Plastic explosives

Film of the Month: Team America World Police

Film still for Film of the Month: Team America World Police

Team America World Police uses singing puppets to spoof the action genre. But is it gunning for the doves or the hawks, asks Leslie Felperin

Like some fiendish device invented by the evil genius in a Bond movie, Team America World Police comes booby-trapped with irony. Viewers intent on defusing this contraption’s satire in the hopes of debunking its supposed politics or of discovering the intent of its makers will find it primed to explode and cover its traces. Even the most delicate of critical bomb-disposal experts, seeking only to find out how the clever gadget is wired, risks a serious singeing, since nothing dampens humour as much as over-analysis.

So before we take off the casing to get into the guts of the machine, let’s pause to salute the makers of Team America World Police for fashioning a beautifully made piece of kit. Released in North America just before the US election in order to wreak maximum damage on both left and right, this action-movie spoof - in which an imaginary band of SWAT-style puppet heroes ‘save the world’ (while destroying a lot of it too) from weapons of mass destruction held by terrorists controlled by North Korea’s Kim Jong II - is at the very least a technical triumph. Lit and shot by crack action cinematographer Bill Pope (DoP on The Matrix franchise), its one-third-scale world, if occasionally distorted by visual jokes like the superabundance of croissant shapes in the opening sequence’s Paris, is lovingly constructed for maximum verisimilitude.

Indeed, apart from the fact that it’s also a musical of sorts - as in director Trey Parker and his co-screenwriter Matt Stone’s previous film South Park Bigger Longer & Uncut, the featured songs are often catchier than the works they parody - Team America looks and feels exactly like a Jerry Bruckheimer shoot-’em-up but with stars who are literally rather than just figuratively plastic. Inspired by the puppetry of Thunderbirds creator Gerry Anderson, the film has the kind of cool gadgets (cars that turn into planes, Mount Rushmore faces that expand hydraulically to become hangars) that satisfy underage viewers (who given the film’s ‘R’-rating can see it only accompanied by a guardian in its home territory) as well as viewers with underaged imaginations. Though brilliantly staged, the puppets’ actions have a tactile, home-made quality that serves to expose further the far slicker visual clichés of the contemporary action movie: the parodic Matrix-effect wire-assisted fight sequences, for instance, are especially sharp when the strings supporting the puppets’ mid-air acrobatics are all too visible.

As Anderson understood, there’s a primal attraction about puppets, even ones engaged in scatological or other gross-out activities as Team America’s so often are (one of the film’s funniest such moments is when the hero involuntarily vomits after a night of drinking, a spectacle reminiscent of Jan Svankmajer in its unnerving effect). As well as the lamentably live-action Thunderbirds, this year saw the release of another all-marionette movie, Danish director Anders Rønnow Klarlund’s art film Strings, whose unsettling quality derived in part from its characters’ dead-pan, or dead-wood, faces. The puppets’ simplified expressions in Team America - their eyes widen and mouths open and close - work as a comment on the wooden acting in action films. What is the difference, the movie implicitly asks, between stiff-haired stud hero Gary Johnston here and any character played by the inexplicably successful Ben Affleck, memorably dissed in one of Team America’s power ballads that compares how much someone misses his lover to how much Pearl Harbor "sucked"?

In fact, as a comedy Team America is at its funniest when it plays things straight, mimicking the cheesy dialogue and corny, cliché-ridden plot mechanics of the action genre. In the scene where Gary and his colleague Lisa, still grieving for her slain fiancé, debate whether or not they can consummate their relationship on a viewing platform atop Mount Rushmore, the dialogue ("It’s too soon!" cries Lisa) is a note-perfect spoof of words we’ve heard a hundred times in action blockbusters. One almost doesn’t need the sex scene that follows - which is more graphic than anything a live-action film could get away with, though the US ratings board forced the film-makers to cut some shots to secure the aforementioned ‘R’.

Parker and Stone (who between them do most of the voices) have dodged swearing allegiance to either left or right in interviews - and one would be hard-pressed to make a watertight case that the film itself endorses the hawks or the doves. The opening scene neatly sends up the US government’s scorched-earth policy on terrorism, depicting Team America’s wholesale destruction of key Parisian landmarks in order to kill off a few suitcase-toting terrorists. Later the same treatment is given to Cairo.

Only the most literal-minded critic would fall into the trap of accusing the movie of being racist because of its depictions of Arabs, French people and other non-US citizens. Clearly, or at least one hopes, the intent is to spoof Hollywood’s own cliché bank, down to having Arabs speak a gibberish of random phrases strung together ("durka, durka, jihad"). Meanwhile President Kim mixes up his ‘L’s and ‘R’s (a classic Asian comedy tic used also in Lost in Translation) and while one might cringe at the dig, it nevertheless enhances the absurdity of his big ballad number ‘I’m So Ronery’, a send-up of the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical soliloquy style.

But venom is also reserved for Hollywood liberals such as Alec Baldwin, Sean Penn and Tim Robbins. Shown here as terrorists’ patsies, or "pussies" who "get fucked by dicks", the actors are also subject to homophobic jibes that sit more uneasily with liberal viewers - for instance, by being made members of the fictional Film Actors Guild so "F.A.G." can be appended to their names in spoof news reports. Penn, who is depicted talking up Iraq in hyperbolically happy terms, wrote an open letter to the film-makers (published in Matt Drudge’s online Drudge Report) criticising less their satire of him than their urging of undecided voters to stay at home rather than make a random choice of president. One can only wonder what these well-meaning if occasionally glibly sanctimonious movie stars did to offend - or whether Parker and Stone suffered the trauma described by Team America member Chris as setting off a lifetime’s hatred of thespians: namely being gang-raped at a tender age by a provincial cast of Cats.

Last Updated: 20 Dec 2011