Action movie star Tugg Speedman is on the downslide of his professional career. He wants to be considered a serious actor, but his latest serious role as the title character in “Simple Jack” resulted in negative reviews and ridicule. Comedian Jeff Portnoy is best known for his leading roles in sophomoric comedies, and may be less well known for his rampant drug use. Five time Oscar winner Kirk Lazarus is a serious method actor, who immerses himself in whatever the role. On location in southeast Vietnam, they are the stars of “Tropic Thunder”, based on Vietnam war veteran ‘Four Leaf’ Tayback’s memoirs of his rescue during the war, that rescue which was considered a near suicide mission for the assigned army force and resulted in him losing both hands. For his role, Caucasian Australian Lazarus even went through a controversial surgical skin dying procedure so that he could convincingly play a black man. Production is not going well since rookie director Damien Cockburn is unable to control the prima-donna attitude of his three stars. Cockburn and Tayback decide that the five primary actors – Speedman, Portnoy, Lazarus, rapper Alpa Chino, and newcomer Kevin Sandusky – need to work together as a unit as did their real life characters. The five are placed in the middle of the jungle, and with only a map and their prop machine guns in hand, are asked to work together to battle through the stunt pyrotechnics in their way. What none of the seven of them know is that they have been dropped into a real life drug war led by the Flaming Dragons. It isn’t until Speedman is captured by the Flaming Dragons and tortured that they all realize that what they believed was make believe gunfire and land mines was actually real life. As the four actors try to figure out what to do concerning Speedman’s situation, all five go through their own journey of self-discovery. Meanwhile, the movie’s megalomaniacal profanity spewing producer Les Grossman and Speedman’s faithful agent Rick Peck argue about what to do about Speedman’s situation. And Tayback inadvertently shows a little of his true self.
With its stellar cast and hilarious cast, Tropic Thunder, Stiller’s first directorial effort in seven years, is a brilliantly incisive satire of Hollywood celebrity that never fails to deliver laughs.
My Rating: 9.5/10
Tropic Thunder is the rare product of great ideas and near-perfect execution. In a ‘meta’ movie like this where a big part of the comedy comes from the actors’ own real world images and from the audience’s knowledge of Hollywood trends, it’s very easy for the whole thing to end disastrously. I feel that one of the movie’s biggest victories then, is to leave the references generic enough that they remain accessible even to those of us who are not movie buffs – instead of referencing actual movies and actual actors, the movie instead takes aim at movie and actor archetypes such as the washed out action star, the slapstick specialist, the bawdy rapper and of course, the highly decorated, veteran method actor. The setting itself then provides ample opportunities for humour and it certainly helps that the characters themselves are dysfunctional enough that even before things begin going downhill, there are plenty of laughs delivered.
It can be a little difficult, especially with characters like these, to keep them sympathetic or at least likeable. On one hand, since they’re celebrities, they will certainly be bratty and entitled and somewhat oblivious to the situation at hand, but at the same time it is important not to let them become too annoying or you risk agitating the audience in a bad way. I feel the movie does a fairly good job of keeping the characters on the audience’s good side, though some characters do come close to crossing the line. Of the five or six main characters, I don’t think I can pick out the single funniest and I think this itself speaks volumes of the movie’s writing. Each character has a set of amusing eccentricities but more importantly is also developed enough that they have their own ambitions and conflicts. Tugg Speedman for instance is fighting the decline in his popularity and is facing the end of his career all while fighting insecurity and loneliness. When put that way, it seems like a heavy topic for such a light movie to discuss, but the movie deals with it anyway.
I think, more than the characters, it is the casting that elevates the movie to a higher level. The casting of Jack Black as an actor who relies mainly on crude and slapstick comedy, for example, is just hilarious mainly because Black’s usual roles are similar. I got the feeling that these actors were having a great deal of fun playing caricatures of themselves and their friends. It makes a big difference that pretty much the entire cast has a great deal of comic experience – their chemistry and comic timing keeps the slower parts of the movie funny and keeps the movie’s momentum going through character driven means when the story driven part slows down. I can’t bring up characters without mentioning how much I love Tom Cruise’s cameo. He captures the spirit of the alpha-male, aggressive, domineering corporate big wig perfectly and his constant anger and vulgarity are made even funnier when you think of Tom Cruise’s usually calm and charismatic image (couch jumping aside).
From a plot point of view, I feel that Tropic Thunder is more a movie that consists of a series of increasingly absurd scenes that are tied together by a vague overarching plot. While the plot itself puts the characters in funny situations, it’s the small touches that Stiller puts in that really bring the funniness to new heights. The series of ‘fake’ trailers at the beginning of the movie serve as very effective character introductions while also setting the movie’s tone right away. There was also something immensely amusing in seeing Stiller direct a movie in which he plays a character who is an actor and take orders from another actor who plays a character that’s a director. This is possibly the frontier of meta humour but I dig it nonetheless. I also love how the movie ends and the way it plays with certain tropes – the method actor not being able to get out of character, the womanizing rapper revealed to be overcompensating for my sexuality or even the concept of Hollywood’s garbage (Simple Jack) being revered overseas.
While I am clearly a big fan of much of this movie, there are a few things here and there that niggled at me. The story does slow down immensely in the middle and I feel that too much of that the movie’s middle section is directionless, a sort of comedy for comedy’s sake, if you will, that far too many movies tend to succumb too. That said, I can’t in any honesty claim that I see this as a major issue with the movie. I think it say something that even part of the movie has lasted so long in pop culture – even today, six years after the film’s release the phrase ‘never go full retard’ is still very much in use though I do wonder how many people who use it know where it originates from. On a personal level, I have to say that Tropic Thunder is one of my favourite comedies of all time and I highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys satire.
And the late, great, Roger Ebert