The first thing to be said about “Team America: World Police,” before we get to the good stuff, is what an extraordinarily well-made movie it is. Although it is cast entirely with marionettes (save for a clutch of black housecats impersonating panthers), once you get past the strings appended to the puppets’ extremities, the picture plays out as a classic action-adventure spy movie, complete with underground lairs, wheel-squealing car chases and exotic foreign locales. And although the scale of the characters is one-third life-size, the eccentrically detailed world they inhabit — replete with puppet barrooms, puppet casbahs, puppet limos, even puppet barfing — is psychologically convincing; it’s not a whole lot less “real” than the outré environments of the early James Bond films (which “Team America” affectionately references). This visual sophistication is a tribute to the underestimated ambitions of the filmmakers, “South Park” creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone, and to their top-shelf taste in collaborators, most notably cinematographer Bill Pope, who previously shot all three “Matrix” movies, as well as “Spider-Man 2.”
As the title announces, “Team America” is a satire of the current international political situation, and of the conviction, on the part of the Bush administration and its supporters, that the United States, as the world’s sole remaining superpower, must act as a sort of global police force, rooting out noxious tyrants and terrorist cabals wherever they may fester. Parker and Stone have satirized George W. Bush before, in their parody sit-com “That’s My Bush!” (“He stole the election, now he’ll steal your hearts.”) And of course Bush not infrequently satirizes himself. But the president has no puppetized presence in “Team America.” Instead, Parker and Stone have shifted their gaze to the left, and discerned on the other side of the current ideological divide a subject even more ripe for lampoon and ridicule: the out-of-control culture of celebrity political pontification.
The famous names and the irksome faces are all here, with strings fetchingly affixed to their little wooden heads: Alec Baldwin, Tim Robbins, Janeane Garofalo, Martin Sheen, Susan Sarandon and of course the sublimely clueless Sean Penn. And the story in which they play so comical a part has a familiar shape as well. A brotherhood of murderous Arab terrorists is discovered to be in league with a lunatic dictator, who is selling them weapons of mass destruction. Only Team America can stop them. The Team is a group of five special operatives trained in martial arts, psychology, foreign languages and so forth. Along with their controller, a suave, cocktail-wielding character called Spottswoode, they are headquartered in a swank subterranean hideout in the bowels of Mount Rushmore. Charged with their new mission, and all a-clank with heavy weaponry, they jet off to Paris, a naturally suspicious place. There they make their way to a crowded plaza and begin carefully scrutinizing its colorful inhabitants. They quickly zero in on a group of bearded, turban-topped men bearing an odd-looking metal case and murmuring among themselves in Arabic. (Well, it’s supposed to be Arabic; actually, it’s pure gibberish.) One of the Team barks out, “You in the robes! Put down the weapon of mass destruction!” Gunfire breaks out, and soon blood-pocked puppet bodies are sailing through the air. Team America gets a little carried away, though, and also blows up both the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre. Looking around at the wreckage afterwards, one of them pipes up to the stunned Parisian onlookers, “Bonjour! It’s okay — we got the terrorists!”
The Team moves on to Egypt, where they off more terrorists, but also accidentally blow up some pyramids and — oops — the Sphinx, too. Meanwhile, back in the States, ABC News anchor Peter Jennings is sourly reporting that Team America has once again put the rest of the world into a serious pout. To clarify the situation for viewers, he solicits the moral expertise of Alec Baldwin, who explains that the terrible things that are happening aren’t the terrorists’ fault, they’re Team America’s. Cut to Mount Rushmore, where a raucous demonstration is under way outside the Team’s headquarters, led by the lovably corpulent Michael Moore, who is managing to be totally outraged while at the same time gobbling down ketchup-slathered hotdogs with both hands. Then cut to Pyongyang, North Korea, where the delusional dictator Kim Jong Il has been observing all this celebrity indignation, from afar, with great interest.
Kim, of course, is the mad despot who has been arming the Arab terrorists. His lunatic machinations have become so obvious, they’ve drawn the attention of the United Nations, which has dispatched mild-mannered weapons inspector Hans Blix to accost the diminutive despot in his vast palace. Blix tells Kim he must turn over his weapons of mass destruction “or else we will be very, very angry with you, and we will write a letter telling you how angry we are.” Kim throws him into a pool full of pet sharks, then returns to his plotting. Since both he and the nattering Hollywood film stars want pretty much the same thing — to put an end to the galumphing anti-terrorist forays of Team America — Kim decides to join forces with them and invites them to co-host a world peace conference. The activist actors take the bait, and are soon gathered in Pyongyang, where they grow almost misty-eyed imagining a shiny new world in which people of all nations will see things their way. “We will persuade everyone to drive hybrid cars,” says Tim Robbins, “and stop smoking.” “We will handle dangerous people with talk,” says Baldwin. Sean Penn, for the most part, wanders around muttering, “I went to Iraq, you know.” (He eventually has his throat ripped out by a panther.) Unfortunately, in the end, the moral of this story turns out to be decidedly ambivalent. “I know you don’t like Americans right now,” one of the Team members shouts. “But Kim Jong Il is a lot worse!”
It may be best that we pass over “Team America”’s big sex scene, which is … pretty hot, actually, for puppets. And let us not dwell on the exquisitely insensitive sequence in which Kim Jong Il laments his friendless solitude in a lilting ballad called “I’m So Ronery.” And definitely let us not contemplate too closely the fact that “Team America” is opening on the very first day of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. These are deplorable things — deplorable. Although not as deplorable as several other things I’ve left discreetly unmentioned. Parker and Stone are virtuosos of insult and ethnic abuse; their wild, what-the-hell comic malice can be thrilling. But it’s the pure, focused contempt with which they pile onto the showbiz windbags of stage and screen that’s most bracing here. In “Team America,” these posturing savants are so wickedly knee-capped that, in socio-cultural terms, they may never walk again. In which case, I doubt they’ll be offered many rides, either.
(“Team America: World Police” is a Paramount Pictures release. Paramount and MTV are both subsidiaries of Viacom.)