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Tropic Thunder

USA 2008
Directed by
Ben Stiller
106 minutes
Rated MA

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
3.5 stars

Tropic Thunder

Synopsis: The true story of the making of a movie based on a fake true story about a Vietnam War hero who never was.

With a headline cast of Ben Stiller, Jack Black and Robert Downey Jr., Tropic Thunder is a movie a lot of people are going to want to see. The popcorn and choc-top brigade are likely to be well-satisfied by its mix of amped-up action mayhem and dick-and-fart jokes, whilst those with eyes and ears for more refined pleasures will probably find enough to make the film’s more conventional aspects bearable.. Director, writer and actor Stiller is a rare figure in the Hollywood system, someone who straddles the mainstream and the off-beat and the film well-exemplifies his mixed allegiances.

Penned by Stiller with Justin Theroux and Etan Cohen, the film starts off as Scary Movie-style spoof of the rumble-in-the-jungle-war action movie with a lengthy sequence that parodies Vietnam war classics such as Apocalypse Now (979)and Platoon (1986). It then breaks its stride and turns into a more straight-forward action comedy about a making movies, material which Stiller obviously knows well from his many years on the sets and in the board rooms of big Hollywood productions. Whilst on one level this is a relatively disappointing shift of tone insofar as it is less challenging for the writers and instead falls back easily onto familiar stereotypes - bully-boy producers, wannabe artist directors, actors with crises of confidence, OK Corral-style shootouts, big bangs and pop music – within the format of its rudimentarily-plotted template, it is the film’s knowing self-referential twists which give it its lift.

First and foremost here is Robert Downey Jr. playing a Method School Australian actor playing a jive-talkin’ bad-ass nigga. Downey inhabits his 2-in-1 character with understated panache whilst the script’s digs at the artistic pretensions of actors are a delight. The “full-retard” exchange between Downy and Stiller is the film’s highpoint, although some people may be offended by the running joke about Simple Jack (presumably a contribution by Etan “no-I’m-not-Ethan-Coen” Cohen, who wrote and directed a movie called My Wife Is Retarded in 2007), although they will probably have already been well-enough affronted by the mercilessly gross language. Stiller’s Tugg Speedman is yet another variant on his stock-in-trade, not-too-bright, inept-but-delusionally-vain characters (cf. Zoolander), 2001) but he does it with a self-sacrificing commitment that, as always, wins one’s appreciation. Sadly, Jack Black seems these days to have only two notes to his repertoire – being fa tand the ability to pull faces. He really needs to get back together with Mike White and into smaller-scale films with material that extends his limited skills.

If Downey gives a stand-out performance, hats must also be doffed to Tom Cruise as the repulsively offensive, rap dancing producer, Les Grossman. Many people praise Cruise’s effort as the hyped-up motivational speaker in Magnolia (1999) but here, assisted by some skilful make-up, he gives a gem of an against-type performance. On the other hand Nick Nolte cuts a rather sad figure as Four Leaf Taybak and Steve Coogan gets a few limp scenes before he is mercilessly removed whilst Matthew McConaughey has a rather indecisive role as Speedman’s agent.

A stew of visceral thrills, potty-mouthed crassness and pop cultural cannibalism, Tropic Thunder clearly aims to be bench-mark multiplex entertainment, even to the extent of providing its own trailers and an amusing commercial for “Booty Sweat”, a Pepsi-like soft drink endorsed by rap singer and actor "Alpa Chino" (Brandon T. Jackson) . Whilst it doesn’t quite manage to realize its ambitions, as a mix of mainstream commercial trash and gleeful parody of the same, it is better-than-passable and better-than-most.




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