Tropic Thunder

Movie Information

The Story: A group of actors find themselves up against harsh -- potentially lethal -- reality when their director decides to make their movie's jungle warfare experience more authentic. The Lowdown: Explosive bad-taste comedy and Hollywood satire in a movie that sets out to offend everyone -- and may well succeed. It's also very funny in the process.
Genre: Satirical Comedy
Director: Ben Stiller (Zoolander)
Starring: Ben Stiller, Jack Black, Robert Downey Jr., Brandon T. Jackson, Jay Baruchel, Steve Coogan
Rated: R

The other day I had the interesting experience of seeing a couple fleeing from Ben Stiller’s Tropic Thunder in some degree of shocked agitation after no more than exposure to the movie’s first 60 seconds. Setting aside the obvious questions of why people cannot read movie ratings (“Rated R for pervasive language, including sexual references, violent content and drug material”) and insist on going to films they obviously know nothing about, I have to say that a picture that can provoke that kind of response must be doing something right. And judging by the fact that Stiller’s film is the one that finally unseated The Dark Knight as the number-one movie in the country, it seems that it is.

Unconscionably vulgar, raunchy, foulmouthed and way over-the-top, Tropic Thunder launches an almost relentless satirical attack on Hollywood, the Oscar-voting mind-set, good taste and political correctness—and emerges the winner in the resulting best-two-falls-out-of-three grudge match. The film sets out to be deliberately provocative, and it more than succeeds in this mission. To start, Robert Downey Jr. plays an Australian method actor (“I don’t step out of character until I do the DVD commentary”) who insists on playing the role of a black character in state-of-the-art blackface. Strangely, this bout of courting controversy resulted in a mere ripple in public opinion, while another aspect of Tropic Thunder opened an entirely different can of worms.

That aspect—actors who make a shameless Oscar bid by playing mentally challenged characters—came under heavy fire for making fun of the mentally challenged. Never mind that the film is making fun of the whole insensitive business of truly exploiting the mentally challenged by using them as Oscar bait to appeal to the shallowness of Academy voters. There was such an outcry (complete with the word “boycott” attached) that Paramount set up a phone number for viewers to call to register their complaints in the matter. Considering the film’s equal-opportunity-offender status, it would seem that they might also have set up hotlines for blacks, Jews, Asians, gays, homophobic rappers, animal-rights activists, agents and armchair warriors in the bargain. Nobody gets out of this unscathed, but it’s all ultimately directed at the entertainment industry. In other words, it’s a movie that opens fire on the very people who made it.

Apart from its setup, Tropic Thunder is a hard film to discuss in any depth without giving too much away. In essence, it’s the tale of what happens when a big-budget war movie goes out of control on location (think Apocalypse Now). With his back to the wall, the director, Damien Cockburn (Steve Coogan), follows the advice of the amputee war hero (Nick Nolte) on whose memoirs the film is based and dumps his stars in the jungle to play it for real (with hundreds of concealed cameras and special effects at the ready). Everything that can go wrong with this loopy notion does—especially for the director—and gets worse when drug dealers mistake the actors for real soldiers. The whole film works on the deceptively simple notion that all the stars—and the writer—harbor deep secrets (some deeper than others) that reveal themselves under pressure. (It’s kind of like Sternberg’s Shanghai Express (1932) with flying viscera, gross-out humor and rampaging bad taste.)

For such a deliberately outrageous film, there are moments of surprising subtlety within its confines that result in some of the funniest moments (note the inherent truthfulness of the scene where Downey’s character explains to Stiller’s character why his Oscar bid with Simple Jack failed). More often than not, however, it’s a film that delights in shocking the audience by crossing seemingly uncrossable boundaries with unabashed glee. Some of it doesn’t really work (though if you put it up against every other flat-out comedy this year, it feels like genius), but most of it does—or, I should say, most of it does unless you’re easily offended and take things a little too seriously.

Despite what you’ve undoubtedly heard about the Tom Cruise cameo (it’s a lot more than a cameo and that’s not exactly in its favor all the time), this picture, like Iron Man, is Robert Downey Jr.‘s film. Everyone is good in the film, but Downey flirts with greatness here—and he even reaches it on several occasions. What could have been nothing but bad-taste shtick turns into a genuine characterization. He’s not only “a dude playin’ a dude who’s disguised as another dude,” he’s a character who truly doesn’t know who he is, and is as much real as funny. The movie has got some imperfections (someone get Stiller a better record collection, please), but Downey certainly isn’t one of them. And when you mix Downey’s performance with a pretty savvy take-no-prisoners satire, the result is comedy of note. Rated R for pervasive language, including sexual references, violent content and drug material.

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress since December 2000. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

5 thoughts on “Tropic Thunder

  1. b.

    I think your review here is pretty much spot on, except for the comment about Stiller’s record collection. It seemed apparent to me that the music was selected as a send up of Apocalypse Now and every Vietnam movie or sixties retrospective made since.

  2. Ken Hanke

    That may be the intention, but I’d just once like to hear a soundtrack on a Vietnam movie that offered some kind of variety!

  3. Tonberry

    You should never go grocery shopping when you’re hungry. You should never drink and drive. And you should never see a crappy movie (In my case, Clone Wars) and then go see an awesome movie (Tropic Thunder) because that awesome movie will probably get a lot more praise than it deserves. I really enjoyed Tropic Thunder, but you like you said, this movie has been released in a time were the competition, comedy or otherwise, is not exactly up to par. The summer slump. I don’t think it would have dethroned The Dark Knight if it was released a week after TDK’s release, but since it seems over half the nation has seen TDK like five times, of course people want something fresh. Especially something funny after TDK’s brooding tone. (Which I thought Pineapple Express would have been the first to dethrone).

    After the first paragraph, you might think I think Tropic Thunder is overrated. No. I might just overrate it, because I really, really enjoyed this film and laughed my way through beginning to end. But I saw it after Clone Wars, and just about anything seems better than that, even Pierce

  4. Ken Hanke

    Well, you can look at the figures and see it wouldn’t have knocked off Dark Knight in its second week. Dark Knight, after all, is the (somewhat inexplicably to me) movie phenomenon of the summer.

  5. Tonberry

    Shoot, I’m sorry, my post screwed up and is incomplete. Just what do I mean with ‘even Pierce.’

    Let’s rewind, thank ya kindly.

    But I saw it after Clone Wars, and just about anything seems better than that, even Pierce Broson singing his heart out. So it’s not really fair. I guess I’m really into these ‘offensive, shock’ comedies. Borat is the only other movie in recent years that had the same effect on me, to quote Homer Simpson “It’s funny because it’s true.” And I’m sure there is a lot of dark truths here.

    Props to Ben Stiller. I never thought he had it in him. Props to Downey Jr. He’s this summers movie star. Props to Cruise. For being insane.

    The weakest link for me, was Jack Black. I like Jack Black as an actor, but his character is most of what doesn’t work for me. Just not quite as funny as I expected. The drug withdrawal gag has a been there done that feel. Though he does have a few funny lines, especially when he’s tied up to a tree during the campfire scene.

    This film was pretty much gold for me. Not platinum, gold. (I might start rating films using raw materials). It’s four stars duly earned. I did enjoy it a lot more than Pineapple Express. I’d place this in my Top 5 movies of this summer.

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