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Puppet Masters

Homegrown wiseguys give pieces a chance in Team America.

Don't expect Trey Parker and Matt Stone to come at you with little scalpels. Or clever bons mots. The creators of South Park go in for brute, double-barreled-shotgun satire, and anyone who doesn't feel like being blasted should probably get out of the country -- or off the planet. In Team America: World Police, a raunchy action farce made with prancing marionettes, they open fire on American militarism, French indifference, Peter Jennings, Hollywood blockbusters, Nebraska football and left-leaning movie stars who think they have interesting things to say about politics. Have we forgotten anyone? Well, the fat Michael Moore figure gets blown to pieces; Hans Blix is eaten by a shark; Helen Hunt is chopped in half. Team America has already enraged actor Sean Penn, who wrote Parker and Stone a nasty letter after catching a sneak preview, and if Kim Jong Il ever gets to hear his creepy little puppet self sing the mocking ballad "I'm Rone-ree," the North Korean dictator might want to poke the filmmakers' eyes out with chopsticks.

The effects of their assault may be hit-and-miss, but you know the perpetrators are loving every minute of it. Few people in the entertainment industry take such delight in stirring up trouble as these homeboys from our very own battleground state. They met as CU students in the '80s and, although they're now approaching middle age, they still have a lot in common with the potty-mouthed schoolchildren of South Park. Their collective id -- unchained, uncensored and running amok -- has always been their most effective weapon. The question here is whether the raw, scattershot attack works as well against the tangled traumas of the post-9/11 world as it has in deflating the dumb-ass pieties of American middle-class life -- South Park's ongoing mission.

Probably not. For one thing, Parker and Stone don't claim to be politically informed. In a time when the country is sharply divided into hostile camps, they refuse to take sides. Their idea of political satire is to define the warring factions in global geopolitics as "dicks, pussies and assholes" -- not exactly the kind of talk you hear at the U.N., the Pentagon or even in the pages of National Lampoon. For better or worse, their inner ten-year-olds refuse to grow up.

Puppet government: Various players string the world 
along in Team America: World Police.
Puppet government: Various players string the world along in Team America: World Police.

Details

Puppets designed by Norman Tempia and produced by the Chiodo Brothers

The team in Team America combines a dash of James Bond with a ton of the British superhero TV series Thunderbirds and a willful travesty of the dramatic inadequacies of Jerry Bruckheimer-style action epics. Equipped with high-tech aircraft and deadly weapons, and supposedly dedicated to world stability, this dauntless, self-righteous quintet -- three puppet men and two puppet women -- scurries from trouble spot to trouble spot, bringing terrorists to justice and paying no heed at all to collateral damage like wrecking the Eiffel Tower, blowing up a couple of Egyptian pyramids or crushing an Arab casbah with their red, white and blue helicopter. The new, initially reluctant recruit is one Gary Johnston, a Broadway actor they think can infiltrate Arab terror cells by using his acting skills. Team America is, of course, American foreign policy gone berserk, the Bush doctrine as cartoon strip, enacted to the strains of a pounding anthem called "America? Fuck, Yeah!"

Little matter that neither the current occupant of the White House nor his Democratic opponent is ever mentioned by name. For that matter, the movie is also Saddam Hussein-less and Osama bin Laden-less. Instead, Parker and Stone make Kim Jong Il their arch-villain. He's in league with a band of Chechen terrorists and -- here's that screw-it-let's-shoot-everybody thing -- Alec Baldwin, Susan Sarandon, Sean Penn and their anti-war friends in what is here called the Film Actors Guild (F.A.G.). In the movie's pre-teen formulation, the Team are the dicks, F.A.G. the pussies, Kim and company the assholes.

Parker and Stone have a healthy contempt for Hollywood celebrity (although they're pretty well known themselves), but the comic savagery with which they conflate the maunderings of limousine liberals with the agenda of an Asian despot who wants to detonate a nuclear bomb or two comes off as foolish as it is funny. Equal-opportunity satire is one thing; going under our heads is another. They may be out of their depth politically, but at least these filmmakers know what the South Park faithful crave: They chop Samuel L. Jackson to bits, burn Tim Robbins to a crisp, provide a sequence of graphic puppet sex unlike anything ever seen in movies and indulge a prolonged bout of puppet projectile vomiting that trumps The Exorcist by several green gallons. These are the guys who gave us Orgazmo, in which a devout Mormon became a porn king. Here they up the ante by portraying the Team America mission director as a boozy old degenerate who demands that a male team member perform oral sex on him.

After suggesting that all actors are puppets, Parker and Stone might lose some Hollywood friends (Sean Penn won't be calling) and have trouble signing up real flesh and blood for their next live-action movie -- if there is one. So what. Along with Cartman, Kenny and Chef, these expressive marionettes, designed by Norman Tempia, produced by the Chiodo Brothers (Killer Klowns From Outer Space) and set into motion by a talented team of special-effects folk, might be the only cast members these dedicated subversives ever need for their proudly puerile, intermittently glorious, in-your-face brand of social satire.

 
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