Team America: puppets vs. the world.

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Oct. 14 2004 7:18 PM

Strings Attached

The puppets of Team America skewer the right. If only they'd stopped there.

Jerry Bruckheimer, not Kim Jong-il, is the real target
Jerry Bruckheimer, not Kim Jong-il, is the real target

Week after week, Trey Parker and Matt Stone's South Park is emblematic of the very best of American culture. Consider the ferociously subversive iconoclasm that tumbles from the mouths of its juvenile dramatis personae and the exuberant deconstruction of specious bourgeois sitcom homilies. The crude animation, much maligned, brilliantly distills and exteriorizes its makers'Weltanschauung. Also, I really love the talking/singing poop that leaves big splotches of shit wherever it lands.

So I was up-up-up for Parker and Stone's Team America: World Police(Paramount). The title alone rocks: It tells you that the movie is a stink bomb lobbed at American arrogance and overweening militarism. That'll piss off the right! And the open letter to Parker and Stone from lefty peacenik Sean Penn decrying their anti-left irreverence at a time of international crisis: That was promising, too. Give 'em points for stirring up bipartisan outrage.

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But the real politics here are anti-Jerry Bruckheimer. Parker and Stone have called Team America a "Bruckheimer movie with marionettes," and, beat by beat, the picture is patterned on jingoist Reagan-era contraptions like Top Gun (1985). It's got the maverick-hero-with-the-guilty-buried-trauma-backstory-resulting-in-emotional-blockage-that-must-be-manfully-overcome template. It's got the soap opera triangle that rears its stupid head even in the middle of apocalyptic action sequences. It's got the turning point where the despairing hero wanders the streets to a soul-filling R&B tune, recovers his skills in a montage of training scenes (with a hard-rock backbeat), and goes mano a mano with the bad guy in the name of the father figure who recruited him and the sultry babe who believes in him. It's got the final face-off that comes at the emotional blockage with a gargantuan plunger.

What's different is that, yes, the hero is a puppet, and you can see his strings. And he's not a fighter pilot, he's a Broadway actor, recruited by a Charlton Heston-like figure with an omnipresent highball to save the world with his ACTING by infiltrating an Islamic terrorist group. But that's hard because his ACTING once got his brother beaten to death by gorillas—and I'm sorry if I'm spoiling that revelation, but there are so many more, all doozies. There's marionette sex, hardcore, with positions even I didn't know, and marionette puking, which is also, in its way, hardcore. There's spectacular marionette-on-marionette violence—really splattery decapitations and disembowelings. The hero has a soulful number where he croons that he misses his girl "as much as director Michael Bay missed the mark" with Bruckheimer's sucky Pearl Harbor (2001). The back-in-action montage is more or less straight, except it's scored with a song called "We Need a Montage."

Real-life politics occasionally elbow showbiz ones aside—but just barely. In the first sequence, the paramilitary Team America—two hot chicks and three studly guys—goes after Islamic terrorists in Paris and ends up incinerating the Louvre to keep a terrorist from detonating a bomb inside: a nice jab at the blow-'em-up-to-save-'em school of occupation. But after Team America destroys the Panama Canal, the movie's target shifts from crazed militarism to left-wing peacenik anticorporate sanctimoniousness in the person of Michael Moore and a bunch of actors led by Alec Baldwin—all of whom cozy up to North Korea's megalomaniacal Kim Jong-il in the name of world peace. (SouthPark fans will recognize Kim's voice as belonging to that great blob of id, Cartman, with all the r's turned into l's.)

That's the part that has Sean Penn wringing his hands and must have puzzled a lot of people who assume that Parker and Stone, with their toilet talk and blasphemy and camp sensibility, are flaming lefties. But they're not; they're Cato Institute-level libertarians. They actually hate liberals as much if not more than their right-wing counterparts. The biggest surprise in Team America is that there's no Barbra Streisand to kick around (or disembowel, or decapitate).

Hey, this anti-Bush liberal has no problem in principle with both sides getting skewered. But when Alec Baldwin, Sean Penn, Tim Robbins, Susan Sarandon, and Janeane Garofolo moronically align themselves with Kim Jong-il and start wielding automatic weapons against Team America, well … Leftist actors learned from Vietnam not to cozy up to dictators: Jane Fonda, one of the best actresses of her generation, hasn't worked in more than a decade. And it's the left at the moment using Kim Jong-il to hammer Bush about making pre-emptive strikes only against countries with oil fields—as opposed to those that actually have weapons of mass destruction and are run by people nutty enough to use them. And Michael Moore wouldn't be a suicide bomber because he thinks too highly of his indispensability. Sorry, boys: This just isn't very incisive left-bashing.

I laughed all the way through Team America: Scene by scene, it's uproarious, and the climactic monologue that builds a theory of geopolitics (and life) around the interaction of "dicks, pussies, and assholes" ought to be chiseled in the entry hall of the United Nations. The marionette work and production design are an amazing blend of the crude and the intricately beautiful. But the thing about the best SouthPark episodes is that they're profound. There was one that took on John Edward, the guy who claims to talk to the dead, that's a magnificent summation of the skeptical worldview—in 23 minutes. There are others on that genius level. Team America, on the other hand, boils down to some movie parodies and a lot of nyah-nyah infantile feces-hurling. And, really: Haven't we had enough of that this political season?

David Edelstein is Slate's film critic. You can read his reviews in "Reel Time" and in "Movies." He can be contacted at slatemovies@slate.com.

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