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Tropic Thunder (15)

Rachel Winterbottom on a bunch of Hollywood super-egos playing a bunch of Hollywood super-egos

Written by . Published on September 25th 2008.


Tropic Thunder (15)

Is Ben Stiller finished? Can Robert Downey Jr really be starring with Tobey Maguire in Satan’s Alley, a forbidden love story between two monks who are secretly fondling each other’s rosaries? If only that last one were true. However, it can only be the alternative universe of Tropic Thunder.

Opening on a Vietnam set piece with plenty of explosions and emotional gurning, an army platoon tick all the boxes for a typical war movie as they try to escape via helicopter. They’re forced to hang on as their leader comes under brutal attack from slow-motion gun fire and needs rescuing by his right hand man, Sgt Osiris.

Next up is the mandatory scene where platonic brotherly love is declared followed by gratuitous shots of the pair weeping… and cut. It’s a set. In the middle of the war zone is a film crew complete with director Damien Cockburn (Steve Coogan) who is desperately trying to get the best out of his spoilt leads before the shoot is pulled from under him.

The situation turns dire when the big screen adaptation of faux-Vietnam war biopic, Tropic Thunder, hits huge budgetary setbacks after a million-dollar special effect accidentally gets set off when the cameras aren’t rolling.

Taking on the role of Four Leaf in the film-within-a-film is action has-been Tugg Speedman (Ben Stiller), of disaster movie Scorcher VI: Global Meltdown infamy. Australian method actor and five time Oscar winner Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr) co-stars, having undergone a controversial skin darkening procedure to play the African American Sgt Osiris. Along with heroin addict Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black), and the rapper Alpa Chino (Brandon T Jackson), who is on hand to provide some controversy-cooling outrage at Lazarus’ blatant stereotyping.

The ‘real life’ handless war hero, Four Leaf Tayback (Nick Nolte in grizzly mode) suggests Cockburn should toughen up the mollycoddled “lily dick actors” by helicoptering them all into the middle of the jungle to fend for themselves amongst rigged special effects. Unfortunately the platoon find themselves stranded in drug territory owned by the Flaming Dragons and are soon returning fire and exchanging hand grenades with the Dragons without realising they might as well be waving sticks and tossing jungle fruit.

Miraculously, they escape and, still arguing about what’s real and what’s not, the actors find themselves separated and on a rescue mission to save Stiller’s Tugg from the Flaming Dragons who turn out to be the only fans of his severely misjudged Oscar-reject, Simple Jack. This must be an actor's worst nightmare – being made to play out their most terrible roles by gun point while being repeatedly hit in the gonads. It’s what Eddie Murphy must experience nightly since producing Norbit.

Ben Stiller directs, produces and co-writes the first film he’s penned since Zoolander. The former satirised the male model industry. This latest outing hits a bit closer to home.

Extreme method acting, Oscar-grabbing, and egos so in your face they require their own TiVo remote. Stiller could be accused of biting the hand that feeds him, but he’s far too self aware for that.

There are a few moments in this film where you might find yourself pausing mid-laughter to check that it’s ok to continue. It can be that awkward. The 12-year-old leader of the Flaming Dragons torturing people and firing rocket launchers is one cause of these laughter black holes. Lazarus is another, as he chomps down on his cigar and barks lines like, “Alpa and I are already wearin' Earth Mamma's natural night camo.” It’s only Alpa’s open-mouthed response that saves the film from being just plain offensive.

This film is all about the egos, so it’s hard to find much humanity amongst the cast. While Stiller is best playing an absurd caricature – a welcome break from his luckless everyman in the awful Fockers films – he’s lost amongst equally loud characters.

Jack Black spends most of the time rolling around in the background, hallucinating from lack of “jelly beans” and swearing like a trooper. Downey Jr does brilliantly, as usual, but there’s only so much an audience can take of a white man who thinks he’s black.

So it’s up to the smaller parts to take the lead where the audience's affections are concerned. The youngest member of the platoon (the one the horrible death is usually reserved for) is played by Knocked Up’s frat pack member Jay Baruchel. His character’s often bewildered reactions to his fellow cast occasionally brings the film down to earth. Then there’s SFX guy and eighties throwback Cody, played Danny R McBride (Pineapple Express) who makes the most of his short screen time.

A blessing literally in disguise appears through Tom Cruise. He’s nearly unrecognisable as the bald, hairy, giant-handed, Diet Coke-swilling producer-bastard, Les Grossman. Talk about reviving a career. Grossman is possibly so gut-wrenchingly funny only because it’s Tom Cruise, but for once that won’t put a dampener on it.

Tropic Thunder hasn’t set out to make any earth-shattering statements on the darker aspects of the film industry. It’s a bit wittier than Zoolander, but as that was about models, most things would be. It’s enjoyable, ridiculous and a bit fluffier than it could have been though some parts are wonderfully insensitive.

Happily it’s a few bad references short of War Movie (the next sad venture from ‘those guys’ who once brought you Scary Movie) but it would still have benefited from being a little sharper and fulfilling the unabashed Hollywood mockery suggested by the trailer.

6/10

Tropic Thunder is on general release now.

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