LOS ANGELES - Entertainment giant Sony on Wednesday released online "The Interview," the movie that has outraged North Korea for lampooning dictator Kim Jong-Un, giving an early Christmas present to US viewers.
The madcap, irreverent R-rated comedy was available for rent in the United States from 1800 GMT on several platforms, a day before a limited release in about 200 cinemas on Christmas Day.
It was being distributed on Google's YouTube for a US$5.99 rental fee, on the Google Play app for Android devices and on a dedicated website, seetheinterview.com.
A bawdy, expletive-laden tale full of sexual innuendo and scatological humor, the film's future had been in doubt after Sony said it was canceling the release after an embarrassing cyber-attack on its corporate network and threats against moviegoers.
The US has blamed the hack attack on North Korea, and President Barack Obama has threatened reprisals.
But Sony also came under fire from Obama and free speech advocates for pulling the film, and the studio quickly performed an about-face.
While some US movie theater chains got cold feet after anonymous online threats, a limited number have agreed to show the film from Thursday.
Starring American comic actors Seth Rogen and James Franco, the film is a silly, low-brow romp about a CIA plot to assassinate Kim.
A kind of a cross between a slapstick James Bond movie and "Hangover," it is aimed squarely at an audience (most likely teen boys) out for a fun but vacuous night at the cinema.
Almost two hours long, the film depicts how girl-chasing, hard-partying, always fashionable tabloid TV presenter Dave Skylark (Franco) and his bro-romance producer (Rogen), score an exclusive interview with the leader of the world's most reclusive state.
That's when the CIA steps in and presents them with a plan to kill Kim.
Once in in Pyongyang, however, Skylark begins to bond with Kim over basketball, Katy Perry songs piped into his Russian-made tank, and margaritas served during a drug-fuelled evening with a bevvy of naked beauties.
There are shots of a naked Kim's backside, and he's portrayed as a man deeply scarred by never winning his father's approval and determined to show the world how tough he can be.
Eventually even Skylark learns the truth about the regime's brutality, and he sets out to take down Kim by exposing him as a liar during his live interview.
It's just pretend
"Kim must die - that's the American way," says Skylark, as the plot is hatched.
Much has been made of earlier trailers that showed Kim's head exploding in a bloody climax, but in the online version that was obscured as he was instead consumed in a ball of missile fire.
"It has always been Sony's intention to have a national platform on which to release this film," said Sony Entertainment chairman Michael Lynton said in a statement.
"It was essential for our studio to release this movie, especially given the assault upon our business and our employees by those who wanted to stop free speech."
"Merry X-mas MERICA!!!! THE INTERVIEW IS LIVE!!!!!!!!! Watch it," Franco said in a message on his Twitter account.
Rogen apologized to Canadians that it was not yet available for download in his native Canada "BUT will be soon. We are working on it," he promised.
"I need to say that a comedy is best viewed in a theater full of people so if you can, I'd watch it like that. Or call some friends over," Rogen said in a separate Tweet.
Russell Brand, who shares the same vein of humor, rejoiced on Twitter "saying celebrate freedom and Christmas by watching The Interview."
"Do not attempt to assassinate anyone - it's pretend," he added.