Monday, March 10, 2014

Tropic Thunder

Originally Written and Posted at on 8/13/08 w/ Additional Edits & Revisions.

Directed and starring Ben Stiller and written by Stiller, Justin Theroux, and Etan Cohen. Tropic Thunder tells the story of a Vietnam war film production gone horribly wrong due to a group of egomaniacal actors and an overly serious director as production is suddenly shut down. Through the suggestion of the film's deranged screenwriter, the director and five of his actors decide to into guerilla filmmaking to shot on actual locations until they're captured by a real Vietnam army as they decide to fight back. A spoof of sorts on egomaniacal, so-called "auteurs", method actors, and all sorts of things that go wrong in a big, Hollywood production. Stiller and his team decide to make a film that makes fun of all of these notorious Hollywood production while taking shots on everything and everyone including Stiller himself. With an all-star cast that includes Robert Downey Jr., Jack Black, Steve Coogan, Danny McBride, Brandon T. Jackson, Nick Nolte, Jay Baruchel, Reggie Lee, Brandon Soo Hoo,  Matthew McConaughey, & Tom Cruise. Tropic Thunder is an explosive yet witty comedy from Ben Stiller & co.

A Vietnam War film epic entitled Tropic Thunder is being made by first-time director Damien Cockburn (Steve Coogan) with help from the man who wrote the book the film is based on named "Four Leaf" Tayback (Nick Nolte). The film stars fading action star Tugg Speedman (Ben Stiller) whose career is in the skids and is in desperate need to make a comeback following a disastrous portrayal in the critical and commercial bomb Simple Jack where he played a mentally-challenged farmhand. Speedman's co-star includes comedy actor Jack Portnoy (Jack Black) whose Fatties franchise has made him rich but with no respect as he's also gotten trouble for his dependency on heroin. Playing the role of the film's African-American platoon sergeant is critically-acclaimed, award-winning Australian actor Kirk Lazarus whose method-actor persona to play roles has reached new heights where he darkens his skin to portray an African American.

The film also stars a rapper-turned-actor named Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson) and newcomer Kevin Sandusky (Jay Baruchel) as Cockburn is overwhelmed with the actors' demands and such. With a month behind schedule, lots of money spent, and an accident involving pyrotechnics by special effects guru Cody Underwood (Danny R. McBride) has made Tropic Thunder a likely disaster. After a meeting with studio head Les Grossman (Tom Cruise), Cockburn fears that the film would be shut down until Tayback suggests to shoot the film on location in the jungles guerilla style. Cockburn, Tayback, Underwood, and the five actors go to the jungle as Tayback and Underwood watch from afar to work on the special effects. Yet, as Cockburn gets ready to shoot, something bad happens.  What the actors and crew don't know is that they're nearby a group of drug farmers known as Flaming Dragon as everything becomes confusing except for Kirk Lazarus who believes that they're lost and in trouble. 

With Sandusky being the only person able to read maps, Speedman is convinced that they're still shooting a film. Tayback and Underwood meanwhile, learn that something has gone wrong when they're suddenly captured by the Flaming Dragon as a secret is unveiled. Back in Hollywood, Speedman's agent Rick "Pecker" Peck (Matthew McConaughey) tries to get Speedman his TiVo as part of the contract when he learns that Speedman has been captured by the Flaming Dragon whose leader is a 12-year old kid named Tran (Brandon Soo Hoo) who has held him for ransom. Speedman is forced to be tortured while having to play the role of Simple Jack in front of the Flaming Dragon. Rick and Grossman contact the Flaming Dragon but Grossman has ideas of his own that would make him save money. With Portnoy now on withdrawal after his stash of heroin had been stolen by a bat, it's up to Lazarus, Chino, Sandusky, and Portnoy to save Speedman as they try to figure out what to do as they decide to act out as war heroes with Speedman, Tayback, and Underwood helping by as all hell breaks loose with some surprising help.

The film is essentially a satire on not just war movies but Hollywood itself. The film begins with a series of fake trailers and an ad for Alpa Chino's Booty Sweat drink to his song I Love Tha Pussy that makes fun of Hollywood, it's commercialism, and the types of films that are being made from bloated action films, low-brow comedy, and the Oscar-bait films. What Ben Stiller and his co-writers do is take a look at Hollywood and show audiences how bloated it is. How they can do stupid things while taking shots at studio executives, agents, directors, and actors. Stiller even makes fun of himself knowing that he too, has an ego since he's also the director of this film.

Stiller's approach to the film does work since that it's a big film with explosions and such as he creates something that's meant to be bloated like a war film set. Shot on location in Hawaii, the film does have a look that is like many war films. At the same time, it plays up like an action film. While not every joke Stiller creates is perfect, he does hit the funny moments right at its target largely due to the help of his actors and crew. Stiller even lets actors get loose into some comedic moments while the faux trailers he creates range from being really funny to something that looks extremely bad yet unintentionally hilarious. It's Stiller making fun of Hollywood as well as the things actors are willing to do for the sake of their art. 

The character of Kirk Lazarus, who darkens his skin black to play an African-American might conjure up the idea of black-face. Yet, what Stiller does is to show how method actors are willing to take themselves way too seriously. Yet, there's an African-American character in that film who takes issue with Lazarus acting like an African-American as a commentary on how actors of color would get overlooked in favor of white actors. It's a dead-on commentary that Stiller and his writers make as does the portrayal of mentally-challenged people.

Now there were some groups that might have had some offense to portrayal of mentally-challenged individuals where the term "retard" is used. Those advocate groups and such are missing the point. What Stiller is trying to say is how far actors are willing to go to play mentally-challenged folks just so they can win an Oscar and such. It's really more about how low Hollywood is willing to cash in or claim glory for a group of flawed individuals. The conversation Speedman and Lazarus has about this issue is where Lazarus says "You never go full retard" as a point of how low actors are willing to play mentally-challenged people. Stiller is right on the money, why do you think Sean Penn didn't win for Best Actor for I Am Sam? And that movie fucking sucked! Overall, Stiller's direction and the script unveils at Hollywood at its most absurd as Stiller and his team is dead-on about all the things Hollywood is willing to do.

Cinematographer John Toll, famous for his work in Terrence Malick's The Thin Red Line and Edward Zwick's The Last Samurai does excellent work with the film's war-like look with wonderful shading and such on the film's exterior sequences. Toll's work, though not up to par with his other camera work, is right for the film as he captures the look of war movies while getting the chance to mimic some of those great war scenes. Editor Greg Hayden does excellent work with the film's cutting that plays to its rhythm of action films while allowing the chance to slow down for some of the film's comedy scenes.

Production designer Jeff Mann with set decorator Daniel B. Clancy and art directors Richard L. Johnson and Dan Webster do excellent work in creating a set for film's war scenes, heroin farm, and all that stuff to create a look that looks like a war movie. In the Hollywood scenes, it's all filled with hi-tech gadgets and posh rooms with Matthew McConaughey playing video games and such. Costume designer Marlene Stewart does great work in creating the look of the soldier clothes as well as the look of the Flaming Dragon stuff to give the idea of a war movie. Sound editors Jim Brookshire and Craig Henighan also do great work with the film's sound in the layering of machine gun fire, explosions, and such. Special effects supervisor Michael Meinardus and visual effects supervisor Michael Owens do great work in the creation of explosions and falling helicopters for all the film's action sequences. The make-up design is great with Michele Burke and Barney Burman creating a great look for Tom Cruise as the fat, bald, flabby Les Grossman.

Music composer Theodore Shapiro creates music that is reminiscent of most war films that is often sweeping and bombastic while the film's soundtrack supervised by George Drakoulias is filled with classic cuts by the Temptations, Creedence Clearwater Revival, the Rolling Stones, and other cuts of the late 1960s while the Mooney Suzuki and Crystal Method provide most of the newer music. The soundtrack overall, is excellent for that era of Vietnam while the new music adds a fresh, exciting approach to the film.

The casting by Kathy Driscoll and Francine Maisler is excellent with cameo appearances from Jennifer Love Hewitt, Jon Voight, Jason Bateman, Nsync star Lance Bass, Tyra Banks, Maria Menounos, Stiller's real-life wife Christine Taylor as a star in Simple Jack, and in the hilarious Satan's Alley trailer, Tobey McGuire. Notable small roles from J. Thomas & Jacob Chon as an Asian boy Stiller befriends while Reggie Lee and Trieu Tran are excellent as two of Tran's henchman. Bill Hader is good as studio executive Rob Slolom though isn't given much to do except play a foil for Les Grossman. Newcomer Brandon Soo Hoo is great as Tran, the 12-year old drug lord who manages to beat Tugg Speedman into submission while having a great fight scene with Jack Black.

Steve Coogan is excellent as first-time director Damien Cockburn who is trying to make a great war movie while dealing with all of the egos of his actors and production problems as Coogan's small role is definitely worth remembering. Danny McBride, riding high from his other comedic role in the Judd Apatow-David Gordon Green film Pineapple Express, is great as special effects guru Cody Underwood who likes to explode things while in awe of Four-Leaf Tayback as he gets a chance to live a dream despite some bad experiences on Hollywood sets. Nick Nolte is also great as Four-Leaf Tayback with all of his grizzled, psychotic war experience while sporting hooks until he seems what he isn't to be as Nolte is superb in this role. Matthew McConaughey, who fills in for Owen Wilson, is great as loyal agent Rick "Pecker" Peck who is trying to get Speedman his TiVo for while making sure his career is still going well no matter how bad it is.

In what has to be his best performance since Paul Thomas Anderson's 1999 film Magnolia, Tom Cruise delivers a hilarious performance as a foul-mouthed, balding, sleazy studio head honcho Les Grossman. Wearing a fat suit and all sorts of prosthetics, Cruise's appearances are some of the funniest moments as he dances and curses throughout the entire movie. Brandon T. Jackson is excellent as Alpa Chino (get it), a rapper-turned-actor who also carries a secret while trying to deal with Kirk Lazarus acting all African-American as he serves a great foil for Downey. Jay Baruchel is also great as Kevin Sandusky, a new young actor with combat training experience who is the straight man of the film while being the one guy who keeps his cool and point out every contradiction that the actors have.

Jack Black is wonderfully funny as Jack Portnoy, an actor that's a satire on latter-day Eddie Murphy as well as late, troubled comedy actors like Chris Farley and John Belushi. Black's performance is filled with some funny one-liners and antics that's typical of Black yet it works since he brings what he does. Ben Stiller is excellent in his role as the clueless yet egotistical Tugg Speedman, an actor whose star is fading as he's desperate for a comeback. Playing it straight while doing the typical Stiller antics known in most of his comedies, it's an excellent performance where Stiller makes fun of actors including himself. It's a fine one from a comedy actor who prefers to share the screen with other actors.

Finally, there's Robert Downey Jr. in one of his best performances to date. Riding high from his recent performance in Jon Favreau's Iron Man, Downey exhibits all of the craziness that method actors do as Downey stays in character throughout the entire film. Sporting a funny African-American accent, saying lots of slang, and a whole lot of stuff, Downey downplays all the stereotypes given for most African-American actors while saying the word "motherfucker" a lot. It's a performance that's truly Oscar-worthy as in a year of stellar to great performances, Robert Downey Jr. is truly at the top of his game.

Tropic Thunder is a funny, smart, and action-packed comedy from Ben Stiller as it's also his best work to date as a director. While some might prefer the zaniness and low-brow humor of Zoolander, Tropic Thunder works for its satire and a great collection of actors led by Robert Downey Jr. In a year where spoofs, parodies, and satires lose its touch, it's good to see a film that knows that it can take itself seriously and cannot. With additional kudos to Jack Black, Brandon T. Jackson, Jay Baruchel, Matthew McConaughey, Steve Coogan, Danny McBride, Nick Nolte, and Tom Cruise. Tropic Thunder is an all-out, laugh-out, explosive comedy that stands out as one of the year's best.

Ben Stiller Films: (Reality Bites) - (The Cable Guy) - (Zoolander) - (The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013 film))

© thevoid99 2014


Brittani Burnham said...

Great review! I loved this movie so much. The fake trailers were so perfect and RDJ's character was so risky, I'm glad they were able to pull it off.

I still laugh when I think of the "you can't go full retard" speech.

thevoid99 said...

Thank you. While I think Zoolander remains Stiller's crowning achievement as a director, this one is a close second. I just love the way they spin about everything that is wrong with Hollywood and the cliches that is created.

ruth said...

Been a while since I saw this but I thought it was a hoot! The cast was pretty great, but RDJ stole the show, well him and Cruise as Less Grossman. Not a bad directing gig for Stiller! I agree it's a riot and one of the best comedies released that year.

thevoid99 said...

@ruth-It's an amazing film and it still holds up in my head. I love Downey in that film and it's definitely deserving of the Oscar nod that he got.

Unknown said...

The writers of this movie must have great memories, spoofing so many things. I loved the character of Tran. A friend could not believe how any group of rebels would allow a kid to run the show. I reminded him of the Htoo brothers, Jimmy and Luther, the chain smoking Burmese kids who attain mythical status in the Army of God by supposedly walking over mines and not detonating them! This sort of justified the rebels kneeling when they realized Tuggman "was" Simple Jack. They were ready to worship him, kind of like the ancient stone figures in the jungle.Man, I see trailers and just shake my head how they tied everything and included so much.