There’s a strong argument to be made that Team America: World Police is perhaps the best comedy made in the past decade. It’s certainly the most politically astute, and certainly one of the more thoughtful commentaries on American foreign policy to emerge in the wake of 9/11. Like a lot of the work of Stone and Parker, it’s tone is incredibly juvenile and even puerile, with the pair never meeting a bad-taste gag that they don’t love. However, this decidedly low-brow sense of humour is coupled with a more sophisticated and sharp political wit that allows the movie to be topical without seeming preachy, observant without being heavy-handed, and veryfunny without ever being too earnest. That’s a winning combination.
I feel like I should mention how superbly Team America: World Police is put together. The jokes and the gags, the satire and deconstruction, are all prone to be discussed by film critics at great length, but I’ve always been impressed at just how good this film looks. I am a big fan of Gerry Anderson’s “supermarionation”, and Parker and Stone do an excellent job imitating and enhancing that classic process.
While they parody some of the limitations – with “kung-fu” throw-downs reduced to contests of flailing limbs threatening to end up tangled in one another, and Gary’s distress “signal” looking like his puppeteer’s first day on the job – the execution is wonderfully impressive. In fact, while I imagine that the brutal parody of Team America: World Policekilled the format, I almost long to see another few films produced in the style, as Parker and Stone demonstrate that it’s a wonderful style that can be executed quite stunningly.
Of course, it’s quite possible that the choice to use puppets might have been more than just a stylistic one. After all, Parker and Stone not only offer biting political satire, but they also rather brutally eviscerate the film-making style of Michael Bay. Parker and Stone’s Team America offers a wonderful mockery of that empty jingoistic style of blockbuster (with the “valmorphodising” toyetic vehicles, awful one-liners and woeful dialogue). It almost makes me mourn the passing the “parody movie” genre, reduced to a post-modern parody of itself through the soul-destroying efforts of Seltzer and Friedberg.
When all the world leaders show up for a summit, they are handily dressed in the clothes most associated with their country, reflecting the rather superficial understanding of the outside world that these blockbusters frequently have. (That said, I did notice that Tony Blair looks relatively normal, although Cherie is dressed like a colonial soldier.) As things get bad, Kim Jong-Il activates his masterplan. “I’m afraid your world is over,” he boasts, as he pushes the button. Oh, no! Are our heroes too late? “In five minutes.” The counter starts as he declares, in his best action movie supervillain voice, “Yes! The ticking clock!”
Michael Bay is a very clear target of Stone and Parker, with one of their musical numbers even bemoaning Pearl Harbour Sucked (and I Miss You). Buildings explode, rockets hurdle through the air, priceless national monuments are destroyed. There’s slow motion, ridiculous amounts of gung-ho patriotism and a suffocating machismo. To faithfully reproduce these elements in order to parody them in live action would undoubtedly require a budget similar to that of a Michael Bay film. Working with puppets and scale models allows Parker and Stone a wonderful freedom with which to heartily mock the director’s stylistic tics, but at a mere fraction of cost.
(Although, to be honest, I remain pleasantly astonished that any major studio greenlit this film, even at a modest budget. After all, I can imagine the reaction with script might have drawn from a studio executive concerned about the marionette sex scene, or the politically incorrect representation of virtually every nation on the planet – with the dialogue of Middle Eastern characters reduced to variations and combinations of “Durka”, “Mohammad” and “Jihad.” To make a movie like this took a surprising amount of fortitude, and I’m very glad that Paramount had it.)
Of course, beneath the spot-on parody of blockbuster action movies lies a very potent political core. I am quite surprised that the movie didn’t produce greater moral outrage. I would hope that perhaps this means that the so-called moral guardians had developed a sense of humour, or even some common sense, although my experiences since then lead to me to doubt such an assumption. It seems more likely that the film skirted in relatively under the radar by virtue of the puppets used.
Either way, the politics of Team America: World Police are a breath of fresh air for a mainstream Hollywood production. Big-budget blockbusters like Transformers or Eagle Eye tend to have a very clear right-wing patriotic and possibly jingoistic bias. On the other hand, the politics of lower-budget prestige pieces like Syriana, Lions for Lambs or Rendition seem hopelessly naive in their portrayal of American foreign policy. Real life does easily fit into those two categories, but on a spectrum between them, and the beauty of Team Americais that it realises this. It opts to sit firmly outside the spectrum and mock the two extremes quite thoroughly.
All the locations outside the United States are defined by their distance from the United States. Even Panama in Central America, South of “the real America.” In Paris, the streets are literally paved with croissants. (Seriously, pause the film and check it out.) We meet a kid singing Frère Jacques. The city is a parody of itself, perhaps as it exists in the mind of American popular consciousness, informed by various action movie locations. It seems to be composed entirely of landmarks, with the Louvre, the Eiffel Tower and the Arc de Triumph all seeming to sit on top of one another.
The rhetoric of the eponymous team is the rhetoric of right-wing fear-mongering. “I hate to break this to you, Gary, but some people out there want you dead,” the team leader warns a Broadway actor. “They’re called terrorists, Gary.” Of course, the team lacks any real understanding of those who conduct these terrorist acts, perhaps as a result of their black-and-white morality. These terrorists congregate in a Ciaro bar that is informed by the Mos Isley tavern from Star Wars: A New Hope, a stereotypical “bad guy”bar.
The team has no concept of “collateral damage”, and no real notion of the damage that they cause in seeking to prevent a terrorist outrage, oblivious to the fact that the rest of the world has its own cultural and political and social priorities. In taking down a terrorist attack on Paris, the team have no real concern about collapsing the Eiffel Tower, crushing the Arc de Triumph and levelling the Louvre. They justify their actions, and measure damage, by reference to 9/11. One attack, we’re warned, is “9/11 times 100.” The next is “9/11 times 1000.”
There’s no suggestion of international cooperation, no notion of any moral authority higher then their own. There’s just the socially-conservative all-American value system, with a team of decidedly white American archetypes including an “all-star quarterback from the University of Nebraska” and “the best martial arts expert Detroit has to offer.” If you disagree with their methods or their techniques, you’re just a “Commie.”
However, while Parker and Stone take the time to mock the right-wing, they also land a fair few shots at the extreme left. While Team America’s approach to dealing with terrorists is lampooned as ridiculously short-sighted and poorly-conceived, Parker and Stone also have a great deal of scorn for the arm-chair pundits who stubbornly refuse to hold the perpetrators of violence responsible for their actions.
“Who is to blame for these attacks in Panama?” Alec Baldwin (“the single greatest actor of all time”) asks America after a horrible bombing. “The terrorists? The person who supplied them with WMDs? No. Blame Team America.” The writers even take a moment to heartily mock Sean Penn’s awkward validation of Sadam Hussein’s regime. “Last year I went to Iraq,” he explains. “Before Team America showed up, it was a happy place. They had flowery meadows and rainbow skies and rivers made of chocolate, where the children danced and laughed and played with gumdrop smiles.”
Team America wisely refuses to buy into the politics of either the left- or the right-wing, instead suggesting that – god forbid! – there might be some sort of response to the current global situation that doesn’t rely on a simplistic black-and-white understanding of the world. It’s a charming and endearing outlook, buried beneath all the dick and fart jokes, and it feels a little strange that Team America seems perhaps one of the more sane responses to the absurdity of modern international politics.
Parker and Stone are among the best writers of their generation, but they are also rather wonderful film makers. Barring moments obviously intended as self-parody (Kim Jong-Il’s “panthers”, for example) the movie’s production design looks absolutely lovely. The soundtrack is also impressive, with the pair contributing any number of songs that would parody the soundtrack selections of any number of major films. I’m so Lonely is a wonderful mockery of a Disney movie song, while Montageis a wonderfully catchy eighties-tastic piece of meta-fictional pop.
Team America is a delight, a comedy that delivers in its own way. It masks a lot of its intelligence with gross-out and absurd humour, but I think that helps the film to avoid ever seeming too soft or too sweet in how it deals with its subject matter.
Filed under: Non-Review Reviews Tagged: | alec baldwin, America World Police, Arc, Arc de Triomphe, Coca-Cola, Croissant, Detroit, Eiffel Tower, film, Frère Jacques, Gerry Anderson, hollywood, Movie, Musée du Louvre, non-review review, paris, review, team america, team america: world police, United States, University of Nebraska, University of Nebraska system, World Police