Rude, crude, and messy, “Tropic Thunder,” Ben Stiller's satire of Hollywood war-action movies is sharply uneven, containing wildly funny sequences and some uneventful ones in equal measure.
Thus, if my review sounds mixed, it's a direct result of the fact that of the picture's 106 minutes running time, about half is good and half is not. I have no doubts that the picture, which world-premiered at San Diego's Comic-Con, would do well at the box-office when it opens August 13; it may become a pop-culture phenom and encourage repeat viewing. I am also quite certain that movie critics would be divided in their reactions.
It's hard to tell whether the comedy would suffer from its over-hyped buzz. For a whole year, we have been hearing that “Tropic Thunder” is “the comedy” of the year. Overall, I had a better time in the “other” August comedy, “Pineapple Express,” which is more generic and less ambitious than “Tropic Thunder” but delivers its goods in a consistently amusing manner; it's also better-performed.
But first, the good news. As a follow-up to Ben Stiller's previous directorial effort, “Zoolander” (a spoof of the fashion industry), a failure on all levels, “Tropic Thunder” is a better picture, though Stiller's strengths are still more evident in the writing than in the helming departments. His movie lacks a sense of dynamic rhythm, of proper pacing, which are crucial variables for comedies.
Second, the early press about Robert Downey Jr. appearing in black face (he plays an actor) is not offensive and should not be controversial, as the context for it is explained and toward the end there's a revelatory scene, with Downey, a master of faces and accents, sporting another identity.
The most positive element of this eccentric deconstructive satire is that it actually improves as it goes along, unlike most comedies these days, wherein once you see the premise and the first reel, the rest is just more of the same. In contrast, “Tropic Thunder” keeps reinventing itself and spiraling in unanticipated directions up to the closing frames.
As written by Stiller, Justin Theroux, and Ethan Cohen, “Tropic Thunder” goes way beyond war satires like “M.A.S.H.” and inside Hollywood films such as Altman's “The Player.” In fact, its specific target is not so much the movie industry as a greedy and cruel dream factory, the particular genre of the war-actioner. As a more targeted satire, the movie makes references to “The Deer Hunter,” “Coming Home,” “Apocalypse Now,” “Rambo,” “Platoon,” “The Thin Red Line,” and countless WWII and other wars features that center on one combat unit, including “The Killing Fields.”
The link to “Thin Red Line” becomes all the more manifest through the presence of Nick Nolte, who was excellent in Terrence Malick's 1998 picture and here plays the real-life John “Four Leaf” Tayback, whose Vietnam memoir serves as the basis for the war movieand the basis for the character Tugg Speedman (Ben Stiller) plays in it. It may or may not be a coincidence that Oscar-winning cinematographer John Toll (“Legends of the Fall,” “Braveheart”) has shot “Thin Red Line” and “Tropic Thunder,” lending Stiller's picture the proper look and fee.
We have seen before greedy, corrupt, and ruthless moguls (here played by Tom Cruise, more about it later), but Stiller finds time to send up self-absorbed “Method” actors (Al Pacino is mentioned at least twice), spoof the Russian theorist Stanislavksy and his “emotional affinity” theory about actors immersing themselves completely in their roles (hello to mentally challenged portraits by the likes of Dustin Hoffman in “Rain Man” and Sean Penn in “I Am Sam”), and the pursuit of roles in order to win coveted awards such as the Oscar.
The first, loudest, and most expository reel depicts a combat unit in the Jungles of Vietnam circa 1969, under the helm of the arrogant and crazed British filmmaker Damien Cockburn (Steve Coogan) whose goal is to make a war film to end all war films.
We quickly find out that the budget has escalated and that the production is out of controlliterally. Predictably, the studio threatens to shut down the movie. However, driven by unbridled ambition, the frustrated director refuses to stop the camera and decided to lead his cast deeper into the jungles of Southeast Asia for “heightened realism,” not realizing that while Vietnam is over, there are other hoodlums out there, nastier than the Vietcong, unwillingly and unwittingly plunging into “real” battle.
The sequence ends abruptly and shockingly with the death of one member, and his dismembered head being picked up by a soldier and emptying its contents in the most graphic way imaginable. It's easily the most visually gross out moment, and you're relieved when it's over.
A character-driven satire: As co-scripter and director, Stiller is generous, allowing each individual figure, and the actor who plays him, more or less equal time through monologues (some of which hilarious), interactions with their own compatriots and the “enemy,” and distinct subplots that often involve fight, capture, torture, escapeand explosions (plenty of the latter).
The ingenuity of the scenario is in the demographic composition of the small but diverse battalion, in terms of age, race, and even sexual orientation.
Who are they
Tugg Speedman (Ben Stiller) is a pampered superstar, touted as the highest paid actor with the highest-grossing action flicks, but completely out of touch with any reality. Now in decline, after his “Scorcher” series of post-apocalyptic action epics have played out, and after a desperate attempt for an Oscar nod backfires, he is desperately hoping that “Tropic Thunder” will put him back on the map.
Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black, sporting blond hair) is the star of a popular gross-out comedy franchise called The Fatties, which makes people laugh largely due to his variations of farting. Looking to branch out, Jeff wants to show his fans that theres more to him than just getting easy laughs.
Australian actor Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr.) is the most pretentious of the bunch, passing himself as the quintessential “Method” actor, with no less than five Oscars under his belt. He claims he's always on the lookout for new challenges, ways to transform himself totallyin body, spirit, and soul, for his “art.”
At first glance the young black thespian Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson) seems to have it all as an award-winning hip-hop-star; is most recent hit is “I Love Tha' Pussy”). But, like the others, something is missing from his career as an entrepreneur, even though he also has an extensive merchandise line that includes “the Booty Sweat” energy drink brand, and he is now eager to move on and be recognized as a “serious” actor.
The youngest and most honest member is the nave newcomer Kevin Sandusky (Jay Baruchel), who is just happy to have a paying job. (Of all the characters, he is the least developed).
The joke is that, on the surface, the actors cast in the movie seems to be different, but essentially, theyre all trying to do something bigger and newer with their careers, hoping this war movie will represent the next level upor as they say in Hollywood, the next big thing.
The second half of the satire gets truly nasty, brutal, and politically incorrect. Among the highlights are sequences in which Stiller's actor is captured by a young girl, Brandon Soo Hoo, a tough, cigar-smoking leader of the Flaming Dragon rebels. He is saved when it turns out that the commander and her troops simply admire his mentally-retarded impersonation of “Simple Jack,” the most popular title there, available only on VCR.
In short order, he is forced to give live performances of “Simple Jack,” to appreciative crowds, and in the process gets himself a local boy as a son. (Earlier, when it's established that Speedman is a childless man trying to adopt, his agent says: “You're lucky, at least you can choose, unlike the one I'm stuck with…”)
Perhaps because I have seen them before, though not with such foul, racist and sexist lingo. I was much less impressed with the segments dealing with the Hollywood Jewish mogul Lee Grossman (Tom Cruise, deliberately over the tope in trying to conceal himself with a bold head behind thick glasses), or Speedman's slick and chatty agent (played by Matthew McConaughey), who tries to protect him.
Most of the combatants have a few good moments and some funny sight gags, as the one in which Black's soldier is stripped to his underwear, displaying unselfconsciously his belly and chubby figure, while carried on a water buffalo before he erupts into his own battle.
Nolte, who looks like a hippie with his long white hair and beard, is by necessity aloof and detached. He lives like a bohemian on the beach, while the spoiled brat actors stay in special trailers or lush hotels–and continue to complain.
Of all the actors, the one who shines is Robert Downey Jr., a combined result of his brilliant acting and mimicry skills and arguably the best-written monologues. I have no idea whether he modeled his look and delivery after Olivier's Othello in the 1965 version of that play. But his dialogues Chino, a real black actor, who challenges his audacity in taking a role that belongs to black thespian and his interpretation of it, are priceless and represent a high point of the picture.
Almost by necessity, “Tropic Thunder” is overly episodic, rising up and going down in wild humor and dramatic interest as frequently as the changes of the scenery.
Tugg Speedman – Ben Stiller
Jeff Portnoy – Jack Black
Kirk Lazarus – Robert Downey Jr.
Four Leaf Tayback – Nick Nolte
Damien Cockburn – Steve Coogan
Kevin Sandusky – Jay Baruchel
Cody – Danny McBride
Alpa Chino – Brandon T. Jackson
Studio Executive Rob Slolom – Bill Hader
Tran – Brandon Soo Hoo
Byong – Reggie Lee
Tru – Trieu Tran
Rick Peck – Matthew McConaughey
Lee Grossman – Tom Cruise
A DreamWorks/Paramount release of a DreamWorks Pictures presentation of a Red Hour production, in association with Goldcrest Pictures.
Produced by Stuart Cornfeld, Ben Stiller, Eric McLeod.
Executive producer, Justin Theroux.
Co-producer, Brian Taylor. Directed by Ben Stiller.
Screenplay, Justin Theroux, Stiller, Etan Cohen; story, Stiller, Theroux.
Camera: John Toll.
Editor, Greg Hayden.
Music: Theodore Shapiro; music supervisor, George Drakoulias.
Production designer: Jeff Mann.
Art directors: Richard L. Johnson, Dan Webster.
Set designers: John Chichester, Maria Baker, Jeff Ozimek, John Warnke.
Set decorator: Daniel B. Clancy.
Costume designer: Marlene Stewart.
Sound: Steve Cantamessa; supervising sound editors, Craig Henighan, Jim Brookshire; re-recording mixers, Ron Bartlett, Doug Hemphill, Henighan.
Visual effects supervisor: Michael Fink.
Visual effects: CIS Visual Effects Group, Hammerhead Prods., Pacific Title and Art Studio, Asylum, Digital Backlot.
Special effects supervisor: Mike Meinardus.
Stunt coordinator, Brad Martin.
MPAA Rating: R.
Running time: 106 Minutes.