TEAM AMERICA is pretty much your typical moronic jingoistic action nonsense. The ultimate big budget, small brained hollywood summer action July 4th blockbuster. The movie you saw and couldn’t believe anybody liked but somehow everybody liked it and it made a bazillion dollars and the next summer everybody pretended it was somebody else who liked it. It’s pretty much that movie, except sarcastic, and done entireley with creepy looking marionettes like on that old TV show THUNDERBIRDS. That might be a comment about the wooden characterization and emotion in big action movies, and the way they treat sometimes respectable actors as props to move around and set up in front of explosions. But more likely it’s just because puppets are funny. It’s funny to watch them do stuff, because they’re puppets.
The first third or so of this movie is the hardest I’ve laughed in a long time. The opening credits are these overblown 3-D metallic letters that fly at the camera and then blow up, and you know right there that these filmatists know their Jerry Bruckheimer. What’s really impressive about the movie is the incredible attention to detail about all the cliches of action movies. They got every shot, every corny line, every montage, every subplot of a dumb action movie. They introduce and reintroduce bad guys exactly the same way they do in the real movies. They use the same angles and lighting and music cues. It’s just different because they’re these goofy bigheaded dolls and they walk funny.
The guys who made this movie, I forget their names but it’s like Jeff and Chet or something like that, people just call them by their first name. They are the guys who did the cartoon SOUTH PARK which is about kids who swear, etc. I seen it once or twice and there is some insightful cultural satire sometimes, and then afterwards everybody just remembers the funny voices and the talking poo and it makes funny of the handicapped. And that’s why they like it.
Parts of this movie though make me think these two smartasses are smarter and more disciplined than they seemed before. They must’ve watched a thousand post-DIE HARD action movies and taken detailed notes. This is not that type of dumb movie where they parody specific scenes from specific movies. It does the right thing, it recreates exactly the types of scenes you see in every one of these movies. They don’t just skip to the funny action scenes and then load it with jokes, they do the whole damn story – the introduction of the heroes in loosely related action opening, the older mentor (a Charlton Heston type) tracking down a new hero in his pre-hero life, showing him his destiny, bringing him into the fold. They got the love subplots, the antagonistic men who by the end prove themselves to each other. The hero becoming disillusioned and leaving the team but coming back and having to prove to the team that he didn’t turn his back on them. I mean they got the whole damn thing, the whole formula.
The cinematographer is Bill Pope, who according to my sources did THE MATRIX and SPIDER-MAN 2 and he shoots this like he thinks it’s one of those. Not a puppet movie. The score is by some guy who did “additional music” for BROKEN ARROW, THE ROCK, ARMAGEDDON, etc., and he does a 100% dead-on imitation of that kind of music. The triumphant anthems, the militaristic drums, the exotic noises to represent the evil foreigners.
The storyline of the movie is the ultimate dumbed down jingoistic Michael Bay perspective of the world. Team America is an elite squad of experts in shiny uniforms who fly star spangled military vehicles around the world to fight terrorists. In this movie, terrorists from Chechnya to Egypt all work together under the supervision of Kim Jong Il, who lives in a big evil palace with a shark tank. When the team goes to obscure exotic locales like Paris and Cairo, titles on the screen tell us what country or region the city is in, and how many miles it is from America. Central America is “south of the real America”.
Team America doesn’t give a fuck what the world thinks of them. They don’t even seem to notice, because their rock theme song tells them they are spreading freedom and I mean, what else could they be doing. So they land their helicopter on cultural artifacts, hurt many civilians in the crossfire and casually destroy the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, the pyramids and the sphinx without blinking. Because they know they’re the good guys. They have so little knowledge or understanding of their enemy that they send the lead hero undercover wearing spotty blackface, a towel on his head, and his usual leather jacket. He doesn’t bother to learn their language and neither do the filmatists. And the movie is smart enough not to point any of these things out. They just do it. They don’t have to have a character saying, “Hey, but you just blew up the Eiffel Tower, we liked that tower” or “the sphinx is hundreds of years old, it is irreplacable.”
I love that this movie is so deadpan. It stays true to the genre it’s based on and is pretty light on the out and out gags. At least for a while. But then it starts to lose it, first when it goes into a subplot about liberal Hollywood actors. They go after the usual targets: Michael Moore, Janeane Garafalo, Tim Robbins, Sean Penn etc. Their puppet counterparts say they are anti-war but they scheme with Kim Jong Il. They’re not even naively being manipulated by him, they are in cahoots. They capture and torture Team America, have shoot outs with them, and then all die gorey deaths.
I gotta be frankly honest, this part lost me. I’m not sure what Kevin and Chazz are trying to say here. I don’t mind if somebody wants to make fun of these actors and their convictions, even if I don’t agree with it. But the way they are portrayed is so ridiculous and unrelated to reality that it’s hard to figure out what the point is supposed to be. They even make a reoccurring joke of calling them all fags. I guess they hate Michael Moore, so they depict him as a grouchy fat guy eating two hot dogs. (Get it, fat guy.) And then he suicide bombs Team America headquarters? What is that supposed to mean? Most of these characters have nothing to do with the actual person they’re making fun of. Fucking Fox News has made more intelligent arguments against them.
I started to wonder if that was the point. Maybe these filmatists actually agree with Alec Baldwin and his henchmen and are looking for laughs by showing a paranoid right wing fantasy where anti-war actors are actually terrorists, the way people who would make a serious “Team America” movie might see them. But that doesn’t really make sense either because as much as big Hollywood movies like INDEPENDENCE DAY and ARMAGEDDON can be moronic nationalistic propaganda, they also star Hollywood actors, so they probaly wouldn’t depict Hollywood actors as bloodthirsty traitors. Unless there’s some subplot in RAMBO 2 that I forgot about.
After the movie I decided to read up and figure out what Matt and Gregg were trying to say with this, and I found an interview where they criticized Janeane Garafalo for going on CROSSFIRE. Well, I think this criticism is bunk. A good criticism would be: Janeane Garafalo is so upset about what’s going on in this country that she’s not being funny anymore. She is more effective when she’s being funny, like John Stewart and that co-host on her radio show and Al Franken.
A bad criticism is: Janeane Garafalo went on Crossfire, but she’s a comedian.
I mean, Ronald Reagan was an actor, they still let him be president for 8 years. They let politicians and athletes host Saturday Night Live. Colonel Sanders didn’t invent his fried chicken until he was in his 60s. For christ’s sake, Jesus was a carpenter. You think they told him, “Jesus, you pompous ass, you’re a carpenter. You can’t go around healing people and all this shit.”
They don’t know enough to attack her on her argument, so they go after her occupation. And the thing is, SHE KNOWS it’s ridiculous that she’s the one who has to go on CNN and say this shit. I remember hearing her talk about it. The simple fact is that at that time, anti-war views would not go on TV unless they came from a celebrity. There were unprecedented marches going on around the world that weren’t even mentioned on some of the networks and newspapers until days later. They weren’t talking to the 9-11 families against the war, they were talking to the retired generals about military strategy. More than half the country was against going to war but you weren’t gonna see that on TV. These “fags” had to weigh their options: either sit back and not say anything or use their platform as a public figure to help get the word out there. Those who chose the second one, maybe you could argue they did damage to the cause. The media sure tried to turn it that way anyway, only bringing celebrities on and then ridiculing them for being celebrities. But the movie portrays it like being openly liberal is a Hollywood vanity thing. They don’t remember that before the war started, these people were actually taking a big risk. I mean this wasn’t long ago, you guys remember it. You practically had to be wearing an american flag and holding pom poms or your patriotism was questioned. If you said anything you were smeared and ridiculed. Sean Penn lost a film role for traveling to Iraq. The Dixie Chicks (who aren’t in the movie) got boycotts and death threats for one line of stage banter.
Some of them didn’t even make conscious decisions to be activists, they just were honest when asked about it in interviews. George Clooney admits he’s against the war on Charlie Rose, now he has to die a bloody death in your movie? The implication is come on you liberal actors, just shut up and dance for us. I don’t mind your politics, as long as it never makes contact with my brain. Politics is a private thing that you can only do while hiding inside your house. If you keep whining and making us feel bad it interferes with our right to play X-Box and watch SOUTH PARK.
These are the type of people who say they are burnt out on political documentaries, they’re sick of seeing Michael Moore, they’re sick of hearing about the war. Blaming the messenger. Michael Moore is a handy excuse for them not to care, not to be informed, not to do anything. If there was no Michael Moore, they still wouldn’t care, be informed, or do anything. But since there is a Michael Moore, it’s his fault.
I mean fine SOUTH PARK guys, you hate Michael Moore. He’s too confrontational, whatever. But tell me, what the fuck did Samuel L. Jackson and Liv Tyler ever do to you, you gotta portray them as murderers and then give them horrible, gorey deaths? So you hate Sean Penn for being outspoken and rocking the boat and maybe for I AM SAM we can hope. But then anybody else that happens to be to the left of Joseph Lieberman, they gotta be ridiculed and mutilated on the big screen?
I mean what could ANYBODY have against Samuel L. Jackson? He’s Samuel L. Jackson, man! Everybody loves him, but he must’ve said something against the war or something so these guys gotta show his head get cut in half.
And I also gotta wonder, if poor Liv Tyler deserves ridicule for (apparently) expressing her views on war, why does one of the guys who made this movie get to be in Michael Moore’s movie discussing his views on Columbine? Are there different rules for voice actors than for on screen actors? Is it harder for a cartoon maker guy to be a fag than for George Clooney? I’m not sure I follow this one.
There’s also jokes at the expense of the UN and Hans Blix, who threatens to write a harsh letter if Kim Jong Il doesn’t give up his weapons. I don’t mind these jokes but I just want to take a minute to rant about the UN anyway. See, Americans don’t know this, because they are Americans, but the point of the UN is actually to stop wars. Not to fight them. It is Jesse Jackson, not The Punisher. People say the UN is useless because they aren’t enough of a threat, they don’t have their own army to punish people with. And at the same time they complain that the UN wants to stop us from protecting ourselves, wants to tell us what to do, wants to be one world government etc. So we get to have it both ways, we hate the UN because they are a threat to us AND because they are not enough of a threat to everybody else. We laugh at the idea of blue helmeted troops going into Iraq, and frown at the idea of blue helmeted troops coming onto our soil. They’re both laughable wimps and terrifying fascists. I don’t get it.
In the end, there is a funny vulgar speech that I guess sums up the filmatists views on these characters. Basically, they say that Team America are dicks and the actors are pussies, and both have their good and bad qualities. I think they are these type of smartass guys who see themselves as being exactly in the middle and everybody interested in politics they think is an extremist, taking it too far, taking it too seriously, trying to push their views on everybody else. I don’t think they realize though that they themselves are interested in politics, interested enough to make a couple movies about them anyway. Their puppet movie may or may not be funnier than Michael Moore’s movies, but both of them are using humor and entertainment to make a point and in some cases mock specific public figures. Michael Moore’s movie is more emotional and their movie has better puppetry. But they are closer to each other than Chris and Tad think.
Anyway, okay, I got some disagreements with what I think these guys are saying. That’s not a problem, that’s only fair in a political satire. The problem is it starts to lose its dedication to the straightfaced puppetization of Bruckheimer. It starts to cheat and stoop to jokes about vomiting and fucking. I mean sure I laughed at the acrobatic doll sex, but it’s so cheap compared to all the smart satire that came before it. And man, if you haven’t seen puppets fucking yet then you need to get out more. I mean I haven’t seen MAKE MY PUPPETS COME or anything but everybody’s seen MEET THE FEEBLES and even here on our shores, we got CRANK YANKERS. And we all remember when Chucky got lucky. Do you remember where you were when you first saw Chucky get lucky? I was in a movie theater. Anyway point is puppet fucking is not new ground fellas, sorry. Plus, you guys kind of blew it by not putting a hundred candles in the room during the sex scene, then at the end you show how the candles are all melted, so you know they been fucking all night. That’s how they do it in action movies guys. You know that. Get it together.
And the songs start to cheat too. Like they got a love song about how Ben Affleck and the movie PEARL HARBOR suck. “I miss you more than that movie missed the point.” It’s a funny song for sure but what happened to actually BEING a Jerry Bruckheimer movie, now all the sudden they gotta come out and explicitly criticize a Jerry Bruckheimer movie. Fine, maybe I’m expecting too much, I’ll let this one go. But I can’t let it go when Kim Jong Il busts into a musical number. I mean inappropriate musical numbers can be funny but they’re turning into such a cliche. Why you gotta suddenly abandon your disciplined focus on action movies and go into a musical again? You were doing so good and then suddenly you gave up and ran for the hills like a coward. “I can’t do it, I can’t finish this movie with integrity, I gotta turn into a fucking Leslie Nielsen movie where they make fun of any and every movie anybody might’ve ever seen before.”
I’m being harsh, it’s not that bad, but it’s sad to see them get it so right and come so far and then just blow it before the end.
Still, this is a funny fucking movie. I forgive its flaws and sins and love it for its good deeds and works. These guys may be immature punks, but they convinced a studio to make a big action movie starring THUNDERBIRDS dolls, and that is truly a great achievement. Its strengths outweight its weaknesses, just like Alec Baldwin’s performance in MIAMI BLUES outweighs him being the main henchman for a North Korean dictator.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.