Ben Stiller, Robert Downey Jr. and Jack Black together in one action comedy? It's a dream-team. Stiller had his heyday with Zoolander, Meet the Parents and Dodgeball, although he made a couple of lacklustre comedies - Starsky and Hutch, and the abysmal Envy (where he also starred opposite Jack Black). Downey Jr, despite his colourful history, has just rocked the screen as the perfect Tony Stark/Iron Man and was superb in his comeback thriller Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, and Jack Black - whilst being a bit more hit-and-miss (King Kong) - is still reliably hilarious when he just does his improvisational Jack Black-skits, whether in the underrated Nacho Libre, or his all-time-high, School of Rock. Putting them all together for an epic war movie parody should have been a success all-round, so why the lacklustre response from critics and audiences alike?
“In Winter 1969, an elite force of the US Army was sent on a top secret mission in Southeast Vietnam. The mission: rescue Sgt. Four Leaf Tayback from a heavily guarded NVA Prison Camp. The mission was considered to be near-suicide. Of the ten men sent, four returned. Of those four, three wrote books about what happened. Of those three, two got published. And of those two, only one got a movie deal. This is the story of the men who attempted to make that movie.”
A top cast has been assembled to create an epic Vietnam movie - including out-of-favour action hero Tugg Speedman, Oscar-winning method-acting diva Kirk Lazarus and rebellious gross-out comedian Jeff Portnow, as well as winnable-gangsta-rappa Alpa Chino - but their timid Brit director Damien Cockburn is unable to keep these massive egos in check, resulting in massive production delays and the wrath of the studio mogul Les Grossman. Convinced by the Vietnam vet who penned the movie to drop the key cast members in the middle of the jungle and film them 'guerrilla style' the team soon find themselves actually battling for their lives, all the while having to deal with their own personal issues.
“Being an actor's no different than being a rugby player or construction worker, save for the fact that my tools are the mechanisms which trigger human emotion.”
Tropic Thunder parodies everything from war movies to oppressive Hollywood execs and acting divas, in much the same way that Zoolander mocked the world of fashion and models, or Dodgeball took shots at sports. Of course there's the war theme - but that's certainly just a poke at Vietnam war movies, and perhaps the pretentiousness that can be exhibited if actors take themselves too seriously (Stiller came up with the idea a decade back when he heard about actors doing fake boot camp in preparation for such a movie). In this respect it works extremely well, but - to be honest - you have to know and, arguably, love the movies that it mocks in order to enjoy this movie, otherwise you'll simply miss the point. With overt nods to Platoon and Apocalpyse Now, it's the subtle references that really keep things going, as well as the in-joke dialogue about movie history (“you never go full retard” and “remember how Stallone was all shredded up for Rambo 2?”). It's this style of comedy dialogue that is a definite result of the Superbad/Pineapple Express generation, and it marks the best moments in the movie.
“I don't read the script. The script reads me.”
Stiller himself, on writing, directing and acting duty, does a decent enough job on all fronts, but although this is an ensemble vehicle, it's definitely Robert Downey Jr who stands out above the rest. Stiller holds it together as the focal point, a star who has passed his sell-by-date, Jack Black is woefully underused but has some superb moments as the heroin-addicted comedy star, Brandon T Jackson adds to the unit as the sell-out Alpa Chino, Steve Coogan rants a bit in his cameo as the oppressed director, and Nick Nolte grizzles his way through as the supposed vet who penned the story in the first place.
“Man, I don't drop character 'til I done the DVD commentary.”
But the movie really belongs to two people - one star role and one big cameo. Downey Jr is simply superb as the “dude playing the dude disguised as another dude”, the acting diva of the bunch who takes himself far too seriously. He has most of the best lines, the coolest character and simply chews everybody else off the screen, although blatantly this movie would not have worked were it not for the participation of everybody. The big cameo award has to go to Tom Cruise however, heavily disguised under prosthetics and playing a dictatorial, borderline psychotic studio exec. Although he doesn't have a huge part, he does have the best speech and I can see exactly why they are trying to tempt him back to do more work in this role (hopefully a whole movie). I've never seen Cruise like this, the closest he has come to it was perhaps on Magnolia, but the role is so against-type that I think it can only do his career good.
“So whatever you're thinking, you'd better think again! Otherwise I'm gonna have to head down there and I will rain down in a Godly f***ing firestorm upon you! You're gonna have to call the f***ing United Nations and get a f***ing binding resolution to keep me from f***ing destroying you. I'm talking about a scorched earth, m****rf****r! I will massacre you! I WILL F*** YOU UP!”
Tropic Thunder is certainly not to everybody's tastes, it is a very male-orientated film and not particularly accessible for women (there isn't a single noteworthy chica in this movie) and it also strips away interest for many who are not familiar with the movies concerned but, then again, it does have the potential to entice some open-minded newcomers. Thankfully there is still a large audience of fans who love the movies this film respectfully parodies and will gain a great deal of pleasure in following this enjoyable comedy. Perhaps not quite as good as either Dodgeball or Zoolander, Tropic Thunder is still definitely one of the pack and, as such, comes recommended.
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