THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


In the weeks and months after the 9/11 tragedy, everyone thought that movies could never again use terrorism as a plot device. Now here we are, three years later, and a new movie is actually attempting to mine terrorism for laughs. Trey Parker and Matt Stone are Hollywood’s enfants terribles, having previously ripped the MPAA a new one with their film South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut. These bad boys of comedy return with Team America: World Police, which proudly flaunts the fact that it’s the first R-rated puppet movie ever. That’s right, it’s a puppet movie…dealing with terrorism. By now, you have doubtlessly determined whether or not this one is for you.

The central character is Gary Johnston, a celebrated Broadway actor who stars in a musical called “Lease” which looks surprisingly similar to “Rent.” (The show-stopping number is called “Everyone Has AIDS.”) Gary is approached by Team America, a government sponsored anti-terrorism unit with an unfortunate habit of wreaking havoc in the very countries it is trying to save. Team America needs a good actor to infiltrate a terrorist cell and learn their secret plans for a major attack. Team America’s leader, Spottswoode, promises the attack will be “9/11 times 100” or, as another member describes it, “91,100.” What Gary eventually discovers is that the attack is being coordinated by South Korean dictator Kim Jong Il (presented in possibly the worst Asian stereotype since Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s). Team America sets out to prevent him from unleashing weapons of mass destruction upon the world.

To be honest, I’m not sure what Team America: World Police is trying to say. On one hand, it implies that the United States takes it upon itself to police the rest of the world, whether we’re wanted or not. Hand in hand with that sentiment is the suggestion that, in doing so, we often do more harm than good. On the other hand, the film is extremely critical of celebrities who speak out against the war on terrorism. There’s an entire subplot in which Alec Baldwin, Sean Penn, Tim Robbins, and other left-leaning celebs side with Kim Jong Il in trying to defeat Team America. By the time the movie is over, these actors have suffered violent deaths. (Michael Moore is certain to be appalled by his puppet counterpart’s demise.)

Parker and Stone seem to just want to stick to everybody. They have no tolerance for America’s stance against terrorism, nor do they accept the pomposity of actors who think they know how to run the world. It’s a curiously mixed message – one that makes Team America less focused than South Park, which wanted to eviscerate the MPAA and censorship groups, and succeeded. Parker has already been publicly quoted urging undecided voters to stay home on election day. I have no problem with the creators making fun of both sides, but had they taken a solid stance one way or the other, the film might have been incendiary and funny instead of just funny.

But this is a comedy, after all, and it’s in the laughter department that Team America scores. Some of the laughs come just from the awkward movements of the marionettes. Watching them try to walk is at times hilarious all by itself; just wait until you see one projectile vomit. (I thought the puppet motif would grow old after five minutes, but truthfully, the technique settles in quite nicely.) You may have heard about the controversial puppet sex scene, which caused the movie to get an NC-17 rating ten times before it was edited down to an R. I can’t wait for the uncut DVD, but what’s on screen is still one of the biggest laughs I’ve had all year. This is certain to be a very talked-about scene. I also loved the songs composed for the film. My favorite has nothing to do with the plot; it’s merely a song about how bad the movie Pearl Harbor sucked and how untalented director Michael Bay is. Give this one the Best Song Oscar now!

The laughs are undoubtedly big here; there are some other moments that nearly had me on the floor but I don’t want to spoil them for you. Many of the laughs don’t really come from the topical use of current events so much as from the film’s satiric use of every action movie cliché Jerry Bruckheimer has ever used. Team America: World Police combines the war on terrorism with the formula of crappy action movies to create something we haven’t seen before. So why puppets? My guess is that Parker and Stone knew that such a bizarre approach would take the sting out of the subject matter. It’s hard to take the mocking of celebrities and terrorists too seriously when it all looks so ridiculous.

I read an article the other day in which the writer commented upon how tame Animal House seems today. When it was released back in 1978, the movie pushed boundaries almost beyond all reason. Now it doesn’t seem nearly as outrageous. We need filmmakers who are willing to continue the search for the envelope’s edge in comedy. Trey Parker and Matt Stone have been doing it for the past few years, and they continue to do it here. Team America: World Police is controversial, vulgar, and politically incorrect. Bless them for making it.

( out of four)

Team America: World Police is rated R for graphic, crude and sexual humor, violent images and strong language, all involving puppets. The running time is 1 hour and 37 minutes.

Return to The Aisle Seat