Dir. Trey Parker, 2004, USA, 98mins
Trey Parker, Matt Stone, Kristen Miller
South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone, inspired by sixties television classic Thunderbirds, and with the help of a cast of mannequins, have turned their acute and dirty wit on the American war on terror. Creating a hilarious send up of the cheesy action movie genre and setting new standards in puppet production, Team America: World Police is like nothing ever put on the big screen before. The sets may all be one-third in scale, but from the opening credits the look is epic, matching any Jerry Bruckheimer blockbuster it lampoons.
Weapons of mass destruction are in the hands of the terrorists and it is down to Team America, a small band of specialists and their suave leader Spottswoode to save the free world. Working out of their elaborate James Bond-esque base in the Mt.Rushmoor monument, they race round the globe emblazoned with the Stars and Stripes to an outrageous, pumping theme song, taking out terrorists and anything else that happens to be in their way. But they need someone to infiltrate the evil terrorists, so they convince maverick Broadway star Gary Johnston to give up his promising career and use his acting gifts to help keep America free. Soon an evil plot is uncovered involving a worldwide network of terrorists, North Korea's diminutive dictator Kim Jong il and more bizarrely Alec Baldwin and his fellow members of the Film Actors Guild (F.A.G).
Seemingly a novelty at first, the exhaustive use of puppets is a joke that Parker manages to stretch to the very end. There's puppet kung fu, a drunk puppet vomiting, the inevitable and over the top puppet sex romp, and numerous and imaginative puppet mutilations. All rather juvenile. All very funny. But there is an unnerving subtlety to the puppets too, it doesn't take long to suspend disbelief, and the range of emotion coaxed by the puppeteers is remarkable. Parker and Stone do most of the voices themselves, the most obvious continuation of the South Park style. And Parker is also responsible for writing and singing the songs, an integral contribution to the film. Like some demented advert for children's' action toys, the main theme song screams out as mannequins unleash destruction in the name of freedom. None of this would work though, without the dedication shown by the production team; a second viewing would be necessary to fully appreciate the exotic sets and costumes, painstakingly detailed and shot luxuriously by cinematographer Bill Pope, more used to working on films like Spiderman 2 or the Matrix trilogy.
In a parody like this, the plot is usually the weakest part, but by cramming in ever every action film cliché, the over the top melodrama is so accurate and sincere it catches the viewer off guard and, although drivel in any other context, here it works. But only just, with the saccharine emotional scenes just on the verge of tedium, and the continuous reference to acting in the jokes almost wearing thin. South Park showed there was no theme Parker and Stone were scared of spoofing and in Team America: World Police nothing is sacrosanct, not only US foreign policy is attacked, but bleeding heart liberals, Hollywood and most of the films it produces. Here lies the films greatest strength; there is no big statement made by the writers, no answers, only surreal and smutty ridicule. Parker's previous feature length films South Park: Bigger Longer & Uncut and Orgazmo, although extremely funny at times, both suffered from a lack of joke, character and drama density to sustain them over ninety minutes. With Team America: World Police, Parker has hit a glorious stride, the only question is, will he need a one-third scale cast to repeat it.