It’s hard to imagine Tropic Thunder being made today. You get the feeling that the scrutiny would have been intense, more than it was back in 2008. Controversy dogged this film as Robert Downey Jr. plays an Australian method actor transforming himself into an African-American soldier and the word “retard” was used to describe actors playing roles about mental disability.
Comedies have to be judged on its context and while that might not always be a satisfying answer, Tropic Thunder is an example of a film which overcame critical and audience objections as to the content.
That is because of how the film is constructed. You would have to go back to Last Action Hero, The Three Amigos and Bowfinger (to name a few) to find a film with so many ‘meta’ references about filmmaking, its design and process. It’s a ‘film within a film’ that captures the oblivious hilarity and fun of the adventure taking place. Tropic Thunder deserves to be up there as one of the most audacious parodies of the film industry.
According to actor Ben Stiller, the premise of Tropic Thunder came from a personal memory. Coming up with the idea when filming Empire of the Sun, his friends (who had worked on Platoon and Hamburger Hill) went on a military boot camp to prepare for the simulation of war. So intense was the training they felt like real soldiers which Stiller thought was funny – an actor in a war film was nothing like being a real soldier in a real war!
Essentially, that is how Tropic Thunder was born – an ego-eccentric ensemble of actors filming an expensive war movie that goes off the rails. Literally. Falling behind schedule and feeling the pressure from studio exec Les Grossman (Tom Cruise), in a drastic attempt to save the movie, director Damien Cockburn (Steve Coogan) takes his clueless, prima-donna cast ‘off the grid’ into the real jungle. As Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) from ‘Revenge of the Sith’ would probably say when mishaps start to occur, “this is where the fun begins.”
Mirrored like a summer blockbuster, where Tropic Thunder excels is its pacing – it’s a big-budgeted breeze, especially the director’s cut which is littered with extended scenes and excellent examples of comedic timing.
There is always a danger when doing satire. With comedy, it’s the skill of playing for laughs, with jokes often chosen because of their robust impact. Satirical comedy is dependent on our knowledge of a particular subject and the great thing about Tropic Thunder is that it never underestimates its audience, especially film fans. Taking suggestive hints from features like Heart of Darkness (aka the making of Apocalypse Now) and paying homage to war films such as Saving Private Ryan, Platoon and The Deer Hunter, these are films which are ripe with opportunities. There are moments where the film could have easily veered off course with its love of improvisation, but it manages to stay on point,
The tongue-in-cheek parodies don’t stop at the war examples. They make fun of the actors, the genres and the industry they represent, right from the beginning with the fake trailers and product placement. Tugg Speedman (Ben Stiller) is your traditional action star. Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr.) is the method actor. Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black) is the comedian. Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson) is the rapper turned actor. Even Kevin Sandusky (Jay Baruchel) is that classic film nerd that everyone knows. As a collective ensemble, they’re not afraid to laugh at themselves despite being serious in the moment. When Four Leaf Tayback (Nick Nolte), the inspiration for the war movie, is given his Quint moment from Jaws, it comes from a sincere place in reinforcing Tropic Thunder as a concept.
The standout performance belongs to Robert Downey Jr. Besides the controversy, his character is filled with an insane number of memorable one-liners that elevates Tropic Thunder beyond its simple premise into a show stealer. You have to admire the bravery in his commitment but his one-liners help to break the ice that cuts through his persona. We laugh with him rather than at him.
But underneath the bravado and comedic escapism, Tropic Thunder achieves a level of unexpected poignancy. Just like life imitating art (and vice versa), director Ben Stiller highlights the absurdity of being an actor whilst documenting the pressures of existing within a celebrity and fame-obsessed culture. Tugg’s career has stagnated, wondering if he is relevant anymore. Kirk is a sharp dichotomy on method actors going to the extreme for their roles whilst subsequently highlighting Hollywood’s uncomfortable history of ‘whitewashing’. Alpa Chino struggles with his conflicting image and his sexuality, and Jeff is on a downward spiral on drugs. Any topical discussions suggested by Tropic Thunder take place deliberately. It holds nothing back in its self-reflective and delusional depictions on its cast. Tropic Thunder exaggerates on its eccentricity, but it’s always dealt with a sense of satirical truth. That in itself develops the film beyond any throwaway comedy that is trying too hard to find that punchline. The film itself is a punchline, one that is timely and easily referenced in popular culture.
But seriously though, who doesn’t love Tom Cruise in his most memorable role since Mission: Impossible or Tobey Maguire’s signature as the MTV Movie Award Best Kiss winner? That alone is worth the laughs.
Are you a fan of Tropic Thunder? Let us know.