cats are used as giant, ferocious adversaries.
It's this balance of total commitment and self-deprecation that allows Team America: World Police to tinker with a decidedly grave subject, skewer everyone involved and still manage to be off-the-charts funny. Not bad for a couple of chuckle heads from the Mountain Time zone and their puppet friends.
The DVD includes the full, unrated, uncut version of the film -- the sex scene is utterly horrifying -- plus a pile of outtakes, documentaries, and test footage.
Up next: Baghdad!
Run time: 98 mins
In Theaters: Friday 15th October 2004
Box Office USA: $32.7M
Distributed by: Paramount Pictures
Contactmusic.com: 4 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 77%
Fresh: 148 Rotten: 45
IMDB: 7.2 / 10
Director: Trey Parker