The comedy fortunes of Ben Stiller have fallen a bit lately (THE HEARTBREAK KID, anyone?) so it’s a certainly a treat to see him in the full-on mockery mode that worked so well in ZOOLANDER - taking on the industry that made him famous and bringing along a crew of above par talent (including Robert Downey Jr., Jack Black, Steve Coogan, Nick Nolte, and one unrecognizable Tom Cruise who buys back a huge chunk of street cred here).
Unless you’ve been locked in a sound proof vault with no windows over the last few weeks you know that this movie features A) Robert Downey Jr. in black face as an Australian Academy Award winner who is playing a jive talking African American. B) A group of actors (Stiller, Downey Jr., Jay Barochel, and Bradon T. Jackson) trying to achieve A-List status making a Vietnam war picture but get stranded in the jungle and have to become real soldiers in order to fight their way out a la ¡THREE AMIGOS! and GALAXY QUEST. C) The before mentioned Tom Cruise as a bald pudgy foul-mouthed executive who nearly walks off, that is hip-hop dances off with the whole film.
Steve Coogan as the frustrated frizzy-haired film maker of what Access Hollywood calls: “the most expensive war movie never made” (a line likely drawn from pop culture punditry response to Francis Ford Coppola’s extremely over schedule production back in the late 70’s: “Apocalypse When?”) decides to deposit the actors into the jungle with only a map and a script and he’ll film them with hidden cameras and rigged explosives.
This plan immediately derails, in a crude but hilarious moment I won’t spoil, and they run up against a heavily armed gang called Flaming Dragon who have a heroin producing work camp. They capture Stiller and hold him for ransom once the leader (fiercely played by child actor Brandon Soo Hoo) recognizes the actor from his career damaging flop “Simple Jack”. Meanwhile Stiller’s hotshot agent, Matthew McConaughey in chilled “alright, alright” mode, fights Cruise’s heartless exec character for TiVo to be contractually provided for his client before realizing the severity of the situation.
The real cause of the botched conflict is a grizzled Nick Nolte as the author of the book “Tropic Thunder” and the inspiration for Coogan’s “Guerilla style” tactics. Nolte and explosive expert Danny McBride (fresh off almost stealing PINEAPPLE EXPRESS) also get captured by the Dragon gang and all the pieces are in line for a ginormous and outrageous shoot-em-up finale with every player getting his shot at glory.
Before the film proper of TROPIC THUNDER begins (before the Dream Works logo even hits the screen that is) there are funny fake trailers that introduce us to the quartet of protagonists.
They set us up to embrace Stiller as a high grossing action star in “Scorcher 6” - an obvious dig at big overblown unnecessary franchises, Black as a pandering fart joke machine comic superstar in “The Fatties: Fart 2” - yep, a beyond obvious swipe at Eddie Murphy’s sad state of fat suit affairs, an ad spoof featuring Jackson as an “Booty Sweat” energy drink hawking rapper, and most amusing “Satan’s Alley”, complete with a FOX Searchlight logo announcing it as a prestige picture, giving us Downey Jr. and Tobey Macguire (who once shared a bed together in WONDER BOYS) as monks in a forbidden homosexual relationship.
These and the many other digs at Hollywood cookie-cutter commerciality are the heart of this overblown but surprisingly not obnoxious comedy. The in-your-face-ness of the self aware atmosphere keep it from having to live or die joke to joke.
Downey Jr. is undoubtedly the best part of this project, his unflinching take on Russell Crowe-esque maniacal method acting results in many of the movies biggest laughs like for one: “Huh! What do you mean ‘You People?’” Downey Jr. angrily asks Stiller at a stressful juncture. Jackson, who is authentically African American says, with an even angrier tone to Downey Jr., “What do you mean ‘You People?’”
For all its over-the top silliness TROPIC THUNDER has a great gritty widescreen look; it has shots that look exactly like the excess-riden war epics its parodying like, of course, APOCALYPSE NOW and PLATOON - the poster of which Stiller tries to imitate, with his pumped up arms raised to the sky, every 10 minutes it seems.
I experienced uncountable successions of giggles but not all out guffaws during this movie. It never lagged on the laughs but they’re of the small smirking kind for the most part. Still, it noisily announces itself as the mega comedy you cant ignore with performances that will be talked about for years and lines that will be endlessly quoted I predict.
I have to say that Stiller himself as an actor is not doing anything we haven’t seen before - with his wide eyed pathos and tampered ego posturing his character is basically Derek Zoolander as if he were an action star and not a super model.
But as a director and writer, Stiller is doing something I want to see more of, that is making comedies with a wide scope of inspired tangents and most importantly casts full of talented energized folk who aren’t afraid to make wicked fun of themselves while taking crazy chances too.