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Tropic Thunder (2008) Print E-mail
Wednesday, 13 August 2008
“Tropic Thunder” is a great idea for an action comedy that, unfortunately, is given only good, not great, treatment. Ben Stiller directs for the first time since “Zoolander,” and as with that half-baked movie, shows a lot more skill in front of the camera than he does behind it. The movie has a half-assed pace—sometimes brisk, sometimes plodding—and doesn’t really bother with much characterization. It also leaves some questions—like what happens to Nick Nolte?

It opens with a few amusing bogus trailers. Tugg Speedman (Stiller) is a major action star who had a big hit with “Scorcher,” which was followed by a string of declining sequels. Hoping to win an Oscar, he tackles a “demanding” role—a mentally-deficient farm worker in a movie called “Simple Jack.” But it was a bomb. Meanwhile, Australian super-duper actor and multiple Oscar winner Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey, Jr.), whose latest movie seems to be “Brokeback Mountain” set in a monastery (and costarring Toby Maguire, one of several known actors who do cameos here). But he wants to broaden the base of his appeal. Then there’s Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black), who’s just made a profitable sequel, “Fatties 2,” about a highly flatulent family—and he plays all the parts. He wants to make his appeal a little less base. These bogus trailers are all too real, and are “approved for audiences;” they’re a quick highlight of the film.

So now here they all are on location in Southeast Asia making “Tropic Thunder,” a big-scale Vietnam War-era action thriller under the direction of uncertain Brit Damien Cockburn (Steve Coogan). Determined to win another Oscar, Lazarus has taken a drug that dies his skin dark brown; he’s playing a black man—a Negro. Nobody can get him to drop his urban street Ebonics-filled talk; he stays in character, he claims, until he finishes recording the DVD commentary. Also on hand are actual black man Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson), a rap star hoping to turn movie star; he named himself after another one. Plus Kevin Sandusky (Jay Baruchel), pretty much making his big screen debut.

We see a monumental action scene involving lots of blood and guts—that’s it exactly: a lot of blood, and a lot of guts—and an “Apocalypse Now”-like rain of napalm behind a row of coconut palms. But this is a goofup; almost everything that could go wrong does. So Cockburn is chewed out over the phone by foul-mouthed, egotistical studio exec Les Grossman (an unrecognizable and hilarious Tom Cruise), who’s about to pull the plug on the whole “Tropic Thunder” shoot.

Distraught, Cockburn confides in gruff, tough Four Leaf Tayback (Nick Nolte), a hooks-for-hands Vietnam vet whose novel about the dangerous, fatality-riddled mission that rescued him from behind enemy lines is the basis for “Tropic Thunder.” Tayback’s around to add color; his grumbled advise leads Cockburn to make a decision he hopes will save his film.

A chopper lands Cockburn, Tayback and actors Speedman, Lazarus, Portnoy, Chino and Sandusky in the middle of the steaming jungle. (The movie was shot on Kauai.) Alone, they will improvise the rescue mission, photographed by cameras Sandusky has planted all through the area.
Even after a minor setback, the actors are gung-ho for this, sure it will be the making of them as stars and as men. Their egos are unquenchable as they set off into the green wilderness, with Lazarus doggedly remaining in character, much to Alpa Chino’s occasional annoyance. But they don’t know that a gang of murderous drug gangsters calling themselves the Flaming Dragons considers this part of the forest THEIR terrain….

Sorry it took me so much space just to set up the movie, because the movie does it briskly—but the screenplay by Stiller, Justin Theroux and Etan Cohen is difficult to synopsize in brief.

The strengths and weaknesses of “Tropic Thunder” lie in this setup: it’s amusing to see a bunch of pampered Hollywood types trying to be heroes—and mostly trying to impress each other. Speedman is deeply envious of Lazarus’s many Oscars, while Lazarus is envious of Speedman’s (previous) financial success. Chino is annoyed with Lazarus, Sandusky is just trying to stay alive, and heavy drug user Portnoy is rapidly fraying around the edges for lack of the many types of fixes he so desperately needs.

Trouble is, that’s all there is to Portnoy; despite Black’s energetic efforts, the character remains pretty much a one-line joke. It’s occasionally a very funny joke, but after a while, Portnoy—and Black—wear out their welcome. There’s not much actually to the characters of Chino and Sandusky; they’re mostly along for the ride. Nolte has an occasional good scene, but his character is even more of an outsider.

Ben Stiller is a very hard-working actor—and apparently was a very hard-working director, too, putting his cast and crew through boot-camp-like difficulties—but he’s a very limited actor. He has only about two and a half expressions—happy with a beetle-browed glare, unhappy with a beetle-browed glare, and brainless sunny optimism, here reserved for the occasional scenes from “Simple Jack.” Speedman isn’t easy to like, but Stiller does enlist the audience on his side, especially when he’s captured by the Flaming Dragons, where he’s a particular target of the Dragons’s 14-year-old leader Tran (Brandon Soo Hoo, amusingly impressive). When Speedman is captured by the drug gang, he still thinks it’s really a movie. “Now let’s do the torture scene!” he exclaims happily.

The movie occasionally cuts back to Hollywood where Speedman’s worried agent (an unbilled Matthew McConaughey) has to keep risking the wrath of the fearsome Les Grossman. (When, by phone, Speedman forlornly admits he’s killed the thing I love most in the world, the agent wonderingly responds, “You killed a hooker?”) Tom Cruise has been around Hollywood a long time; it’s hard not to wonder on which real-life models he based this spectacularly rotten character. He even terrorizes the Flaming Dragons (trying to ransom Speedman) by long distance. Everyone lives in terror of Grossman, who gets the last scene in the film—a peculiarly unfunny solo sequence of Cruise bopping to rap music.

There are lots of jokes aimed at Hollywood, but “Tropic Thunder” is not really anti-Hollywood at all. All of these egotistical characters are basically decent guys; the movie makes fun of bonding-under-fire at the beginning, but at the end we get REAL bonding under fire—still funny, but the characters do really mean it. These actors can actually form friendships, they actually can rise to the occasion, even if shaky, even if they’re tripped up by finding fans in unexpected places, even if they really really need a fix big time. We’re not to regard the actors as irredeemable jerks; they’re REDEEMABLE jerks, and they all get their big scene at the end, when the movie turns into the kind of action movie it was parodying at the beginning. (But where did Nolte go?)

Stiller tries a few questionable sources of humor: Speedman kills a panda then wears its head, ending up looking like Nick Nolte did in “Farewell to the King.” Pandas are adored around the world, and legitimately endangered (and never found in the area shown); killing one is risky business. Also risky is when Lazarus tells Speedman why he goofed with “Simply Jack:” he did “full retard.” He briskly runs down other actors who were wiser, never going for “full retard:” Dustin Hoffman in “Rain Man,” Tom Hanks in “Forrest Gump,” and so forth. The casual use of “retard” here has already aroused protests by handicapped people; at least one group has called for a boycott of the movie. But the scene plays like we’re not to endorse that word, but to regard such brusque analysis as stemming from actors’ egoes, actors more concerned about Oscars than about the characters they play.

Stiller is pretty much Stiller; if you liked him before, you’ll like him again. But Downey (like Johnny Depp) is always different. Here, he’s convincingly Australian in the few moments when he’s not being a tough black American streetwise soldier—he is completely the character he’s playing. On top of that, he’s usually funny, at least when you can understand him. The big reborn-as-a-real-person scene at the end is less convincing than the rest, but the plot requires it.

The movie slows down occasionally, and fails to always find funny stuff for the talented cast to do. There’s some standing around, there are some confusing action scenes at the camp of the Flaming Dragons, and there’s that big reconciliation scene you knew was coming—and therefore cannot become very involved in. But when “Tropic Thunder” is funny, it’s hilarious; the best performances are by Downey and Cruise, but everyone’s in there plugging. And it looks great with these Hawaiian locations up there on the big screen. It doesn’t work as well as the filmmakers assumed, but it’s likeable, entertaining and amusing. And you can’t say that about a lot of movies these days.

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