'Team America' at 15: Why one of the 21st century's best comedies is more relevant than ever

'South Park' creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker took aim at US politics in biting fashion with 'Team America: World Police'.
'South Park' creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker took aim at US politics in biting fashion with 'Team America: World Police'.

For many teenagers of the noughties, one of the first cinematic sex scenes they ever saw involved puppets.

Team America: World Police was an omnipresent part of teenage sleepovers and illicit movie nights for anyone who was at the right age when it first landed in cinemas, making its Stateside debut in October 2004. The film was an onslaught of puppet-based swearing, violence and sex from the creators of South Park.

In fact, the aforementioned sex scene was so explicit that it became a case study of just what the Motion Picture Association of America would allow to get an R rating, rather than the box office suicide of an NC-17. At least nine versions of the scene, with various sex acts removed, were shown to the MPAA until they were satisfied.

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Despite the notoriety of its explicit content, Team America was also a searing critique of foreign policy on both sides of the Atlantic at the time, which additionally took time to skewer the hyper-liberal Hollywood types on the other side of the debate. Just as with the best of South Park’s funniest moments, everyone was a target for Team America, regardless of their political stance. Parker and Stone’s worlds have always showcased the stupidity of everyone, and this film was no different.

The film’s legacy has been assured, to the point that it was named the 10th best film of the 21st century by The Guardian earlier this year. 15 years after the movie first yelled its way on to cinema screens, it feels like everything Parker and Stone had to say is worth saying again — even louder.

'Team America: World Police'
'Team America: World Police'

Team America started life not as a response to the Iraq War, but as a straight parody of bombastic Hollywood action movies in the Jerry Bruckheimer mould. In fact, the film was originally due to be a shot-for-shot puppet parody of The Day After Tomorrow, unimaginatively entitled The Day After the Day After Tomorrow. The first draft for the movie was turned in prior to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, but George W. Bush’s intervention on the back of apparent intelligence regarding “weapons of mass destruction” certainly refocused the story into something with more satirical bite.

The resulting movie is one that’s politically slippery. Everything about the protagonists is overblown as they mount an uber-jingoistic attempt to “police the world”, beginning by taking down almost every major landmark in Paris in an attempt to capture a terrorist cell plotting to attack the city. They celebrate their success, despite the fact they’ve left the city in ruins — the ultimate ‘bull in a china shop’ approach to foreign policy.

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It would be easy, therefore, to position the film as a leftist critique of Bush and Blair’s interventionism. The movie, however, makes absurd caricatures of the bleeding heart Hollywood liberals who oppose military action and, in its final act, delivers a foul-mouthed defence of the need for those with power to step forward and make a difference.

The operatives of Team America are skilled, serious about their mission and entirely useless. Their fervour and desire to do something, coupled with the absolute certainty that they’re in the right, leads them to constantly blunder into situations without any care for the consequences. It’s this that pits them against the thespians of the Film Actors Guild, led by Alec Baldwin.

'Team America: World Police'
'Team America: World Police'

Every single one of the actors is an over-the-top caricature, and the reaction of the real people has varied in the years since the film was released. Sean Penn sent Parker and Stone an abusive letter, Baldwin loved his character so much that he even offered to do the voice himself and Matt Damon was mostly just baffled at their depiction of him as a monosyllabic dullard capable only of repeating his own name. Given the increasing prominence of celebrities in politics, particularly speaking out against Donald Trump, these scenes have gained arguably even more resonance than they had 15 years ago.

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America, in many ways, seems to have come full circle on the issues presented in Team America. The rise of Donald Trump has brought on much of the same, angry rhetoric towards foreign powers that characterised this period. Notably, the repeated musical chorus of “America, f**k yeah” that occurs throughout the movie is a close cousin of “Make America Great Again”. Indeed, if the Trump 2020 campaign opted for the former as its slogan, few people would be particularly surprised.

Culver City, CA. Team America. Feature on the new movie Team America. This is the information The South Park guys Matt Stone (left) and Trey Parker (right) "Team America: World Police" promises to be topical and controversial. Using wooden marionettes (as in the old Thunderbirds series), Matt Stone and Trey Parker have come up with as politcally–minded comedy action adventure about a group of superhero–style adventurers who travel the world fighting terrorism and other evils. Specifically, the story focuses on a typical action hero who is recruited to join Team America for a special mission, as a satire of the typical Hollywood action movie, using a combination of wood marionette–driven action sequences and stirring tongue–in–cheek musical numbers.  (Photo by Al Seib/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
Matt Stone and Trey Parker came up with as politically minded comedy action adventure about a group of superhero style adventurers who travel the world fighting terrorism and other evils. (Al Seib/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

But the detail that provides Team America: World Police with its relevance in 2019 is its final suggestion that, actually, nuance is king. The story’s hero, Gary, is a theatre actor. He’s distinct from the flag-waving military bravado of the team, but is also separate from the super-rich Hollywood figures that make up the Film Actors Guild. His final speech is not a full-throated argument of the team’s approach, but it’s an acknowledgement that there are circumstances in which it might be required.

Fifteen years after it first hit cinema screens, the movie with the puppet sex is the one that understands geopolitics better than many world leaders. Yes, that’s right, the film in which Sean Penn is eaten by a panther. No wonder he sent the angry letter.

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