I’m a little ashamed to say that I kind of liked the 2009 movie GI JOE: The Rise of Cobra. I didn’t think it was an award-winner or anything, but I found it to be a mildly amusing action film. So why am I ashamed? Because at the time I saw it I hadn’t yet seen a comedy that thoroughly embarrasses that movie, all movies similar to it, and everyone who might have ever liked it: 2004’s Team America: World Police.
Team America is the fourth film from Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the creators of South Park. It is a satire based upon a very simple conceit: many of George W. Bush’s most famous speeches leading up to the Iraq war, especially the “axis of evil” speech, set forth an America-versus-bad guys worldview that seems to come out of an ’80s action movie or an episode of Thunderbirds. Rather than pick one of those concepts to lampoon, Parker and Stone mashed the two together, staging a blustery action thriller entirely with puppets. Call it Commando 2: Marionette Boogaloo.
The opening sequence of Team America lays out this movie’s intentions as well as any comedy in the last ten years except Anchorman and Black Dynamite. A group of ludicrously stereotyped terrorists (“durka durka Mohammed jihad”) are intent upon detonating a bomb in Paris, but they are foiled by the titular high-tech spy team, who spout all of the hilarious dumb action cliches (“terrorize this!”) and destroy Paris in the name of saving it.
It’s especially important to understand that this was cutting-edge satire for 2004. The invasion of Fallujah happened about a month after the film opened, so the idea that the U.S. could destroy a city in the name of saving it from terrorists still seemed a bit exaggerated. This is the earliest film I’ve seen that suggested that American obliviousness could be a problem in the Middle East, as in the scene where the Team America plane smashes a marketplace vendor’s wares followed by the clueless announcement, “we’re here to save you!”
The problem is, there’s still about 80 minutes of movie left over after that opening sequence, and not all of the upcoming jokes are hits. The Parker/Stone style is perfect for half-hour television; if one joke bombs there’s not enough time for it to kill the momentum, because another joke is soon on the way. It’s not the same for a movie: Team America, like Orgazmo and BASEketball before it, just can’t maintain a good rhythm with its jokes. This is half of a completely hilarious satire, and half of a problematic attempt at button-pushing and scatology.
For example, the anti-war message is balanced by the parody of a collection of well-known anti-war Hollywood celebrities such as Michael Moore and Tim Robbins. In fact those jokes are laid on so thick in the middle of the film that the pro-Iraq-war National Review named the film one of its “Best Conservative Movies” as though that opening scene had never happened. The celebrity coalition in the movie is called the Film Actors Guild (consider the acronym), and if anything, the celebrity jokes get even lazier from there. There are plenty of good ways that one could mock Michael Moore, but “he’s so anti-war that he should be a suicide bomber and also he’s fat!” isn’t one of them.
Race is an especially thorny issue for his movie; while the opening scene does a great job of sarcastically delivering the message, “all of the terrorists in these lame action movies are terrible stereotypes!”, by the end of the movie the message has devolved into, “hey, aren’t all of these terrible stereotypes funny?” Mild spoiler: a weird parody version of the late North Korean despot Kim Jong-il is the villain of the movie, and his portrayal is such that he has a musical number titled “I’m So Ronery.” There’s no satire of movies or foreign policy in the Korean scenes, it’s all just asking you to laugh at an Asian man who can’t pronounce the letter “L.”
Somewhere in the middle you have the scatological jokes, which are all over the map. Using puppets allows for an insanely over-the-top sex scene that is by far the funniest part of the film, and even more gross and hilarious in the unrated version of the movie. However, Team America also has the longest, most disgusting, and least funny vomit joke that I’ve ever seen in a film. Some of the jokes about homosexual sex are spot-on about how unintentionally homoerotic action movies can be, and some exploit gay panic in a way that even Adam Sandler would be ashamed to try.
Regardless of what you think about the content, give this film credit in one key way: from a technical standpoint this is the best puppet movie ever made. The explosive action sequences are rendered with amazing detail, but the nature of puppetry is also a source of a lot of great sight gags (the movie’s take on the “death trap involving animals” cliche is both hilarious and adorable). Parker and Stone have said in interviews that they’ll never come within a mile of puppets again, so difficult this picture was to make, but for all of their trouble it works out perfectly.
In fact, with that huge technical challenge in mind, it’s kind of amazing that this film even got made. Satires about action movies aren’t necessarily box-office gold, satires about the G.W. Bush foreign policy have had disastrous ticket sales, and on top of it all … Puppets? A movie like Pearl Harbor, which is mocked by name in one of Team America‘s songs, is a much safer bet for most studios. Even if this is only half of a good movie, even if the only superlative parts are the sex scene and the song “America, Fuck Yeah!”, it gives me hope that those things happened at all.
Reviewed by Mark Young