Directed by Trey Parker.
“Hey terrorist… terrorise this!”
Why Did I Get This?
I’d only really dipped in and out of South Park, and that’s still the case, but I remember seeing this at the cinema on release and couldn’t believe some of the gags they got away with. I bought it on DVD, then loaned it to someone in around 2005 and never got it back, and haven’t seen it since watching it with drinks in a hotel room in Canada (and laughing like crazy), a couple of years after that. Picked this copy up for £1 a few months ago, so while it’s not the dustiest film on the Late Review shelf, I’ve felt compelled to revisit it after seeing the South Park version of The Aristocrats recently.
It’s probably been 15 years since I’ve seen this. I know Parker and Stone have continued to push the boundaries of taste and humour with South Park, so I’m keen to look back and see how this has aged nearly 20 years on (and more distant from the military action it was commenting on so heavily at the time).
The Late Review
As always, the Late Review will go into detail about the film from start to finish, so if you’re looking to avoid potential spoilers, scroll down to the next heading.
The world’s terrorists appear to be working together and planning something big – “like 9/11 times a thousand”, in fact – so it’s up to Team America and a Broadway actor to stop them.
The story goes that when the studio executives saw the opening shot of Team America, they assumed the South Park boys had screwed them over by wasting their budget on a cheap, crappy puppet show… but then the shot pulls back and we see that the cheap, crappy puppet show is taking place in a beautifully-built Parisian street scene.
The background work in scenes like this and the later terrorist attack on the Panama Canal, for example, is superb. Not just with how detailed the set it (each cobble on the Parisian street is shaped like a croissant), but each shot has a depth to it, with puppet ‘supporting artists’ going about their business while the camera tracks around following butterflies through the scene so you’re totally immersed in this daft little world.
Daft, yeah, but with its own internal logic which you quickly get swept up in so that when you visit a model Times Square and a secret service boss recruiting the star of Broadway show LEASE: The Musical (a silly RENT parody complete with deliberately shocking lyrics but bloody catchy tune), you buy into it.
Submission to the film’s internal logic is essential for your enjoyment of the flick, but once you give in, the enjoyment factor soars, regardless of whether you find some of the material tasteless or offensive – and a lot of it is both. Misogyny, racism, xenophobia, homophobia, all here and played for laughs – though mainly at the expense of the characters, trusting the audience to recognise the silliness of the situation and intelligence behind the joke, rather than take it at face value. There’s obviously a risk that some viewers might not get that, but the ludicrous chest-thumping patriotism was silly in 2004, and looks silly now even despite some countries choosing to throw themselves down that sad slide into politicising that kind of attitude.
From a logistical point of view, the puppetry is outstanding, aside from when it’s being deliberately naff, usually for the purposes of a visual joke – Spottswood (Daran Norris), delivering an urgent plea to Gary (Trey Parker), to follow him, then bouncing off like an electrocuted Thunderbird, for example, got a big laugh out of me. Likewise, the serious Matrix rip-off as Chris (Matt Stone), prepares to have a martial arts fight with a terrorist, before both puppets flail wildly at each other as if two kids had grown bored of trying and just thrown them together. Away from that, we get a shot of Chris delivering dialogue while playing pool then seemingly hitting a shot which, from a puppetry point of view must have been one of the trickiest gags to manage.
Also worth mentioning from a filmmaking point of view are the designs of the sets, many of which owe a debt to the magnificent work of Ken Adam on the early Bond films. Huge, open spaces with lots of details here and there which really bring a sense of scale to the sets which, let’s not forget, are made to look massive while being just big enough for convincing puppet interactions and to hide puppeteers and any of their gadgets. The editing is great too, particularly in some of the action scenes with the car chase through Egypt being a particular standout, but the aerial assault as we go into the final third of the film is surprisingly exciting too – this may be a puppet movie, but it’s being taken seriously as a piece of cinema, and made by professionals who are great at their craft.
As well as the obvious nods to the Bond franchise, Team America isn’t shy of references to its other cinematic influences. References to Star Wars (with an Egyptian tavern mirroring the Mos Eisley Cantina), Return Of The Jedi (Gary’s approach to Kim Jong-il’s (Parker), lair deliberately echoing Luke’s approach to Jabba’s palace), Kill Bill (a music cue or two and a sword fight), Pearl Harbor (with a song mocking Michael Bay’s bloated blockbuster), the Rocky franchise (the montage song is superb as well as accurate), are among the best of the homages, and pretty much every one of these gags lands. Oh, and it’s not a gag or a film reference as such, but a celebratory scene at Team America HQ features Steppenwolf’s Magic Carpet Ride which I last heard in Go…
There’s been plenty written already about the ridiculous Matt Damon puppet, and I reckon it’s fair to assume the gross Michael Moore puppet is a response to the filmmaker’s sneaky cartoon in Bowling For Columbine in a South Park style (which was unaffiliated with the showrunners but deliberately designed and placed in the documentary to associate it with Parker and Stone’s interview), but the appearances and subsequent demises of the members of the Film Actors Guild (a cheap gag), are mainly pretty good. The Tony Blair pupped glimpsed in the audience in the finale is eerily accurate too.
I’ve deliberately avoided going too far into detail about the actual comic material because (a) I suspect if you’re reading this, you’ve already seen it, and (b) if you haven’t, it’s best experienced on your first watch (and ideally with some mates and a few drinks). I’ll be honest though, I wasn’t sure how this might hold up against my memory, but it turns out my memory is worse than I thought – so many of the gags landed as if I was seeing them for the first time, and while not every gag was a winner (the villain turning out to be a space cockroach, for example), there are enough crammed into its 90-odd minute runtime that there’s bound to be another good one along in a second.
This is a film made by angry, intelligent comedians with a love of action movie tropes and a complete willingness to blow those tropes to smithereens for the sake of a silly laugh, and while I accept your mileage may vary, I am completely on board with that.
Is it a safe, gentle comedy? No. Has it aged well? No, but also yes – certainly the political aspects of it have dated, though the ridiculing of celebrities for getting involved in international politics feels especially relevant in 2023 and looking objectively at the filmmaking, I think it’s fair to say it’s a surprisingly well-made film for a comedy that features a puppet sex scene.
But is it funny?
For me, it really is – the arrival of the villain’s ‘panthers’ made me laugh out loud (though largely due to the fact I’d completely forgotten that gag), and the ridiculous ethnic stereotypes (themselves saying a great deal about the West’s attitude to foreigners), quickly go beyond offensive and into ridiculous very quickly.
I reckon gag for gag this made me laugh more than any other Late Review to date (and looking at some of the other titles on the shelf, probably more than any of them will). I’d offer up the ‘guilty pleasure’ mitigation, but I don’t really think there’s such a thing – you either enjoy something or you don’t, and pretending you don’t like something when you do is just silly.
Maybe it works for me because I saw it years ago, and I’d be curious to hear how, for example, someone now in their early twenties would find this on their first viewing, but that’s an experiment for another day.
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