Shooting difficulties don’t get much more serious than the myriad problems that afflict Vietnam war movie “Tropic Thunder”. The big conflagration scene, in which British director Damian Cockburn (Steve Coogan) tries to blow Apocalypse Now out of the water, is disrupted by squabbling movie stars Tugg Speedman (Ben Stiller), an action hero trying to broaden his range, and Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr), an intense Australian method actor who is controversially playing a black man in the picture. In the ensuing fracas somebody forgets to call off the jet plane attack and the set is blown to kingdom come – without any footage to show for it.
It’s at this tense juncture that Four Leaf Tayback (Nick Nolte), the disabled Viet vet whose memoir is the inspiration for the movie, proposes that Cockburn drop his spoiled actors into the middle of the jungle and leave them to fend for themselves. Cockburn loves it. He’ll shoot the whole thing on hidden video cameras, “guerilla style”. Only the jungle turns out to be a far more dangerous place than anticipated, and the stars are soon lost, incommunicado, dodging live ammunition from angry drug barons.
This is a great concept for a movie, no two ways about it. At a pinch you could even do it as a straight thriller, sprinkled with a little satire on the side. Writer-director-star Ben Stiller goes for full on yuks, mostly at the expense of the industry that feeds him.
Things get off to a good start with a series of phony trailers featuring Tugg Speedman, Kirk Lazarus and Tobey Maguire. Logos from legitimate movie companies give these parodies an authentic edge.
Then it’s into the movie-within-the-movie, a parody of Vietnam war pictures in general and the bombastic rhetoric of Oliver Stone’s Platoon in particular. Mind you, the casting mix in this fictional flick is decidedly 21st Century Hollywood: along with the flailing action star and the dedicated thespian (a fairly obvious dig at Russell Crowe) there’s moonlighting rapper Alpa Chino (Brandon T Jackson), chubby clown and drug addict Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black) and newbie Kevin Sandusky (Judd Apatow protégé, Jay Baruchel, very good as the only one who seems in touch with reality).
Tugg – whose career is slumping – is so desperate to prove his acting chops he refuses to believe the cameras aren’t rolling. His costars are less deluded, but even then Lazarus can’t drop his African-American characterization, an appalling combination of Mr T and Uncle Remus that seriously aggravates Alpa.
There’s a decidedly British tinge to some of the comedy, which is more bloody-minded and mordant than Americans generally feel comfortable with. The violence has a Pythonesque excess; Coogan’s presence reminds us of Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, and you have to think that Ben Stiller’s experience in Extras may have influenced the project. It’s worth noting that Justin Theroux (cousin of Louis Theroux) is one of three credited writers, the others are Stiller and Etan Coen – no, not a half-sibling to the Lebowski boys.
Tropic Thunder ran into flak from disabled advocates in the US for its repeated use of the word “retard”; Tugg Speedman’s previous bid for artistic respectability was sentimental Forest Gump-style Oscar-bait by the name of “Simple Jack”. Stiller does milk this gag shamelessly, but the protestors are missing the point. If there’s one group who should be protesting this movie it’s the Screen Actors Guild. The heart-rending, soul-searching, consciousness-raising commitment we prize in our movie stars, particularly around Oscar-time… It’s all mortifyingly travestied and lampooned.
Photographed by John Toll (The Thin Red Line) Tropic Thunder has production values to compete with the Nam movies it has in its sights, and the requisite 60s jukebox soundtrack to go with it, but after an hour or so the movie’s one big joke starts wandering around in circles and we’re stuck watching a painfully unfunny Jack Black flailing about in mock heroin withdrawal; Tugg reprising Simple Jack, yet again; and a silly, authentically B-movie climax which involves everyone shooting blanks.
Downey is the one actor who leaves an indelible impression among some overly familiar caricatures. The Asian characters, in particular, rightfully belong in some third rate Deer Hunter knock-off. This “real” war is no such thing – and the film forfeits a lot of its potential as a result.
Still, the misfires come with considerable compensation. Danny McBride (from Pineapple Express) and Nick Nolte work up a fiery double act, Matthew McConaughey is amusing as Tugg’s morally torn agent (a role originally earmarked for Owen Wilson), and the movie has a secret weapon in a supercharged cameo from a certain real-life studio head, not quite unrecognizable underneath a bald head, a distinctly Jewish couture, and a bracingly profane vocabulary. Mr Cruise, sir, you’re still the best mover and shaker in Hollywood.Tom Charity
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