The global village that Marshall McLuhan prophetically conceptualised in the early 1960s never seemed as small as in Team America: World Police, a biting satire of the American tendency to, well, behave like the police of the world, a comment that will sound familiar to many people. Created by Matt Stone and Trey Parker, the team behind South Park, Team America takes no prisoners: both the jingoist, pseudo-humanitarian American psycho-patriots and the flaky American liberals are satirised to bits, and sometimes, to pulp. The film was rated "R" in America and it’s definitely not for kids: it includes explosions, a graphic puppet sex scene, man-on-man fellatio and more curse words per minute than in a bar full of sailors. But mostly, it’s the sheer intelligence and irreverence of the creators that quite often shocks.
The most impressive aspect of the film, though, is its technique. Combining old-fashioned puppetry with high-tech computer-aided animations (and retro touches Super 8-style mixture of puppets and real locations), the one-third scale world in Team America looks utterly convincing. Also, the puppets’ features are redolent of the Thunderbirds’ Lady Penelope’s wide-eyed, full-lipped aesthetics.
Team America are Chris, Sarah, Lisa and Joe, who under the auspices of the swell, Bond-esque Spottswoode, travel around the globe fighting terrorist, (mis)guided by the intelligence provided by the ‘most intelligent computer in the world’. Of course, like their ‘real life’ American counterparts, they wreak havoc everywhere they go, destroying old-world monuments such as the Louvre and the pyramids, all the while congratulating themselves on how good they are.
The plot is kicked off by their enlisting of a Broadway actor, Gary Johnston (the star of a musical called ‘Lease’) who they want to use to infiltrate a gang of Arab terrorists. The rationale is that actors can make good spies, who also try to look like other people. They set off to Cairo, but it turns out intelligence was wrong about the terrorists…
This is of course a film about the relationship between America and the world after 9/11. But it doesn’t take sides; instead, it just casts a cynical, sarcastic eye on the neo-con regime and their internal vocal opponents, the sound-bite-loving liberal wing of Hollywood represented by people like Sean Penn and Alec Baldwin. A host of Hollywood starts are given the mock-puppet treatment here, from Penn and Baldwin to Matt Damon, Susan Sarandon, Liv Tyler, Samuel L Jackson, to name but a few. As the puppet Janeane Garofalo says at one point in the film: "Our role is to read things in the papers and they say it’s our opionion."
The villain of the film is Kim Jong II, hilariously portrayed in the best dictator-chic fashion (Parker lends his wicked voice to Jong II), his palace decorated with black and white photos of old Hollywood stars and every other cliché. There is even a scene with Hans Blix. The peace conference in his palace, which is the climax of the movie, is a hoot.
One of the winning aspects of Team America is the licence afforded to them by the use of puppets: it allowed them much more nastiness and iconoclasm than a film with flesh and bone actors would. Besides, they take the metaphor of politicians and the government as puppets defending the interests of corporations to its literal end. In this hyperreal age, these puppets somehow look more convincing than a lot of what passes as human.