Tuesday 14 January 2020

Movie Review: Tropic Thunder (2008)

A satire about actors and their rampant self-admiration, Tropic Thunder is vulgar, bloody and hilarious.

Five actors are part of an expensive crew on location to shoot Tropic Thunder, a Vietnam war epic based on the memoirs of veteran Four Leaf Tayback (Nick Nolte).
  • Tugg Speedman (Ben Stiller) is a fading action movie star with one last chance to salvage a career. 
  • Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black) is a low-brow comedian and heroin addict looking for respect. 
  • Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr.) is an award-winning method actor who has undergone revolutionary skin darkening surgery to play a black soldier. 
  • Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson) is a rapper and energy drink promoter attempting to launch an acting career.  
  • Kevin Sandusky (Jay Baruchel) is a relatively new actor, and the only one who has bothered to read the book or the script.
The director is Damien Cockburn (Steve Coogan), and he has trouble keeping all the egos in check. Cody (Danny McBride) is the explosives expert, and thanks to Cockburn incompetence detonates a massive explosion when the cameras are not rolling. Back in Hollywood, Rick Peck (Matthew McConaughey) is Tugg's agent, keen to ensure his star has what he needs to survive the jungle ordeal, while studio boss Les Grossman (Tom Cruise) is worried about his investment.

To toughen up the actors Cockburn agrees with Tayback's suggestion to drop them deep in the jungle with no support and film with hidden cameras. But the chosen location is in the Golden Triangle, where the vicious Flaming Gang runs a heroine operation. As the actors wander into the danger zone, Tugg still believes they are filming a movie, but Kirk starts to suspect something is very wrong.

An almost miraculous combination of action, comedy, gore and satire, Tropic Thunder grabs a movie-within-a-movie premise and squeezes hard. Director Ben Stiller wrote the screenplay with Justin Theroux and Etan Cohen, and they take direct aim at directors, producers and agents within their own industry, but skewer actors with particular venom.

And the film is a spectacular spoof made successful thanks to relatively sharp writing and a terrific cast in top form. Robert Downey Jr. stands out and deserves credit for taking a potentially disastrous blackface construct and selling it as the epitome of method acting. His Kirk Lazarus stays in characters no matter what is happening in the jungle, spouting inane lines about performance art and scoring the film's biggest laughs.

The other unforgettable role is Tom Cruise as producer Les Grossman, screaming scatalogical threats down phone lines and then pulling off legendary dance movies while concocting an evil plan to turn a turkey into a monetary windfall.

Tropic Thunder also features surprisingly effective action scenes, and in classic war movie fashion these are interspersed with character interactions to build up depth. The conversations are often debates as to whether the stranded actors are in a real or make-believe conflict zone, and the surreal topic provides a suitably ridiculous basis to tease out the various personalities, often wracked with deep-seated insecurities or on the verge of full-out panic.

The humour is a combination of lewd, cringy and disgusting with a large dollop of severed body parts, and remarkably, most of it works.

Equal parts obnoxious and fearless, Tropic Thunder is a preposterous explosion.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

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