Tropic Thunder introduces our primary cast members through a bunch of fake movie trailers and television commercials. While not in order, these are what I remember: Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black), the drug addict, is starring in Fatties: Fart Two; Tugg Speedman (Ben Stiller), the action star, is about to be involved in Scorcher IV; Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey, Jr.), the method actor, will be appearing with Tobey Maguire in Satan’s Alley; Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson) promotes the energy drink “Booty Sweat.”
There’s another thing that all of these “actors” have in common: They’re going to star in a movie adaptation of the book “Tropic Thunder,” set in the Vietnam war. At first glance, Tropic Thunder presents us with a film within a film. The movie we’re watching is about the production of a movie inside the film’s universe, if you get what I’m saying. All of the characters are actors, attempting to recreate the Vietnam war. They’re all very dramatic people in their lives, though, and the film they’re attempting to make is a month behind schedule.
It’s then when the film’s director, Damien Cockburn (Steve Coogan) gets a brilliant idea: Let’s rig the forest up with cameras, drop the actors inside the forest, and just let them survive while capturing their footage “guerrilla-style.” Right after he’s done explaining this to his actors, he steps on a land mine and explodes. The actors all think he did that for dramatic effect, but it soon becomes clear that the movie actors are in actual danger, and must fight for their lives (for real) in order to survive.
Another requirement, it appears, is that all of the characters have to either make reference to, or take pot-shots at, Hollywood, particularly action films. It’s safe to say that Ben Stiller (who also directed Tropic Thunder), hasn’t exactly had a successful action career — that’s not the type of actor he is — and this seemed to be like his way of flipping off the action sector of the movie industry. Most of the cast hasn’t exactly had big action careers, so I guess it makes sense to take the satire as far as you can go.
What doesn’t work about Tropic Thunder is when it tries to actually be an action film. The first scene, before we’re aware that we’re watching a production of a war movie being filmed, tries to be one, although it’s still done with a little wink every now and then (the death scenes are hilariously over-the-top, for example). But at the end of the film, we try for a real action sequence, and it just doesn’t work. After laughing for the better portion of an hour and a half, this real action hero business fell completely flat.
But, it’s true, that a lot of the film is quite funny. There are a few memorable lines and situations that made me chuckle, and on the whole, I had a decent time. When Tropic Thunder wasn’t taking itself too seriously, it was very enjoyable. Once it stated to be serious, the joy was gone and it became a (decent) generic action flick. That action bit only lasts for about the last fifteen minutes or so, but that’s what I remember most from the film because that’s how we concluded. It sticks with me and it’s not a particularly good memory, even if I know I had a fun time overall.
I think what made Tropic Thunder fun was the cast. We have comedic actors put into a life-threatening situation, but regardless are still comedic. Ben Stiller is as over-the-top as he can probably play, attempting to be the best action star the world has ever seen. Jack Black’s drug-addicted persona is funny, especially when those drugs are withheld from him. Downey, Jr. plays an Australian who underwent skin pigmentation in order to play the role of an African American (and then stays in character almost the entire time), while Jay Baruchel plays the one straight man of the film. Also, Brandon T. Jackson’s Alpa Chino is much less of a macho man than you might think (if you’d think that at all).
The supporting cast is also very good, almost all of them fitting their roles perfectly. Matthew McConaughey plays Speedman’s agent (an agent that can’t even get his client a TiVo despite it being in Speedman’s contract), Danny McBride is the pyrotechnics operator, Nick Nolte is the grizzled war veteran who wrote the story that “Tropic Thunder” is based on, while one other actor turns up whose role I don’t want to spoil or even mention apart from the fact that he steals the show every time he appears on-screen.
Several Hollywood stars also make cameo appearances, as themselves. After the film makes so many jokes at Hollywood’s expense, it’s nice to see that nobody in the industry was terribly offended by the film. Or, if they were, they didn’t show it, and were good-natured enough to appear in Stiller’s film. Although, when I think about it, I can’t remember many real action stars appearing as themselves, either. You don’t see Sylvester Stalone in this film, for instance. Or anyone from Platoon, for that matter, despite the fact that Tropic Thunder “recreates” its signature shot not once, but twice.
I had quite a lot of fun with Tropic Thunder. More than I expected, actually, although I think the most laughs came from the one actor I swore I wouldn’t mention in this review. If you haven’t already heard of his appearance, you’ve managed to avoid ruining what might be a big surprise. So go watch this film and then look up more about it, if you want. You’re in for a fun journey, even if it won’t end particularly well.