by Mel Valentin
As the summer movie season winds down, the release schedule shifts focus from superhero-themed blockbusters (e.g., "The Dark Knight," "Hancock," "The Incredible Hulk," "Iron Man") to male-oriented comedies (e.g., the forthcoming "The Rocker," "Pineapple Express," "Step Brothers"), none likely to be as overbroad, outrageous, offensive, and obnoxious as Ben Stiller’s ("Zoolander," "The Cable Guy," "Reality Bites") fourth try at directing (he also co-wrote the screenplay), "Tropic Thunder," an action-war-comedy that skewers action film conventions and the Hollywood producers, agents, and studios who’ve profited handsomely from them for the last thirty years. Already controversial for its inclusion of an Australian actor played by Robert Downey Jr. who takes Method acting to an extreme and the depiction of a developmentally challenged character (and the actors who play them to obtain critical acclaim and year-end awards), "Tropic Thunder" has a lot to answer for.Tropic Thunder is both the name of the film we’re watching, the name of a Vietnam War memoir written by Four Leaf Tayback (Nick Nolte), a decorated Vietnam veteran, and the film-within-a-film adaptation first-time director Damien Cockburn (Steve Coogan) is shooting on location in Vietnam. Cockburn has been given an Apocalypse Now-sized budget by producer Les Grossman (Tom Cruise) and egomaniac, career-obsessed stars to work with. Cockburn’s actors, Tugg Speedman (Ben Stiller), a Sylvester Stallone-clone badly in need of a career reboot, Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr.), a five-time Oscar-winning Australian actor so deep into Method acting that he’s undergone a controversial pigmentation operation (his character’s an African-American sergeant), Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black), a flatulence-prone, drug-addicted comedian best known for his starring roles in comedies modeled after The Klumps, Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson), a rapper-turned-pitchman-turned-actor hoping Tropic Thunder will make him a "serious" actor, and Kevin Sandusky (Jay Baruchel), a noob actor overwhelmed by the star power around him.
"Apocalypse Then, Now, and Forever... Wait, was the line again?"
After an expensive (as in $4 million expensive) scene goes awry, Grossman threatens to pull the plug on Tropic Thunder unless Cockburn can get the actors to put aside their differences and work collaboratively. Desperate, Cockburn turns to Tayback for advice. Tayback suggests they go guerrilla-style: find a remote location, set up hidden cameras, bring in the explosives expert, Cody (Danny McBride), on the sly to lay down some practical effects, and drop off the actors in the middle of the sh*t (as the grizzled Tayback likes to call it). With nothing left to lose, Cockburn agrees. A helicopter flight later, Cockburn and the actors are dropped off in the middle of the jungle. Before you can say land mine, everything goes wrong, very wrong. Tayback and Cody are separated from the actors, explosions go off, and a local drug lord sends his small army to take out the Americans. The dim-witted Speedman thinks it’s all part of Cockburn’s plan. Lazarus suspects otherwise, but can’t convince Speedman. He also can’t get out of character, something the Alpa Chino has difficulty tolerating.
As a blunt-edged satire of action films, specifically war-action films such as Apocalypse Now, Platoon, the second half of Full Metal Jacket, and lesser entries in the genre (e.g., Hamburger Hill,Missing in Action, Rambo: First Blood Part II, The Boys in Company C), Tropic Thunder succeeds, often brilliantly, with only the occasional misguided gag or joke. Stiller brings in every convention, from the out-of-control director, the terrifyingly vulgar producer, the egocentric actors, and just about every war-action clichés, down to the de rigueur “realistic” violence (here taken to the logical, over-the-top extreme) that set the more "serious" genre entries apart from their predecessors and recognizable character types (e.g., the wise-beyond-his-years noncom officer, the nutjob, the egocentric glory hound, the inexperienced private).
Tropic Thunder also satirizes producer-driven, profit-focused Hollywood filmmaking. As the profanity-spewing Grossman, Cruise, sporting a bald pate, a padded body suit, and way too much body hair, is obviously enjoying himself, but it’s Downey Jr. in, yes, we can say it, blackface, who’s mesmerizing as the do-anything-for-his-craft Lazarus. His vocal inflections and body language never get too broad which, in turn, helps Downey Jr. and Stiller avoid the racial pitfalls implicit in a character like Lazarus. In adding the African-American rapper Alpa Chino to the mix of characters, Stiller smartly confronted and answers potential criticisms of Lazarus and his decision to go all-in on playing an African-American character.Stiller fumbles, if not significantly, then significantly enough that it bears mentioning, the subplot involving Speedman’s singular claim for Oscar recognition: "Simple Jack," in which Speedman plays a developmentally challenged character that veers well past stereotype into caricature. Still brings the “Simple Jack” character back later in the film for some of the unfunniest scenes in "Tropic Thunder." "Tropic Thunder" also stumbles whenever the focus shifts to Jack Black’s one-note, superfluous character. At least Black’s character isn’t onscreen all that much. Stiller, of course, is onscreen in almost every scene, as is Downey Jr., continuing his real-world career resurgence. Downey Jr. also stars in one of the best bits in "Tropic Thunder," a fake trailer for a gay-themed romantic drama, "Satan’s Alley," set in a medieval monastery co-starring Tobey Maguire (playing himself). Downey Jr. manages to pull off the long, mournful, watery-eyed glances the repressed monk exchanges with Maguire’s character with just enough ironic detachment and self-mockery that you won't be able to resist laughing along with Downey Jr.
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originally posted: 08/13/08 19:04:42