As parody-comedies go, Tropic Thunder is at the near top of its game. It has great actors to portray its characters, a clearly defined plot, moments of absolute hilarity and some nice action sequences. Writer, producer, actor and director Ben Stiller has created a film with enough satire, action and comedy to satiate the gore and humor hound in most genre seekers.
The plot of Tropic Thunder is clever but not original. A movie is being filmed within the film that the viewer is watching. The film within a film is about the Vietnam War, familiar fare if you’ve seen Hamburger Hill, Full Metal Jacket and Apocalypse Now (to name a few). The actors chosen to bring this film and the book it’s based on, to life range from thespians to up-and-coming rappers.
Many people steal the show in Tropic Thunder, but none do it better than Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey, Jr.) and Les Grossman (Tom Cruise). Going in, the viewer (having viewed Tropic Thunder’s trailer) knows Downey is going to be extremely funny but Tom Cruise steals ever scene he is in. Downey steals most of the scenes he is in but Cruise steals them all. He is the center piece of ever scene he inhabits. What makes Grossman even more potent is that all the “Tom Cruise-ness” has been taken away through make-up and prosthetics. Tom Cruise is not the only surprise in Tropic Thunder. There are a few others, including cameos from other famous actors, actresses and models. If the viewer has seen Stiller’s Zoolander, this should come as no surprise.
To bring Tropic Thunder’s self-indulgent actors back down to earth ego-wise, the film’s technical supervisor (and author of the book the currently filming movie is based on), John “Four Leaf” Tayback (Nick Nolte), suggests throwing them into a unrehearsed situation, shot guerrilla style, away from all the accoutrements they have become used to on movie sets and delving, head first, into “the shit.”
This is the point in Tropic Thunder where fiction and reality become intertwined in less obvious and more intrinsic ways than a viewer might initially think in the film. Yes, Tropic Thunder is a spoof of some notable films like Platoon and other action/war films but it is also making fun of the film industry itself and all its participants. The studio heads, the agents, the directors, the assistants and the actors are all far game in this film. I don’t know if Tropic Thunder is making fun of any particular Hollywood individual but it wouldn’t surprise me if a few notables were in mind when this film was conceived by Stiller in 1987 and later written by him, Etan Cohen and Justin Theroux.
The violence in Tropic Thunder is gratuitous but laughable at the same time. Of all the characters, Ben Stiller plays one of the most interesting. Stiller plays Tugg Speedman, a fading action star trying to rebound while at the same time take on more serious acting roles (some more successful than others). Tugg is portraying Four Leaf in the Tropic Thunder film within Tropic Thunder.
Tropic Thunder has multiple laugh-out-loud moments. Stiller cleverly gave the character Lazarus is portraying in black face, Sgt. Lincoln Osiris, the foil of an authentic African-American cast member, Alpa Chino (Branden T. Jackson), to dispel the stereotypes that Kirk is propagating. At one point in Tropic Thunder, Chino says Lazarus was given the only good ethnic role in the film and he is absolutely correct. When Aussie stereotypes are thrown back in Kirk’s Australian face, he doesn’t like that too much. By that point in the film however, the viewer is indifferent to any ethnic discomfort Lazarus might have. After all, turnabout is fair play.
No character in Tropic Thunder is perfect (see Jack Black as Jeff “Fats” Portnoy) and neither is Chino, who shamelessly sneaks his beverage into the shooting of Tropic Thunder. Chino’s “Booty Sweat” energy drink is clearly a knock-off of rapper Nelly’s similar drink entitled Pimp Juice as much as Yonica Babyyeah in War, Inc. was one of Britney Spears.
Tropic Thunder is not as continuously funny as Old School or Badder Santa (the uncut version of Bad Santa) but when it is funny, it’s uproarious. When a certain character starts imitating what is common place in some rap videos and begins dancing under a spot light is a text-book example of this and is also one of how to end a comedy, especially a spoofing comedy, right.