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They're already choosing sides over 'Team America'

Fearing the new film is another swipe at Bush, conservatives fire first.

August 09, 2004|John Horn | Times Staff Writer

Conservative commentators have begun lining up to denounce "Team America: World Police," the cheeky comedy due in October from "South Park" creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone. But it's actually Hollywood liberals -- and one well-known producer of big-budget action movies -- who might have the most to worry over the take-no-prisoners movie.

"Team America" is being criticized as yet another broadside against President Bush from Hollywood liberals. But a key conceit of the Paramount Pictures movie, which is essentially an action film made with sophisticated marionettes visiting exotic locations, is that it depicts left-leaning show business elites as selfish and superficial.

Among the many prominent activists who may be shown in a less-than-flattering "Team America" light are Ben Affleck and "Fahrenheit 9/11" filmmaker Michael Moore. Says Parker: "We only went after people who at least invited it."

The movie also spoofs many action-film conventions, from editing to dialogue, established and perfected by Jerry Bruckheimer, the producer of such blockbusters as "Con Air," "The Rock" and "Armageddon."

"The joke of this movie," says Stone, "is that it's a big, dumb Bruckheimer movie, done with puppets."

All the same, the five action heroes that make up "Team America's" terrorist-fighting "world police" and their various enemies are hardly the crude marionettes familiar to viewers of the 1960s TV series "Thunderbirds." Stone and Parker's one-third-scale puppets are elaborately designed and costumed. The dead-ringer puppet of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, for example, wears tiny eyeglasses fitted with precisely ground lenses. The film's locations include scale models of Paris, Mt. Rushmore and the Panama Canal.

Parker and Stone, whose past humor targets included everything from Mormons to Canada, say Bush isn't even central to the "Team America" story. But that doesn't mean some critics already are attacking the project, which will hit theaters Oct. 15.

On Aug. 1, conservative Internet gossip columnist Matt Drudge posted a story under the headline "Paramount Puppet Movie to Mock Terror War." The articled quoted a "senior Bush advisor" condemning the film as "unconscionable" for making fun of terrorism. Drudge reported that a character from the film is "an apparent Bush look-alike," when in fact the image Drudge posted was of Chris, a martial-arts expert in the titular crime-fighting organization.

Reacting to the Drudge Report item, "Team America" producer Scott Rudin says: "I think he misinterpreted where the politics of the movie actually lie. It's not Bush-bashing. It's not Kerry-bashing. It's going after everybody."

Less than a week after the Drudge Report item appeared on the Internet, the Wall Street Journal reported that Move America Forward, a conservative group whose website features criticism of "Fahrenheit 9/11," also was blasting "Team America" sight unseen.

The group's chairman, Howard Kaloogian, was quoted as saying it would be "inconceivable" for filmmakers to have spoofed the Nazis during World War II.

"That's totally ridiculous and absolutely, historically wrong," says Stone, noting that wartime Bugs Bunny cartoons had Bugs in battle against the Germans and Japanese. "It's what everybody did."

More to the point, Stone says, it's possible for satirists to make fun of world events without minimizing the gravity of such topics as war and terrorism. After the first war against Iraq, Stone notes, he and Parker cast Saddam Hussein as Satan's gay lover in their Oscar-nominated 1999 movie "South Park: Bigger Longer & Uncut." By so doing, Stone says, he and Parker were neither defending Hussein nor minimizing his menace.

"This movie exists as a metaphor," Stone says of "Team America." "It's not about politics. And if there's one thing this movie ridicules, it's America's enemies, not America. There's a difference between a political satire and what everybody has been feeling for the last few years."

Among the film's chief villains is Kim Jong Il, who throws U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix into a huge aquarium, where he is promptly ripped to pieces by a shark. Some Hollywood celebrities don't fare much better in the film.

"When this movie is over, a lot of people will be confused about what side we're on," Parker says. "That's OK, because we're confused too."

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