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Should I Watch..? 'Tropic Thunder' (2008)

Benjamin has been reviewing films online since 2004 and has seen way more action movies than he should probably admit to!

Film's poster

Film's poster

What's the Big Deal?

Tropic Thunder is an action comedy film released in 2008, and it was directed, co-written and co-produced by Ben Stiller. Stiller also stars in the film alongside Jack Black, Robert Downey Jr, Jay Baruchel, Brandon T. Jackson, Steve Coogan and Nick Nolte. The film follows a group of actors making a big budget war movie who unwittingly find themselves caught up in a conflict with very real members of a gang of Asian heroin producers. Stiller produced the concept in his 20s, but the film wasn't green-lit until 2006. The film is notable for its marketing campaign which included a number of websites profiling characters in the film, a fictional TV special and fake film trailers featuring the 'actors' played in the film. The film received a positive reception from critics, although it did provoke criticism for its depiction of blackface and mentally handicapped people. Nevertheless, the film went on to earn $195 million worldwide and even an Academy Award nomination for Downey Jr.

Enjoyable

What's It About?

Former Vietnam veteran John "Four Leaf" Tayback's memoir Tropic Thunder is being adapted into a big budget war movie, directed by the inexperienced Damian Cockburn. Cockburn is unable to juggle the various demands of his eclectic cast - faded action star Tugg Speedman, Australian method-acting maestro Kirk Lazarus, comedian Jeff Portnoy, rapper Alpa Chino and newcomer Kevin Sandusky - and after a disastrous pyrotechnic incident, Cockburn finds himself in the firing line from studio executive Les Grossman. Grossman gives Cockburn an ultimatum: finish the film as quickly and cheaply as possible or the whole project is getting shelved.

Deciding to switch to a more 'guerrilla' style of shooting, Cockburn decides to drop the cast into a jungle with some notes regarding where they should be and what they should be doing and film them himself. Unfortunately, things go horribly wrong from the start and soon, the cast are left to fend for themselves and like the professionals they are, they insist on working together to see the project through. But they are unaware that they are alone, believing themselves to be filmed by remote cameras, and trapped deep in the drug-producing Golden Triangle region where heavily armed gangs object to their presence...

Trailer

What's to Like?

Tropic Thunder is, on paper, quite a confusing film - it's certainly more complicated than other films with this concept like Three Amigos! and Galaxy Quest. But like those other films, this is a comedy which isn't afraid of taking pot shots at the Hollywood industry and does so with aplomb. From the obvious inspirations behind characters as Lazarus and Speedman to the chaos behind the scenes on movie sets, the film slices through the magic of cinema to present action films as barely contained accidents. The film works best when it presents its cast of 'actors' in a number of theatrical trailers for their respective films, each of which encapsulates the type of performer the film is trying to spoof.

In truth, the film isn't funny all the way through but when it is, this is superb stuff. From Cruise's foul-mouthed cameo to the subversive dialogue used, this is a rare Ben Stiller comedy that actually makes you properly laugh. However, the true star of the film is Downey as the surgically-altered Lazarus who's portraying "a dude who's playing a dude disguised as another dude" - a line that could easily apply to Downey himself. His appearance is a little uncomfortable at first but the film wisely decides to expose the insensitivity of the gimmick by poking fun at it itself. This is probably one of the most meta films I've ever seen, which is astonishing considering that the film is essentially a big dumb action comedy. It feels reminiscent of Stiller's other great film There's Something About Mary in tone, just with many more explosions and less romantic fluff. You could be forgiven for not realising that the film is a satire, something I might not have expected from the likes of Stiller.

The project feels very much a product of star, writer and director Ben Stiller although it's surprisingly subversive beneath its dumb exterior.

The project feels very much a product of star, writer and director Ben Stiller although it's surprisingly subversive beneath its dumb exterior.

Fun Facts

  • According to Downey, the character of Kirk Lazarus is based on Russell Crowe, Daniel Day Lewis and Colin Farrell although he made the character Australian because it was easier for Downey to produce the accent as opposed to the planned Irish accent he would need. When he scooped the nomination for Best Supporting Actor, Downey noted the irony about getting the nomination for playing an award-hungry actor.
  • The water buffalo that Black rides on the back of in the film was actually pregnant at the time. When the cast and crew arrived on set one day, she was nursing a new-born calf which was the first time anyone knew anything about it.
  • In addition to the controversies about the film's depiction of mental disability and use of blackface, the appearance of Grossman was considered an example of so-called 'Jewface' by some commentators. However, Stiller himself is Jewish and the character was largely improvised by Cruise with some speculating that he based the character on Sumner Redstone, a producer at Paramount that Cruise had a falling out with.
  • The title is a play on Tropic Lightning, the nickname of the 25th US Infantry Division which saw action in Vietnam as well as being the subject of the films Platoon and The Thin Red Line. Tropic Thunder also features a fake behind-the-scenes documentary called Rain Of Madness, a reference to the Hearts Of Darkness documentary filmed behind-the-scenes on Apocalypse Now.
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What's Not to Like?

Of course, this wouldn't be a Ben Stiller comedy if it didn't sail close to the wind at times and sure enough, the film has moments when the comedy falls flatter than a downed Chinook. While I don't subscribe to the opinion that the film is making fun of people with learning disabilities, the sequences featuring Speedman as 'Simple Jack' in one of his previous films does leave an unpleasant taste in the mouth. The conversation between Speedman and Lazarus about the dangers of playing a role 'full retard' doesn't just illustrate the insensitivity Hollywood has about such characters but the lack of actors with learning disabilities visible in movies. The same can also be said about Downey blacking up - by confronting this abhorrence head-on in the way Tropic Thunder does, it draws attention to it without supporting its use.

I just wish that the film could be a bit funnier. Black, Baruchel and Jackson don't feel as though they contribute as much as they could, meaning that big name cameos like Cruise and Danny McBride pick up the slack for the short time they are on screen. Cruise's heavily disguised appearance actually overshadows much of the film which has led to long-term speculation that the character could even get his own spin-off film. It doesn't quite feel like a vanity project for Stiller but his fingerprints are all over it and sadly, he doesn't produce consistent comedy throughout. When it is funny, it's very good but when it isn't, you're left wondering if you're watching some sort of practical joke. The final bit of the film compounds this feeling even more, adding Inception-levels of complexity to what should be a straight-forward comedy. I was left feeling like I had been hoodwinked instead of entertained when the end credits began rolling which, I suspect, is not the lasting impression Stiller wanted us to have.

Robert Downey Jr's (right) performance is very funny but unsettling in an uncomfortable way. He takes some getting used to.

Robert Downey Jr's (right) performance is very funny but unsettling in an uncomfortable way. He takes some getting used to.

Should I Watch It?

Far better than a lot of Ben Stiller films, Tropic Thunder is one of his best so far and is more entertaining than you may think. It lacks some consistency but when the film is funny, it's a vicious and biting satire on the entire film industry from award-hungry thespians, uncompromising producers, incompetent directors and even theatrical trailers. As an expose of the business, this is possibly the most outlandish you'll see outside of a Mel Brooks production but if you're looking for a surprisingly effective comedy, this gets a Purple Heart from me.

Great For: spoofing the film industry, friends and colleagues of Ben Stiller, anyone with an insensitive sense of humour, actual war veterans

Not So Great For: the easily outraged, slipping under the radar, the noble art of subtlety

What Else Should I Watch?

Stiller's acting career has been wildly inconsistent, from leading in A-list comedies like Zoolander and Starsky & Hutch to cameo appearances in other Frat Pack comedies like Anchorman: The Legend Of Ron Burgundy to more forgettable efforts like Tower Heist and The Watch. Personally, I still think his best comedy to date is the Farrelly brothers comedy There's Something About Mary - a sweet and goofy farce which sees Stiller unwittingly battle a number of ill-suited suitors (including, weirdly, then-Packers quarterback Brett Favre) for the heart of sweet-natured Cameron Diaz. These days, his career seems to be winding down a little as he appears more in cameos, voice acting and documentaries than full-bloodied comedy roles but perhaps there's still one great movie in him yet.

Filmmakers have been inspired for decades by the art of movie making with a large number of films based around this subject. From the documentary-like comedy of The Disaster Artist, the Seventies porn revival of Boogie Nights, the classic film noir Sunset Boulevard and the joyous musical Singin' in the Rain, there are no shortage of films about films - suggesting that the industry is actually home to a lot of fragile egos. Lastly, Hollywood has finally acknowledged that it's sometimes better to cast an actor with learning disabilities in a role where the character actually has such issues. Granted, these may be small steps but at least they are in the right direction. A good example can be found with indie drama The Peanut Butter Falcon, a low budget affair which sees Zach Gottsagen play a young man with Down's Syndrome (like Gottsagen) who escapes from his assisted living facility in order to follow his dreams of becoming a pro wrestler. Assisted by troubled fisherman Shia LaBeouf and pursued by social worker Dakota Johnson, it's a film with its heart in the right place and doesn't treat its star any differently to the rest of the cast. It might not be for everyone (and is certainly less in-your-face than Tropic Thunder) but it's a rare chance to see someone positively represent sections of the community that have often been long ignored by filmmakers or exploited for comedic purposes.

Main Cast

ActorRole

Ben Stiller

Tugg Speedman / 'Four Leaf Tayback'

Robert Downey Jr

Kirk Lazarus / 'Lincoln Osiris'

Jack Black

Jeff Portnoy / 'Fats'

Jay Baruchel

Kevin Sandusky / 'Brooklyn'

Brandon T. Jackson

Alpa Chino / 'Motown'

Steve Coogan

Damian Cockburn

Nick Nolte

Four Leaf Tayback

Matthew McConaughey

Rick The Pecker' Peck

Tom Cruise

Les Grossman

Danny McBride

Cody

Technical Info

*story by Justin Theroux & Ben Stiller

DirectorBen Stiller

Screenplay

Justin Theroux, Ben Stiller & Etan Cohen*

Running Time

107 minutes

Release Date (UK)

19th September, 2008

Rating

15

Genre

Action, Comedy, War

Academy Award Nomination

Best Supporting Actor (Downey Jr)

© 2022 Benjamin Cox

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