Film review: Tropic Thunder (2008), directed by Ben Stiller
We didn’t know a lot about this film when it first came out, but for some reason we ended up seeing it at the cinema … and bought it on Blu-ray pretty much as soon as it came out. “Yeah, so?” you might say, but we generally just buy DVDs, and only when they’ve come down in price, so we’re talking special treatment here. Basically because we nearly wet ourselves laughing in the cinema.
One of the best things about Tropic Thunder is the very beginning. Starting with an ad for a soft drink and an energy bar, we’re introduced to hip hop star Alpa Chino (Brandon T Jackson). Then we get trailers for three very different films: The Fatties: Fart 2 introduces Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black), a chubby comedian acting in low-brow comedies based on fart gags, essentially. Then there’s action hero Tugg Speedman (Ben Stiller) with his dwindling Scorcher franchise – the 7th film even comes with the tagline “this time it’s different”. Third and final trailer, Satan’s Alley, features the critically acclaimed method actor Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr) in a period drama about two monks with a Big Secret.
We then cut to a film set, where a Vietnam movie is being filmed in all its gory detail, starring aforementioned characters. It’s not going well, and when special effects guy Cody (Danny McBride) blows up half the jungle, things go from bad to worse. Director Damien Cockburn (Steve Coogan) is told to shape up or ship out by studio boss Les Grossman (Tom Cruise in a fat suit, which is funnier than it sounds) and his assistant (Bill Hader).
After getting an idea from Four Leaf Tayback (Nick Nolte), the author of the book on which the film is meant to be based, Cockburn decides to shoot the film guerilla style: drop the actors off in the jungle and film them in secret, as they sort of LARP the film. It’s going to be the best movie ever!
However, with French land mines around … they’re left to their own devices. The only one of the cast that actually attended boot camp is rookie actor Kevin Sandusky (Jay Baruchel), who is also the only one to have read the book … not to mention the script. And there they are, stranded in the jungle: a coke addict going through withdrawal, a white character actor from Australia who has undergone a surgical procedure to make his skin black so he can play a black character – much to the chagrin of the genuine African American of the group – and then there’s the failing diva whose manager (Matthew McConaughey) can’t even get him TiVo.
Not only are they stranded, they also get lost, and stumble into the Golden Triangle, and the Flaming Dragons (headed by young Brandon Soo Hoo, with Reggie Lee and Trieu Tran as officers) … and shit just got real.
With cameos by people like Tobey Maguire, Tyra Banks, Christine Taylor, Jon Voight, Jennifer Love Hewitt, Jason Bateman, Lance Bass and Alicia Silverstone.
One of the great joys of Animaniacs was not just that it was funny for both young and old, but that it poked endless fun at Hollywood. Tropic Thunder does this mercilessly, which has meant it’s been criticised a lot because of a number of controversial topics. “It portrays black people as stereotypes!” is one criticism, “it makes fun of the mentally disabled!” another. Those groups of people saying that don’t seem to get the point of the film.
The stereotyping of black people is something that Lazarus and Alpa Chino come to blows over a number of times (hilarity ensues), because Lazarus is a white man acting a black stereotype, and Alpa Chino, actually black, rightly takes offence. Like he says at one point: “they had one good role for a black man, and they gave it to Crocodile Dundee”). If anything, it rather points at how racist Hollywood is. Give a starring role to a black man when a white one will do? Perish the thought!
With mentally disabled, while we’re meant to laugh at “Simple Jack”, we’re laughing because Speedman’s performance is so ludicrously over-the-top, and the point is that some actors will take on just about any role, no matter how ridiculous or offensive, just to prove to others that they can do drama and be “proper actors” too – in the hopes that they will win prestigious awards.
Then again, to enjoy this film, you really need to be equipped with a fairly dark sense of humour anyway, and be able to laugh at things that others will consider “no laughing matter” (as specified above). If Frankie Boyle has you in stitches, nothing in Tropic Thunder could possibly offend you.
It’s also a seriously quotable film. One of us can’t use the phrase “you people” without the other one immediately responding “What do you mean, ‘you people’?!” and so on. It’s a very long list of things Mr T and I are likely to spontaneously say to each other, to be honest. Plenty of one-liners. Yeah, you get crude words, but it’s manageable.
Two actors you might not instantly recognise are Robert Downey Jr and Tom Cruise. The former is blacked up and wears a wig and looks very unlike his usual self. Tom Cruise is in a fat suit, and while the character Les Grossman is quite funny here, because he’s only a bit part character and not on screen a lot, it works. There has been talk of a Les Grossman film, which I think would be a mistake. A bit here and there, funny. An hour and a half of “hobo’s dick cheese” is going to sink like a stone. (Update 2021: I believe the film was a non-starter in the end.)
When we told a couple of friends about this film, they looked at each other and went “Ben Stiller? We don’t like him.” Our response? “We’re not crazy about him either, but THIS SHIT’S REALLY FUNNY!” Because it is. There are few films that have made us laugh as hard as this one, even on re-watches.
Having seen it twice in about a week, yeah, it’s not outstanding as movies go, but it is still a very funny film that takes everything about Hollywood – the film industry, managers, studio bosses, directors, special effects and of course actors of all kinds … and artists wanting to break into film – and rips it a new one. If you like that sort of thing, odds are, Tropic Thunder is a film you’ll enjoy. If not, you’re probably going to hate it, in which case, I’d probably recommend staying clear of it.
Still, one of my favourites.
5 out of 5 jelly beans.