I Can’t Believe It’s Taken Me Until Now To Sit And Watch… Team America: World Police
First of an irregular feature in which I admit that there are some films that passed me by first time. Hey, I’m only mortal, you know?
Team America: World Police
(Trey Parker, US, 2004)
Immature? Sure. Offensive? Fuck yeah. But it’s also one of the past decade’s defining satirical statements. Cultural historians will study this and shudder
Nearly seven years on, Team America really ought to be a museum piece, a product of the divisive domestic politics and frightening global threats of the immediate post-9/11, Dubya era. If nothing else, the action movie genre really ought to have been shamed into improvement by Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s spot-on piss-take of its grammar and subtexts.
Yet, if anything, the film is even more acute, having survived as arguably the most trenchant commentary on the period, and certainly one of the funniest films in years, capable of standing alongside the Airplanes! and Spinal Taps of the world. In essence, it does nothing that Parker and Stone hadn’t already done in South Park – indeed, at times it’s perilously close to being a remake of the movie. But it’s amazing what switching your medium can do. Substituting crude cartoons for only slightly less crude puppets allows the filmmakers to get away with bloody murder.
As political satire, it’s deeply unsubtle stuff: deliberately shit-stirring in its equal opportunites flaying of the neocons’ macho posturing, liberals’ hand-wringing and dictatorial insanity, and reducing the entire thing to its “dicks, pussies and assholes” allegory. And therein lies its genius: there’s so softening of how fucked-up things are, and the sheer scatological glee of the puppets (with a sex scene raunchier than live action would allow, more bloodshed than Kill Bill, and the most extreme vomiting scene since Mr Creosote) is symbolic of the general lack of filter. The film is demonstrably racist, not least in the played-for-laughs delivery of Kim Yong-Il’s mispronounced l’s, but the puppets are so disarming it exists somewhere beyond and above conventional outrage. Parker and Stone make no move to hide the strings, an acknowledgement that they’re working on a different plain.
But it’s the use of genre that really makes this work. It’s a preposterously thrilling action movie, with stunts, chases and fights given heft by remarkable cinematography (by The Matrix’s Bill Pope, no less). No cliché is unturned, and because no effort is made to hide the breezeblock sets or the wobbling model vehicles, it’s a reminder of the thoughtless fantasy that goes into most blockbusters, with their cavalier disregard to the real world, reductive psychology of traumatic backstories, and banal characterisation. And, of course, the slow bits can be zipped through with a song or a montage or, wonderfully, a song about a montage. Like South Park, this doubles as an outrageously creative musical.
It’s also, almost as an afterthought, blisteringly funny throughout, from the bizarre Star Wars parodies, to the endlessly quotable titty-fucking profanity, to the couldn’t-give-a-fuck disregard for stars’ careers: it’s noticeable that Tim Robbins hasn’t done an awful lot since this film came out, possibly because his character assassination here is so thorough, although – ironically – it probably helped turn Matt Daaamon into a star.