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Despite my somewhat indifference, bordering on dislike, of Ben Stiller and most of what he does, Tropic Thunder has been on my much-anticipated list for some time now. The audacity of what he was attempting, spoofing the industry that was giving him the money to do so, blatantly and lovingly, was too great to ignore. And then there is the cast of stars with cameo after cameo of surprise faces joining in on the fun, not to mention the intense marketing strategy pushing it along. Websites for each fictional actor, a site with clips from the Rain of Madness making of documentary (a Hearts of Darkness send up “directed” by co-writer Justin Theroux), and even a faux E! True Hollywood Story to air the week before its premiere in theatres just add to the mythology and attention to detail that went into its making. Now, having finally seen the end result, I must say it didn’t let me down. True, I was expecting more in the way of story and plot, especially with all that background info manufactured, but when you get down to it, the entertainment value is off the charts, the one-liners are going to be quoted for years to come, and the laughs come often and hard.

To take on subject matter as lofty as a send-up to war films, mainly Apocalypse Now, needs a certain amount to bravery and confidence to not care if it all backfires. The production value and effects make this seem as though it is a certified blockbuster falling apart at the seams. Sure the characters are funny and the events on display hilarious, but by the look and feel of the aesthetic, this is a war film to the end. Between that realism and the love I have for meta-narrative, there was little chance Stiller would be bombing in my eyes. Something about movies within movies intrigue the heck out of me, and this one having actors within actors just played up my interest more. There was truly no better way to start this movie then how was done: the playing of Alpa Chino’s rap music, consumerism selling commercial and trailers for our three leads’ previous films. What better way to be introduced to our action star, our funnyman, and our award winning thespian? Knowing full well the extent of satire going on, each spot delivers, giving a little background into the work these men have done in the past.

Directly connecting with the subsequent shot, a live scene from the film at hand, the egos finally come out and show face. Jack Black’s Jeff Portney reins in his comedian schtick to portray a hardened solider, voice rasping as he shows his serious side; Stiller’s Tugg Speedman attempts to revive the action cred he tried to leave behind with his Oscar-bait turn as a mentally handicapped man in Simple Jack, where he went “full retarded, no one ever comes back from that”; and Robert Downey Jr.’s Kirk Lazarus, Australian genius at his craft, playing a black man like he was born one. The scene continues without a hitch, explosions everywhere, screams heard in the distance, and a heartfelt death about to be delivered, until the men show their true colors. Tugg can’t make himself cry, (he’s just not that good), and Kirk’s blubbering and drooling is just so real that the two must partake in a pissing match while effects guru Cody, (the red hot of late Danny McBride), let’s loose the one-take only scorched earth fire storm. It’s all falling apart and script-writer/former soldier Four Leaf, (the always gruff Nick Nolte), gets the director, (Steve Coogan with one of the best film exits I’ve ever seen), to agree on guerilla filming, deep in the jungle of foreign lands. Here is where the fun begins and where the movie inside the movie becomes real, or, in effect, the actual movie—kind of like “the dude playing the dude, disguised as another dude”. The levels at play here are just too many to mention.

Besides a weakly written role for Black, the rest of the men are given enough to work with for some truly great moments. Stiller has a few instances where he returns to his over-long annoying routine—pouring “fake” blood into his mouth for one—but for the most part did a real good job, especially with his tough guy poses shooting off his gun. Jay Baruchel shines as the only non-celebrity involved, the guy who went to boot camp, read the novel and the script, and idolizes the men he is working with. Good to see him get a more beefed up role as opposed to the side parts in Apatow flims. And the back and forth between Downey Jr. and Brandon T. Jackson’s Alpa never get old. The whole dynamic of real black man versus fake was unceasingly funny.

There were plot points that irked me throughout, TiVo’s cameo being the biggest culprit, but I found myself pushing the problems aside and just enjoying the ride. Downey Jr.’s facial expressions, voices, and presence may steal the show, but what really allowed me to forget my worries was an absolutely brilliant cameo from Tom Cruise. His studio executive, pompously crass, loud-mouth made me think of all the horror stories you hear about the Weinsteins, and his dance moves can not be equaled. Tropic Thunder is first and foremost a vehicle for a bunch of friends to have a blast poking fun at their craft and really at themselves. I’ll be remembering quotes all night now, thinking that while the story itself doesn’t necessitate me watching it again soon, the jokes just might make buying it a must…not to mention the wealth of extras that DVD is sure to have.

Tropic Thunder 8/10

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photography:
[1] Jay Baruchel,Brandon Jackson, Ben Stiller, Robert Downey Jr., Jack Black and Steve Coogan in DreamWorks Pictures’ Tropic Thunder (2008). Photo credit by Merie Weismiller Wallace. Copyright © DreamWorks Pictures. All Rights Reserved.
[2] Robert Downey Jr. stars as Kirk Lazarus in DreamWorks Pictures’ Tropic Thunder (2008) Copyright © DreamWorks Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

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