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The Tropic Thunder (movie) Review

Tropic Thunder has a ridiculous amount of star power attached to it. Sure, you’ve seen trailers with Ben Stiller, Jack Black and Robert Downey, Jr. Thing is, Nick Nolte, Matthew McConaughey and Tom Cruise each show up in supporting roles. Yes, I said Tom Cruise, but we’ll get back to him in a bit. You’ve also got Steve Coogan who’s big in England and hoping the soon-to-be-released Hamlet 2 establishes him in the U.S.

The nice part about all that star power is you have all sorts of actors stealing the scene from each other and you’ve got somebody stealing just about every scene. That’s a good recipe for laughing your ass off, which is what I was during the film.

If it kept to the base-level joke, Tropic Thunder would end up being Vietnam Movie (as in Scary Movie/Epic Movie/Superhero Movie). There’s nothing wrong with that, but Stiller takes the level of satire a little higher. Oh, sure they’re completely making fun of blood-splurting and exposed intestines of your Platoon/Hamburger Hill Vietnam flicks. Fart jokes are actually an important plot point. However this one also takes in Apocalypse Now both on the level of satirizing the film and the actual making of the film, which means it would also be sending up Hearts of Darkness, which means it’s a satire of Hollywood and the filmmaking process. Most importantly, in terms of elevating the depth of the film, this is a massive satire of method acting and character immersion.

The basic premise is that a big budget Vietnam film is off the production schedule and the inexperienced director (Coogan) is convinced by the slightly crazed Vietnam Vet (Nolte), whose book the film is based on, to drop the principal actors into the deep jungle and try and get “real” reactions out of them. The actors get lost, run afoul of a heroine cartel (they’re wandering around in the Golden Triangle, after all) and hilarity ensues. (No, hilarity ensues was not a term of sarcasm for once.)

Method acting is all about the actor experiencing and living the character, the general theory being that if the actor can be the character, the reactions and performance will be organic/natural/convincing/whatever. Added to the actors being put in a “method” live-fire scenario, Robert Downey, Jr.’s character is a method actor from Hell. A sort of cross between Russell Crowe and Daniel Day-Lewis, he plays a multiple award-winning Australian actor with an anger control problem who’s gone through pigmentation surgery to play an African American soldier in the film. Downey’s character refuses to break character and ends up sounding like an early 70s blaxplotation character 24/7, much to the chagrin and offense of Brandon T. Jackson’s rapper-turned-actor character (who’s constantly trying to push his “Booty Sweat” energy drink, a nice swipe at Nellie and Pimp Juice).

Ben Stiller in his familiar “completely unaware of my surroundings” persona as an action movie star whose fortunes are fading, plays a character whose previous film role was an “Of Mice and Men”-style mental midget/man-child, which bombed horribly and the box office. This leads to a series of conversations between Downey and Stiller about the nature of method acting and how far is to far to take a performance. This is especially funny since Downey is talking about when to put the breaks on immersion while speaking as a white Australian who refuses to break character as a black American, with all the pretense of college professor, but a diction closer to Superfly. This discussion has sparked a politically correct protest about its terminology (some people are very attached to “developmentally disabled”) and runs as a thread through the end of the film. All I’m going to say, not wanting to dignify the protest is anyone upset is either hypersensitive or starving for attention (yes, talking heads, you fall in the latter). It’s funny.

Every actor has his day in this film. Stiller’s best moments are alone in jungle, especially in the aftermath of an especially twisted parody of Martin Sheen and the bull in Apocalypse Now. For Downey, it would probably be his various acting theory moments, though he sparkles throughout. Jack Black’s turn begging people to untie him with counter-productive attempts at bribery is gold. Lesser known actor Danny McBride steals most of the scenes he’s in as a redneck special effects/demolitions tech. It wouldn’t take too much to get me to go see a Steve Coogan/Nick Nolte buddy move: they play off each other well. However, the real thief of scenes here is a heavily made-up Tom Cruise as the ego maniacal, machismo-spewing, avarice poster child of a studio boss.

Cruise doesn’t do comedy all that often, but he can be awfully good at it. He does sleazy pastiches as well as anybody. Remember “seduce and destroy” in Magnolia? This is much sleazier, as Cruise spews profanity and out-tough-guys everyone in the room while giving the impression his character’s idol is either Sean Combs or Jay-Z (in their mid-90s persona’s). His dancing is such a scream that you _will_ stay for the end credits when he starts to get down. It also takes you a few minutes to figure out who he is, if you weren’t aware of his under-publicized role.

Another thing that works surprisingly well is the suspension of disbelief for the integration of all the gunplay into such a farce of a script. The effects are standard Vietnam movie, everything else is not. Now, some of the standard effects are played for parody, but you don’t have any jolt here, as is occasionally the case in some films. Credit it to a strong ensemble cast and their reactions. The only thing that broke suspension of disbelief for me in the entire thing was a less than convincing disembodied head. A bit too cartoony. Oh, I still laughed, but it was the only thing out of sync the whole time and that’s really not much to complain about.

Very highly recommended.

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1 Comment

  1. Robert Downey Jr. cracks me up… he’s got a knack for not taking himself too seriously

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