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Tropic Thunder

Ben Stiller and Robert Downey Jr. reflect on the cruelties of war movie-making in Tropic Thunder

by Gary Sundt

Movies like Ben Stiller’s Tropic Thunder are the reason I hate vomit-inducing endeavors like Epic Movie, Date Movie, Meet the Spartans and the upcoming Disaster Movie. Stiller’s parody, which has bones to pick with war films and (more importantly) Hollywood in general, has a biting wit and an agenda beyond making a few quick dollars for the studios. And get this: it’s actually funny, which is more than I can say for any recent flick ending in the word “movie” or “spartans.”

I mean, consider the production values in Tropic Thunder. If it were one of these Stereotype Movies (which is how I will refer to them from here on in), it would be cheap shots at pop culture that could essentially be recreated on YouTube with a group of thirteen-year-olds, mom’s make-up kit, and a slightly better-than-average home video camera. By contrast, we have fine cinematography by Oscar-winner John Toll (Braveheart, The Last Samurai, Gone Baby Gone) and Robert Downey Jr. in black face as “the dude playing the dude disguised as another dude.” The script is only okay, but these actors sell their lines and lift the entire affair to a place that will make you laugh and laugh and laugh.

Tropic Thunder is about the blundering production of… Tropic Thunder, the story of a Vietnam War mission gone awry, based on the first-hand account by one the platoon’s survivors (Nick Nolte). Three A-list actors, one nobody actor and a rapper are reinventing themselves as war movie heros in this movie. Tugg Speedman (Stiller) has built his career as the headliner of the Scorcher series, a film franchise that has lost its spark. Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black) is tired of being famous for his antics as the funny fat guy in a Meet the Klumps-style comedy. Kirk Lazarus (Downey Jr.), the five time Oscar-winning Australian film star, has gone through a medical procedure to make himself the aforementioned “dude” (or more specifically, the movie-within-the-movie’s Sgt. Osiris). The cast is rounded out with rapper Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson) and Hollywood hopeful Kevin Sandusky (Jay Baruchel) as two other soldiers in the party.

These men are shooting in Southeast Asia with first-time filmmaker Damien Cockburn (the soon-to-be-infamous Steve Coogan), and things are not going well. The director is just not getting what he wants from these primadonnas, and they in turn are not getting what they want from the script. The only member in the mix having any fun is the pyrotechnical expert (Danny McBride), who is directly involved in the onset catastrophe in which millions of dollars are spent, lots of things blow up, and the camera is not rolling. 

This causes studio chief Les Grossman (Tom Cruise) to practically pop an artery, and communicates to Cockburn that his career will be over if he messes up this movie. It is at this point when the veteran informs the director that the only way to get the shots he wants is to put these men in real combat. What follows is simply hilarious, with each character attempting to survive and conquer their acting demons, while Speedman’s agent (Matthew McConaughey) working diligently to get his client the TiVo specified in his contract.

The plot and the writing is almost as ridiculous as Stiller’s last directorial effort, the 2001 hit Zoolander. I was not really on board with whatever Zoolander was, but I can get behind Tropic Thunder. While I have a deep love for movies like Apocalypse Now and Black Hawk Down, my experience with most war movies is a certain impatience for the story. Maybe the endless battle doesn’t interest me. I’ve never wanted to be a soldier. With that in mind, seeing the standards of the war epic lampooned properly makes laugh a deep belly laugh.

However, the real target here is Hollywood, which gets a good spanking from Stiller and Co. in this film. This is the type of movie Peter Sellers would have gone after back in the day, a time when parodies were funny. Movies are best when they are about people and their troubles, not effects and their ability to be special. I think parodies are the same way, and Stiller has done fine work here. Yes, there are quite a few special effects used in Tropic Thunder, but they are always in service of the people and the story. 

On reconsideration of my earlier thought, I think I know why I prefer war epics in the vein of Apocolypse Now. They are not war movies, but rather character pieces. Stiller has the smarts to make Tropic Thunder a story about people and their struggle. Sure, the people and the struggle were goofy as hell, but it was interesting. And more importantly – Downey Jr. is really, really funny.

Running time: 107 minutes. Directed by Ben Stiller. Produced by Ben Stiller, Eric McLeod and Stuart Cornfeld. Screenplay by Ben Stiller and Justin Theroux Starring Ben Stiller, Jack Black, Robert Downey Jr, Brandon T. Jackson, Jay Baruchel, Nick Nolte, Danny McBride, Matthew McConaughey, Tom Cruise and Steve Coogan. A Dreamworks SKG release. Rated R