Review: Tropic Thunder

Attempting comic satire, loaded with crude jokes, is a dangerous venture

title Tropic Thunder II.1
director Ben Stiller
students Robert Downey Jr., Jack Black, Ben Stiller, Steve Coogan
running time 106 minutes

Attempting comic satire, loaded with crude jokes, is a dangerous venture – unless you can show at the same time that there is something cerebral at the heart of proceedings. With Ben Stiller acting, and directing (in addition to co-producing and co-scripting) a bunch of Hollywood crazies including Frat Pack buddy Jack Black, as well as Tom Cruise in an inspired role, Tropic Thunder has a lot going for it.

A fading star, Tugg Speedman (Stiller) is desperate to rescue his career by playing the part of Vietnam veteran Four Leaf Tayback in the eponymous war movie. Soon, the entire cast of big-shot actors is thrust into the thick of the jungle by their director (Steve Coogan, further squandering his talent), eager to finish the behind-schedule, big-budget thriller. True terror and emotion, it is hoped, will come forth in guerilla-style filming, but a series of freak accidents causes the cast to run into a local poppy-harvesting gang called the Flaming Dragon.

When the group’s child-leader Tran captures Speedman, the film’s hot-headed producer, Les Grossman (Cruise), refuses to pay the ransom, in favour of raking up the insurance money. Cue a frenzied rescue attempt by the rest of the cast, complete with special effects, explosives, guns and lots and lots of heroin.

The film’s slapstick and, at times, crude humor references a wide range of topical issues, from adoption, to drugs, to panda bears. Unnecessary, perhaps even overdone, as some of the more grotesque jokes may be, they’re pulled off by the endearing Stiller, Black and Downey, Jr.

The film is spot-on with its mockery of Hollywood and the world of showbiz. Yet we can all think of good movies that have already dealt well with the same subject matter, so clever cinematic referencing is not what scores Tropic Thunder its main points. It’s not just a big budget blockbuster, the boys are clearly enjoying themselves quite a bit. So, despite the, by turns, inventive and ridiculous characterization, the viewer is, more significantly, watching Stiller, Black and Downey, Jr. having a ball on camera together. This is the chief source of entertainment in the film, combined with satire that begins to have greater political significance as the movie progresses.

So, forget political correctness for an hour or two – this film has things to say. Some of its more potentially offensive scenes serve more as triggers for thought than mere shock tactics, and the content of Tropic Thunder justifies its form. Eglé Zinkuté