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Movie Review: Tropic Thunder

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Ben Stiller must have had this film bottled up inside him for much too long, particularly considering his career in the last few years has consisted of family-friendly movies that fared no better than reading bedtime stories, like Madagascar and Night at the Museum, and getting embarrassed (on-screen and quality-wise) in last year’s The Heartbreak Kid. In his latest movie, Tropic Thunder, the comedy is so brash, so insolent that it hardly looks back at the damage it is causing to the face of political correctness. And that approach could not be more appropriate when the primary satirical subjects are war movies and Hollywood filmmaking.

The comedic premise is a rather clever one in which a group of actors trained to play soldiers in a Vietnam War movie end up encountering a gang of drug smugglers who mistakenly suspect that they are armed special forces from the DEA. From this, director Stiller and his co-writers, Justin Theroux and Etan Cohen (no relation to Ethan Coen) aim at a great many targets in various directions from greedy Hollywood executives to screenwriting and showbiz stardom to, in particular, method acting and its follies. Not all of them hit their mark but when they do, the laughs really stick.

One area in which the film consistently scores a consistent bull’s eye is the performance of Robert Downey, Jr. as Kirk Lazarus, who offers a critique of method acting through method acting. Some people’s hairs were raised when news spread that he was going to play an Australian actor who undergoes a surgical procedure to darken his skin and play an African-American platoon sergeant. Following up his great, career-reviving work in Iron Man earlier this year, it is a tribute to Downey’s skills as an actor that he perfectly modulates his eyebrows and his body so that the “impersonation” avoids being a silly caricature but a sly and constantly funny jab at an actor’s potential identity crisis after immersing into another character so completely on and off the set. He also gets the biggest laugh of the film (that sadly comes much too early as it is right in the beginning) in a fake trailer of a movie called “Satan’s Alley” where he plays a gay priest who falls in love with another priest played in a cameo by Tobey Maguire (an “MTV Best Kiss Award Winner” as the trailer duly points out).

The rest of the actors playing the platoon include the starring lead, Tugg Speedman (Ben Stiller), an action star trying to recover from a critically lambasted fiasco of playing a handicapped man called "Simple Jack" who can talk to animals, and Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black), an actor who gained popularity for a TV show called “The Fatties” and is also a drug addict. There is also Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson), an African-American hip-hop artist (a cunning dig on the popularity of Scarface here) who has recently made his name in a popular TV commercial for an energy drink called “Booty Sweat” and understandably cannot put up with Lazarus’ identity crisis. Finally, there is Kevin Sandusky, who is played by Jay Baruschel in a role that thankfully allows him to play smarter and more of a straight arrow instead of the bumbling, slacker weasel he has been typecast as over the years.

The movie opens with an opening pyrotechnic sequence that sends up all the war movie clichés from the almost drum line-like array of explosions to the exaggeratedly bloody and gory battle wounds. After that initial shooting goes wrong, the actors are placed in the middle of nowhere in Vietnam by British director Damien Cockburn (Steve Coogan) upon the forceful behest of screenwriter Four Leaf Tayback (Nick Nolte), who is dissatisfied with the lack of authenticity brought on by the actors. The actors, particularly Speedman, initially think that it is their job to act and react and that hidden cameras will capture it all, even after a land mine suddenly goes off on someone in a gruesomely, darkly funny scene. That is, until Speedman himself encounters and is held captive by the drug smuggling ring that is led by a 12-year-old, Tran (Brandon Soo Hoo).

While the rest of the platoon attempts to rescue Speedman, there is the producer, Les Grossman, the megalomaniacal, profanity-spewing studio chief character that director Stiller tilts to full effect to throw all the tomatoes he can at the Hollywood studio system (most notably in the way he seems to comically suggest that the studio execs really could not care less about the welfare of their actors as long as it does not hurt their earnings). I will leave the actor who plays the role as a surprise (since he is not shown in any of the trailers) but I will note that it is probably a smart, self-deprecating career move for the thespian who has recently had quite a bit of on and off-screen vanity to answer for. Next to Downey, Jr., he gets a couple of huge laughs by performing two ridiculous dance numbers (one over the end credits) that would have even the cheesiest and most infantile hip-hop boy bands running for the hills.

The movie is far from perfect and Black, in particular, gets shortchanged in the quota of laughs he delivers as he plays the easiest, broadest comic creation among the cast. More crucially, there is one almost inexcusable flaw in a conversation between Speedman and Lazarus on how to act out a handicapped person. This scene and a few others involving how the drug smuggling ring turns out to have liked the portrayal of “Simple Jack” have already drawn controversy from the community of handicapped people and I can understand why. The R-word is said incessantly in a derogatory fashion and, though I understand what the filmmakers are going for, they don’t show the same skill and finesse that they brought to the character of Kirk Lazarus in fully filtering the critique of performance art out of the subject matter.

But then, total finesse may be too much to ask for in a movie that spreads the satirical impropriety and vulgarity around like napalm wildfire. And despite the stumbles, Tropic Thunder is actually better and has more focus than any movie Stiller has directed before including his last film, Zoolander because it has a worthier target to lampoon this time than male modeling, which is already a self-parodying topic itself. Maybe he figured himself that it was time for him to do something besides the typical two comedic modes he plays – the bumbling, mild-mannered buffoon or the egotistical jerk – and the creative results here manage to provide a self-effacing comeback for most everyone involved.

Bottom line: Well worth seeing.

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About John Lee

John Lee is a computer programmer by day and a cine-enthusiast by night. He has a blog at https://www.cinematicponderer.com/ where he pours out his deep thoughts, appreciations, criticisms, and opinions on all things cinematic.