Tropic Thunder – Starring Ben Stiller, Robert Downey Jr, Jack Black, Jay Baruchel, Brandon T. Jackson, Danny McBride and Nick Nolte. Directed by Ben Stiller. Rated MA for strong violence, coarse language, drug and sexual references. 107 mins.
Ben Stiller is not known for being a great director. It’s a shame really, as his previous efforts (Reality Bites, The Cable Guy and Zoolander) were all very good, albeit misunderstood films. For a while it seemed Tropic Thunder would fall into the same trap, as it was shrouded in controversy in the months preceding its release. Everyone knew it would be a success – but could a war-movie spoof that features a character in black-face and jokes about playing ‘full-retard’ actually be any good? Yes, actually. In fact, it’s the comedy of the year.
Tropic Thunder tells the true story (go with me here) about the actors who went into the heart of Vietnam to film the greatest war movie of all time. Tugg Speedman (Stiller) is the dim-witted action star, who has been desperately seeking Oscar as a means of resurrecting his flailing career. His performance in ‘Simple Jack’ didn’t quite pan out, so maybe this will be his big chance. That is, if he doesn’t get out-overacted by Kirk Lazarus (Downey Jr), an acclaimed Australian actor who has dyed his skin black to play the resident African-American soldier.
Also attached to the film is heroin-addicted comedian Jeff Portnoy (Black), hip-hop star Alpa Chino (Jackson) and the green rookie Jeff Sandusky (Baruchel). Of course, the weather is hot, the ego-trips are massive, and the music-video director Damien (Steve Coogan) is out of his league. Studio head Les Grossman is threatening to shut down production, unless they can figure out something … and quick.
Damien, crazed screen-writer Four Leaf (Nolte) and explosives expert Cody (McBride) decide to drop the prima-donna actors deep in the jungle, and film the rest of the movie guerrilla-style. Unfortunately, they are not alone in the jungle, and the actors are soon facing off against a gang protecting their drug trade. Not that the actors realise this straight away. They just believe its an elaborate set-up by the director. Let’s just say, they’re not the brightest group of ‘soliders’.
Tropic Thunder is probably the best war-movie spoof of all time, playing around with all those cliches and conventions we’ve seen a million times before. Here though, they are actually exciting and entertaining. To be honest, the opening scene (straight from the movie within a movie) actually looks like a pretty decent war film, despite the laughable acting. Check out Jack Black’s accent during that scene. Where is that dude from?
Robert Downey Jr’s internet fandom has become semi-messianic in the months since appearing as Iron Man. Fair enough really. He once again steals the show as the method actor who can barely distinguish fantasy from reality. Lazarus’ portrayal of Lincoln Osiris does descend to minstrelsy, Martin Lawrence-esque mugging as the shoot goes on. However, by having Alpa Chino there to keep Osiris in check, the film does not cross the line it tightrope walks on. It’s a tricky role, but I think it will become one of the classic comic performances, alongside Peter Sellers in The Party and Sacha Baron Cohen in Borat.
Ben Stiller is also great as Tugg Speedman, playing against his usual awkward-romancer and harking back to his days of absurd characterisation on the classic Ben Stiller Show. As I suspected, his portrayal of Simple Jack is wonderfully offensive, and certainly nothing to complain about. Tropic Thunder is one of the best and bravest mainstream satires I’ve seen in recent years. I never thought I would have seen this kind of subversive comedy in a tent-pole blockbuster release, but here we are. This film hits it’s targets head-on, and should take every over-serious actor down a few notches. Sean Penn is specifically called out for his performance in I Am Sam. I don’t personally know him, but he doesn’t seem like the kind of guy who can take a joke.
I don’t want all this talk of satire and subversiveness to take away from what really made the film great. It was hilarious. Even before the movie begins, we are treated to brilliant fake trailers starring Speedman, Lazarus and Portnoy. It’s rare for a film to start with its audience already in tears from laughing. The ensemble cast is so perfect, and there is a lot of chemistry between everyone involved. Even the smallest parts are cast with brilliant comic actors like Bill Hader, and the surprise celebrity cameos are so great I won’t spoil them for you, even though I’m dying to.
Tropic Thunder is one of the most enjoyable experiences I’ve had at the cinema this year. To watch this movie in a packed theater is a treat, as you get to hear the collective gasps and cheers throughout. You might even find yourself joining in. Even the biggest sourpuss should walk out feeling as though they’ve gotten their money’s worth. Tropic Thunder is so funny, so exciting and so clever that it literally makes you breathless throughout the experience. While it could never reach the heights of THE masterpiece of 2008, Tropic Thunder manages to be the most enjoyable film of the year. In second place – Iron Man. God bless you Robert Downey Jr. As for Ben Stiller – I never thought I’d say this – he’s a great director.