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Puppets Mastered: The special effects outstrip the satire in 'Team America.'

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Fantastic puppets, timid politics: 'Team America: World Police'

By Richard von Busack

IF YOU look into the abyss of Jerry Bruckheimer movies, beware that the abyss doesn't look into you. Team America: World Police is every bit as funny as could be anticipated, in parts anyway. To most viewers, a bit about a vomiting marionette will be considered up there in comedy Valhalla with the campfire scene in Blazing Saddles.

Terrorists run amuck, and the only ones who can stop them are Team America, a quintet of multitalented commandoes based inside Mt. Rushmore. Foiling a weapons of mass destruction transfer in Paris—and renovating the City of Lights with missiles—the team loses a member.

Spottswoode, the gruff, Scotch-swilling old man of the group, recruits the hot Broadway stage actor Gary Johnston to use his acting skills to infiltrate terrorist bases. Yet Gary's shame for the death of his brother, for which he feels his acting was responsible, may keep him from being able to save himself and the team in the clutch. Meanwhile, dictator Kim Jong Il of North Korea hatches a fiendish plot to use the Film Actors Guild—or FAG, for short—to distract the attention of the world while he organizes a worldwide attack.

Trey Parker and Matt Stone really soaked themselves in the vapidity of the 1980s action movie, complete with the eye-of-the-tiger hero montages, accompanied by a power ballad called "Montage." As a technical feat, Team America: World Police is ever a treat. Puppet designers Norman Tepia, puppet producers the Chiodo Brothers and production designer Jim Dultz have made the film far more ambitious than even the best of the Gerry Anderson Thunderbirds series it lampoons. The puppets act as well, or better, than their real-life counterparts. Team America's brass-balled team leader, Spottswoode, can out-deadpan Leslie Nielsen, especially when proving that he's so macho he's aggressively gay. Lisa, the terrorism expert, tosses her blonde mane well enough to please Tony Scott, Michael Bay and all the rest.

But Team America doesn't display the special divinity of Parker and Stone's South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut for a few reasons, only some of them musical. It may be that what Stone and Parker is satirizing is so inherently dull that the idea runs out of gas. The efforts to balance this film politically make it less funny; rather than seeming evenhanded, it seems wishy-washy. The Hollywood actors this film savages should be attacked for their acting, not their politics. The ugly suggestion that Michael Moore, Sean Penn, Janeane Garofalo and the rest are helping the terrorists isn't any funnier here than it is on The O'Reilly Factor.

When I was in Oklahoma last summer, the only time I felt solicited by Christians was when I was watching South Park in the motel. An episode had the would-be punch line: "Do we have to go to church? No, we get to go to church." When Team America comes out in favor of military force as a necessity, it raises the sinking feeling of watching John Kerry flaunting his resolve to kill foreigners. Sometimes, when formerly radical artists reach the political center, they seem to feel like they should be congratulated as if they'd discovered the headwaters of the Nile.

Team America: World Police (R), a film by Trey Parker and Matt Stone, plays valleywide.

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Web extra to the October 13-19, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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