(R) 3 starsEd Johnson-Ott

I listened to people leaving the theater after a paid early screening of Team America: World Police, the latest raucous comedy from South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone. Many loudly proclaimed the feature - which comments on the current USA versus the "evil-doers" conflict by turning it into a puppet-show parody of cliché-filled action flicks - as "one of the funniest things I've ever seen," while a minority called it "a complete waste of time."

Almost all of them, incidentally, accented their opinions with obscenities. You'll see one or two of those words later in this li'l essay, but I intend to avoid them as best I can - my dad taught me that overused obscenities lose their punch.

It would be easy to peg Team America a "love-it-or-hate-it" movie; unfortunately, I was stuck somewhere in the middle. I chuckled at the film occasionally and laughed hard a few times, but truth be told, I found too much of the shock humor to be less than shocking. Still, the gags that work outnumber the ones that fail.

In addition to enjoying some of the jokes, I appreciated Parker and Stone's core belief in checks and balances, which is expressed using vulgar references to body parts in a speech late in the film. I won't spoil it for you - suffice to say the speech is quite rude, funny and sensible.

Team America is a police force designed to keep the planet in line. "A lot of us have heard the phrase, 'Who do you think you are, the world police?' Well, we decided to make that a totally real thing," says Matt Stone in the press notes. "And we don't take any sides or try to make any big statements. It's just like what we do on South Park - we just make fun of everything."

Parker and Stone were also clearly influenced by Thunderbirds, the old British puppet series about adventurers flying around the world doing the right thing. Oddly enough, the kiddy show is not included in the credits and there is no reference to it in the production notes. I guess Matt and Trey came up with the idea independently. Ahem.

As for the story, when Team America is informed that a power-hungry dictator is selling weapons of mass destruction to terrorists, they decide to save the world by infiltrating the terrorist group. To that end, they hire rising Broadway star Gary Johnston, because, they reason, "He's an actor and infiltrating is kind of like acting, right?"

Reluctant at first, Gary finally climbs aboard and infiltrates the hideout of an arms dealer, where he discovers that the terrorists' plot has already begun to unfold. And so Team America leaps in, blowing the hell out of everything in the way of their path to righteousness, and some things on the side as well.

Parker and Stone jab at the conservative mindset with quiet gags as well - whenever the story goes to a new country, we are informed of the distance between that country and America. The team's gung-ho cluelessness is part of the parody, though a few viewers I heard clearly had no idea that the "heroes" were being mocked. How you can hear a hilarious mock-patriotic song like "America: Fuck, Yeah!" and miss the point is beyond me, but, based on their comments, some people did.

No one will miss the shots at the other side, as the film names names. Tim Robbins, Susan Sarandon, George Clooney, Matt Damon and numerous others that oppose the Bush Administration are mocked, but the harshest treatment is reserved for Sean Penn, Alec Baldwin and Michael Moore.

The whole structure of the film is a satire of the type of overblown action films churned out by Michael Bay and Jerry Bruckheimer. All the clichés are there, in puppet form and just in case anyone misses the point, a song sensitively addresses the subject with lines like, "I miss you more than Michael Bay missed the mark in Pearl Harbor."

All of this, remember, is enacted by puppets, with Parker and Stone providing most of the voices. The marionettes walk (sorta), dance (kinda), fight (yee-haw!) and have hot puppet sex in a howlingly silly scene that had to be trimmed in order to avoid an NC-17 rating.

The production is rounded out with beautifully detailed sets and a handful of comic tunes (the songs in South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut are better, but there is some good stuff here). Expect to hear lots of clucking about Team America: World Police over the next few weeks from both the right and left wings. Expect Parker and Stone to be delighted about the fuss.

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