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World on a string

Team America cuts loose on warmongers and peaceniks


"South Park" creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone jerk the chain of every possible viewer in Team America: World Police, an overblown action flick and political satire entirely populated by wooden-headed marionettes. So why does a movie so calibrated to piss off and offend people instead leave you feeling so good?

Team America's testosterone-fueled puppet show swings into cinemas in the nick of time. In a bitter election year marked by blood-sport campaigning and politically scalding motion pictures, Team America arrives as the ideal joke to defuse the tension. If we can see puppets mock both Toby Keith-style country jingoism and Michael Moore as a hot-dog suicide bomber, things can't be too dire.

Team America: World Police begins as an outrageous parody of U.S. interventionism inspired by the 1960s puppet TV series "Thunderbirds." The globetrotting, gadget-toting squad of the title soars into action to the pop-metal strains of its anthem, "America! FUCK YEAH!" A prologue in Paris shows a typical Team America success story. Pursuing stereotypical Muslims bearing briefcase-sized weapons of mass destruction, the teammates strike with enough reckless firepower to leave civilians dead, livelihoods destroyed and international monuments in smoking ruins. No need to thank them.

Dramatizing Team America's exploits, Parker and Stone spoof big-budget Hollywood shoot-'em-ups so precisely, it's like watching a master class in the form. The teammates speak in catchphrase slogans like "Terrorize this!" and leap in slow motion ahead of fireballs. At times the film ridicules the puppets themselves: Martial arts combat merely amounts to flailing marionettes knocking into each other. But often the models prove so detailed, the editing and angles so crisp, the film almost gets exciting in spite of itself. You'll never see a Jerry Bruckheimer film the same way again.

When team leader Spottswoode recruits Broadway star Gary Johnston to infiltrate a terrorist network, Team America mocks our adulation of celebrity actors. Everyone refers to Gary's acting like it's his X-Men superpower. Gary's romance with psychology expert Lisa leads to a ridiculous bedroom scene (edited down to ensure an R-rating) that resembles the Kama Sutra demonstrated by Barbie and Ken.

Parker and Stone's comic vision strikes the heroes of both blue states and red. When North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il -- the film's Dr. Evil -- plans a major terrorist offensive, U.N. inspector Hans Blix proves comically ineffectual. Alec Baldwin leads self-important Hollywood stars (none of whom provide their own voices) on peaceful publicity stunts that play into Kim Jong-il's hands. You can just imagine what Parker and Stone do with the initials of the organization, the Film Actors Guild.

Team America's political incorrectness leaves no sensibility unscathed. We meet Gary as he sings "Everybody Has AIDS," the show-stopping number of a Rent-style musical. Kim Jong-il speaks with that cheap, R-dropping "Asian" speech impediment, which goes to absurd heights with his lovelorn song, "I'm Ronery." Parker and Stone use an unbelievably profane metaphor that divides society up into "dicks," "pussies" and "assholes," which leads to an unexpectedly sincere moral about the need to use force against evildoers.

Of all the film's hilarious transgressions, only the gory celebrity deaths leave me ambivalent. Misguided movie stars get riddled with bullets, bisected, beheaded and blown up, and the fake gore seems more uncomfortably "real" than, say, when Parker and Stone strafed the whole Baldwin family in South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut. Celebrities like Sean Penn provide fair game for satire, but Team America's grisly slapstick borders on exhortations to actual violence.

Despite the presence of preposterous power ballads like "Pearl Harbor Sucked, and I Miss You," Team America draws some surprisingly sophisticated conclusions. As Parker and Stone ridicule warmongering rhetoric, peacenik protests and cliche-driven motion pictures alike, Team America encourages skepticism of any form of mass communication that manipulates a viewer's feelings. Marionettes make the ideal cast of a film that implicitly asks, "Who's pulling your strings?"

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