Overdoing the satire and toilet humour in “Team America: World Police”

Trey Parker, “Team America: World Police” (2004)

A silly and puerile satire on American society, culture, the nature of power and the celebration of style over substance, “Team America …” was inspired by “South Park” creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s love of the old 1960s “Thunderbirds” television series in which marionettes featured as actors in spy and thriller mini-dramas that appealed to adults and children alike. The use of marionettes lets Parker and Stone get away with all the bloodshed, gore and body fluids they can afford to hurl at the screen, plus all the profanities they can think of which have some insight into human character. The tale of a novice initiated into a secret team of armed specialists, dedicated to saving the world from evil, who loses his way, repents and seeks forgiveness, and has to earn his way back into the team by foiling the schemes of a mad mega-villain is a familiar one but one done fairly well (and sometimes over-done) with lashings of slapstick comedy.

Gary is a Broadway actor hauled suddenly away from a performance by the mysterious Spotswood who is the head of Team America, the counter-terrorist unit dedicated to ending terrorism with as much violence and gratuitous destruction of world-famous monuments like the Eiffel Tower and the Pyramids of Giza as possible. Spotswood wants Gary for his acting skill. Initially Gary performs well in an important mission to foil a nasty terrorist plot to destroy the Panama Canal but this results in most of the Egyptian city Cairo being razed to the ground and people around the world protest Team America’s actions. Guilty at the destruction he indirectly caused, Gary leaves Team America. The others struggle without him but against the machinations and forces of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, and a suicide bomb attack that destroys Team America’s headquarters, Spotswood and his four remaining TA members struggle and fail. Kim Jong Il then proceeds with his plan to nuke the world behind a cover of a peace conference in which Hollywood actors spout loads of hot air about working with North Korea and convince world leaders that Kim is a peace-loving regular guy. It’s down to Gary to save TA so they can all save the world from further terrorist attacks.

The film criticises the gung-ho, self-centred attitude of US military forces, the laughable reliance on faulty intelligence (which turns out to be mainstream media reports and soundbites) and the presumption of celebrities that their status as celebrities gives them the right to pontificate to others. A number of blockbuster Hollywood action films are also sent up as is much of the music, of which the bulk is faux country. There’s the obligatory romance between Gary and Lisa, a TA member. Songs are very much part of the action with Kim Jong Il stealing the show in this respect when he sings “I Am so Ronery”.

Characters are undeveloped (deliberately so perhaps) so Parker and Stone go for an excessively melodramatic approach and a profane style of humour to flesh out the story. Repetition of toilet humour and poking fun at actors who take themselves seriously substitute for wit and clever situation comedy. There’s probably far too much in the way of familiar film tropes and elements like Gary being down and out in a bar late at night and his laughable conversation with Lisa one evening before they indulge in sex all night long. The satire is laid on thickly and the film runs out of creative and inspirational puff before the film’s halfway mark.

The film-makers take no prisoners as they rip into jingoism, faux patriotism and ignorance of other people’s points of view on the one hand, and earnest social consciousness and so-called “left liberalism” on the other, demonstrating in one fell swoop the shallowness and arrogance of both positions, and by extension the superficiality of Western culture generally in worshipping surface appearances, celebrity and power. One troubling aspect is that in Gary’s climactic speech invoking the nether regions of humans, there is the suggestion of the US having a duty to intervene in other nations’ affairs where necessary; the “there must be some other way” option of leaving people alone and letting them solve their own problems is never considered.

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