"Freedom costs a buck-o-five."
After successfully expanding their 'South Park' cartoon to feature film glory (and even an unexpected Oscar nomination) with the 'Bigger, Longer & Uncut' movie, animators and crassly ribald satirists Trey Parker and Matt Stone wanted to try something a little different and a little more ambitious for their next project. In 2004, they delivered unto unsuspecting fans something bizarre and very nearly transcendent: a scathing parody of American military interventionism, celebrity political activists and moronic Hollywood action movies – all acted out with marionette puppets. And it's a musical to boot!
'Team America: World Police' was crafted in specific imitation of 'Thunderbirds' and other "Supermarionation" children's TV shows of the 1960s. The characters are all puppets on very visible strings (something 'Thunderbirds' took great pains to hide but Stone and Parker gleefully expose) that interact with an enormously elaborate playworld environment of toy vehicles and miniature sets recreating famous locations from Times Square to Paris to the pyramids of Egypt and more.
The story follows a squad of elite (yet bumbling) commandos who patrol the world stage, hunting down and killing terrorists by any means necessary – which usually means destroying everything in sight and causing much more chaos than the terrorists ever could have on their own. If they need to blow up the Louvre and kill hundreds of innocent bystanders to take out a single terrorist, so be it. Those terrorist fuckers will rue the day they ever messed with America!… Or, you know, places where Americans might go, or might want to go. Whatever. They're terrorists, fuck 'em!
When word comes that nutbag Korean dictator Kim Jong Il (remember, this was 2004) is plotting to unite all the terrorists in the world with a common goal of destroying American freedom and democracy, Team America recruits its newest member – Gary, a Broadway stage actor (star of the smash musical 'Lease'), who can put on a fake beard and go undercover to ferret out the details of the nefarious plan. Even though Gary has no combat experience and is plagued by serious doubts about his role, when the chips start falling and his comrades-in-arms face their greatest peril, only an actor can save America's ass.
Like 'South Park', Parker and Stone provide the majority of character voices, and yeah, most of them sound alike. (There's no mistaking that Kim Jong Il sounds a lot like Cartman.) The humor mixes brilliantly on-point social and political satire with vulgar, lowbrow gags about sex and unpleasant bodily functions. This is decidedly an R-rated movie and revels in it. Although most of the jokes land, a few really drag, including an extended vomiting bit and Kim Jong Il's solo musical number ("I'm So Ronery"). The filmmakers take funny pot-shots against celebrity loudmouths like Sean Penn, Tim Robbins and Alec Baldwin, but I've never quite understood why Matt Damon was the target of the worst abuse. I'm also not entirely convinced that Stone and Parker's frequent stream of gay jokes are really supposed to be making fun of homophobia rather than just homophobic themselves.
Regardless, when the jokes hit, they hit hard and frequently. Even a decade later, most of the political commentary is (sadly) still relevant. The relentless spoofing of inane action movie clichés and most of the musical numbers are fall-off-your-couch-laughing hilarious. The bit when the triumphant anthem "America, Fuck Yeah!" is repurposed later in the movie as a sad ballad gets me every time.
Unlike the 'South Park' movie, 'Team America' was a box office failure during its theatrical release. I suspect that the target audiences were too young (and too American) to remember Supermarionation, and were put off from seeing the movie because they didn't get the reference. Fortunately, the true life for a comedy like this is on home video, and the film became a cult item as soon as it hit DVD.
Back in the heady days of the high-def format war in 2006, Paramount Home Entertainment released titles on both Blu-ray and its (now defunct) competitor format HD DVD. Every Paramount disc at the time opened with a trailer that showcased the many exciting movies the studio planned to unleash in high-definition glory. Prominently featured was a clip from 'Team America: World Police'. Sadly, no official release announcement ever followed. Eventually, as the format war ended and Paramount's interest in releasing back catalog product dwindled, fans just gave up on it. Even now, eight years later, 'Team America' has still not made its way to Blu-ray in its native country.
In late 2013, however, the movie slipped out on Blu-ray in the UK, where it's available in both a standard keepcase or an exclusive SteelBook edition. Both releases are identical save for the packaging. Both are region-free and will function in an American Blu-ray player with no need for special modifications.
Yes, it seems ironic that the first Blu-ray release of a movie called 'Team America' would come from overseas.
The 'Team America' Blu-ray is a no-frills affair with a boring static menu and no bonus features. The disc contains only the R-rated theatrical cut of the film, not the "Uncensored and Unrated" version that was released on DVD. The only difference between the two is an extension to the sex scene that adds shots of puppet defecation, among other things. Fans are divided in opinion as to whether the Unrated cut makes the scene even funnier, or goes too far over-the-top and is just repulsive. The scene and the movie are still hilarious either way. While I'd prefer to have both versions available by seamless branching, I don't personally consider this a deal-breaker.
When 'Team America' was released on DVD in 2005, I used to consider it one of the best-looking discs I owned on that format. Standards have risen a lot since then. The UK Blu-ray appears to be sourced from the same master used for the DVD, and it doesn't hold up to scrutiny nearly as well in high definition. Although certainly more detailed than DVD could offer, the 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer is a little soft and hazy. Close-ups look better than wide shots. While a faint presence film grain is occasionally visible, it tends to look mushy. I'm not sure whether this is the result of Digital Noise Reduction in the master, or if it's simply a dated film scan that wasn't able to capture as much detail and clarity as we've come to expect on Blu-ray today. (Perhaps both factors play a part.) I have no doubt that an updated remaster could yield better results.
With that said, the 2.40:1 image has its share of positive attributes and is never awful by any means. Colors are precise and vibrant. The contrast range is quite rich, with crisply delineated shadows that lend an excellent sense of depth. With the exception of a montage spoofing home movie footage that's supposed to look terrible, the disc looks good overall, just not quite great.
The movie's soundtrack is encoded in lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 format. It sounds… fine, I guess. Perhaps I'm damning it with faint praise, but the audio is adequate.
The 5.1 mix parodies action movie soundtracks with a lot of rumbly bass and zinging surround effects. Music and songs also spread effectively to the rear channels. However, it sounds very obnoxiously unbalanced. Sound effects and explosions are gratingly loud. Maybe that's intentional, but I found it fatiguing. Fidelity on the whole lacks distinction and rarely offers much audible improvement over lossy DVD audio.
The Blu-ray has no bonus features at all. Not a damn thing.
The Supermarionation satire 'Team America: World Police' is still hilarious (and mostly still politically relevant) a decade after its original release. While we continue to wait for a domestic high-def edition of the film on these shores, the region-free Blu-ray from the UK has at least adequate picture and sound quality, though neither is spectacular. Sadly, the disc is missing the Unrated version of the movie and lacks any of the bonus features found on the old DVD edition.
As much as I'd like to hold out hope for a superior remaster and Special Edition in the future, I tend to doubt that Paramount would exert any special effort for a catalog title like this. Most likely, any eventual domestic Blu-ray will be a direct copy of this UK disc. It's not perfect, but it'll do.