Good actors cast bright shadow
Let’s look at a couple of tricks. The first one is the making of a movie within a movie. This is very difficult. Usually one of them suffers except in the hands of a seasoned film director. Which brings us to trick number two. Ben Stiller is a competent actor but once he gets behind the camera he becomes magical. Since the 90’s he’s given us subversive movies like The Cable Guy, a send up of the fashion industry Zoolander, and now he’s handed us a movie which has as many stars as there are in heaven and he packed them up, took them into Vietnam and made Tropic Thunder, an extraordinarily funny movie about the Vietnam war.
Says Pete Hammond, “Merging reality and fantasy in a movie within a movie, co-writer/director/star Ben Stiller lampoons the movie industry in ways it hasn’t been skewered since The Player and S.O.B. In Tropic Thunder, a film crew sets out to make the biggest (and most clichéd) war movie ever. But after huge budget overruns and a tantrum from the studio head (an unrecognisable Tom Cruise), the hapless English director (Steve Coogan) decides what the film needs is a lot more realism. So, he plunks his all-male cast deep down into the jungles of Southeast Asia for some on-the-spot boot camp training. What starts out as an exercise turns disastrous when they encounter REAL enemy warriors trying to do them in. The motley crew of actors include: Tugg Speedman (Stiller), a fading action hero desperate for a hit; Australian five-time Oscar winner Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr), who is such
a method actor he undergoes a unique skin pigmentation transformation to play his character as an African-American; and Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black), star of a successful farting comedy franchise called The Fatties. Also along for the shoot is intensely serious author John “Four Leaf” Tayback (Nick Nolte), whose book the movie is based on and who may have twisted the real facts for the sake of
a movie sale. The bulk of
the film finds them fighting for their lives without a script in sight.”
Adds Nev Pierce, “With the shoot going disastrously over schedule and over budget, Cockburn drops his pack of prima donnas in the jungle, intending to terrorise them with stunt-explosions, but they’re soon confronted with a very real enemy in the form of gun-toting drug-runners Flaming Dragon.
If the set-up — fake soldiers facing real death — sounds familiar it’s because it is: this is Southern Comfort on Southern Comfort, a woozy, gag-fuelled party for everyone involved, cutting loose and having a laugh. It’s not without some near-the-knuckle ideas, the principal one being Downey Jr’s makeover.
And of course there’s Downey Jr’s performance per se — which is aware of its own outrageousness but equally so damn likeable, buttressed by some of the movie’s smartest observations, such as when he advises Speedman his Oscar attempt floundered because he went “full retard. Never go full retard”.
It’s in beats like this that Tropic Thunder is at its best, though it clearly owes a debt to Stiller’s appearance as a power-crazed director on Extras. As much as he says the script’s core conceit — mocking movie stars who act as if shooting a war film is as traumatic as the real thing — germinated when he was a bit-player on Empire Of The Sun, it can’t be a coincidence that the idea finally made it to the screen after he gusted on Ricky Gervais’ insider sitcom.”