WFTB Score: 9/20
The plot: Three actors fail to capture the drama and emotion of the Vietnam War, so the director hits on the idea of sending them out in the wild, only to strand them in the jungle with half a script and blank-firing guns. As they face real enemies their inner demons also surface, until they hardly know who, where or what they are – and it doesn’t look as though they’re going to get much help from the eccentric studio head, Les Grossman.
It has all the ingredients of a great Vietnam War Movie. A tale of brave soldiers fighting their way through the jungle, written by a man who was there, disabled veteran ‘Four Leaf’ Tayback (Nick Nolte), and starring an eclectic mixture of Hollywood hotshots: Tugg Speedman (Stiller), action hero of the never-ending Scorcher franchise, not to mention the overlooked drama Simple Jack; broad comedian Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black), trying to shake off his image as a fart gag man (and a drug habit); and celebrated Aussie thesp Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr.), so devoted to his role that he has changed his skin colour for the movie.
Despite these stars and up-and-comers Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson) and Kevin (Jay Baruchel), the movie isn’t working, so fiery producer Les Grossman (Tom Cruise, padded beyond recognition) sends a rocket up the ass of Brit director Damien Cockburn (Steve Coogan). Damien responds by flying the actors into the remote jungle and telling them they will be filmed as they track their way back; however, the director departs unexpectedly, and the band of brothers suddenly find themselves alone in hostile territory. Kirk refuses to break character, Tugg refuses to believe the cameras have stopped rolling, and Jeff is incapable of doing anything without his ‘jelly beans’.
Tayback – hiding a couple of secrets up his sleeves – and pyrotechnics man Cody (Danny McBride) are kidnapped by the drug-running operation of pint-sized overlord Tran (Brandon Soo Hoo). No great loss, perhaps; but when Tugg is also taken it brings his agent Rick (Matthew McConaughey) and Les into play, and asks the other actors to put on the performance of their lives to stage a rescue worthy of an Oscar-winning blockbuster.
Ben Stiller has appeared in dozens and dozens of movies, but a Stiller-directed film is something of a rarity, thirteen years spanning the distance between The Cable Guy and Tropic Thunder, the delirious Zoolander coming in the middle. And initially at least, it’s Zoolander to which this film bears closest comparison, Stiller’s Tugg Speedman echoing the model’s moody poses and almost total lack of brains. But the next film I thought of was Three Amigos, since this tale of actors-taken-for-real-fighters is surely a variation of the Martin/Chase/Short vehicle, only – given the unbelievable complications involved in rigging up the entire jungle with cameras – much more contrived. You could argue that Galaxy Quest is a better comparison still; whatever, it’s hard to argue that any of it adds up to a coherent, original whole or a cogent satire of either the movie business or movie star vanity.
Tropic Thunder is less an ensemble piece than a collection of star turns, a smorgasbord of bits and pieces; and inevitably, some parts are tastier than others. Robert Downey Jr. is simply brilliant, layering on the levels of character, making Sgt Osiris thoroughly believable while another believable character, blond bombshell Kirk Lazarus lies underneath. It’s a shame that Brandon T. Jackson is so wet as his genuinely black, drinks-flogging sparring partner, his rap-star masculinity predictably undermined by potential homosexuality.
Coogan and Baruchel are both underused, while McConaughey is occasionally funny but spends much of the film showcasing Tivo boxes and Nintendo Wiis. Jack Black takes a long time to do anything worthwhile but comes good in the end, while every second Nick Nolte spends on screen embarrasses the hell out of ‘comedian’ McBride.
Finally, the appearance of Tom Cruise as the grotesque Les Grossman is certainly a bold surprise, but in the main its impact comes through shock value rather than intrinsic humour. I may well warm to him and his funkly dancing on future viewings – or I may not. Bill Hader, as usual, hangs around in the background trying (and, as usual, failing) to catch some reflected glory.
Which leaves us with Stiller’s Tugg Speedman. Tugg’s adventures turn him into a panda-killer, then the tormented plaything of Tran, who makes him re-enact Simple Jack on a nightly basis for the compound. I like Stiller and found much of what he did pretty funny – especially the way he discards his adoptive child – but this statement has to be severely qualified. Firstly, because he’s so upstaged by Downey Jr.; secondly, because some of the comedy is so mean that labelling it as a satire on what actors will do for awards just doesn’t cut it as an excuse.
I am, of course, referring to Stiller’s portrayal of Jack and his ‘full retard’ conversation with Downey Jr. The dialogue is undeniably offensive and besides, hadn’t the issue already been comprehensively covered in Kate Winslet’s episode of Extras? You could also accuse Tropic Thunder of adding disrespect to Vietnam veterans to its list of outrages – though I think that’s a harder charge to make stick than the one of occasionally falling into lame parody, such as Stiller doing Brando in one of a number of nods to Apocalypse Now.
In fact, it’s obvious* that Tropic Thunder is aiming to be the Apocalypse Now of comedy movies. It doesn’t come off, though, despite a number of strong performances, Cruise’s memorable one and a big budget which allows for any number of pyrotechnics, helicopters and other stunts. Put simply, it’s just not funny enough often enough. And this is why, unlike Coppola’s masterpiece, I severely doubt Tropic Thunder will be particularly celebrated thirty years down the line.
NOTES: Not least because Stiller said so himself, here.