Tropic Thunder wants to be a satire on Hollywood action blockbusters that spiral out of control and the larger-than-life actors and money-grabbing producers whose egos fuel the cash-draining fires. For a while it works: the opening 25 minutes manages to hit the bullseye as the mega bucks production of a war film goes awry in spectacular fashion. Then, as attention turns to the characters involved, they are exposed as being little more than makeweights for a bright idea wasted in the wrong hands.
Back to the beginning and Tropic Thunder, directed, starring and part-written by Ben Stiller, looks to be taking aim with alarming accuracy. Prior to the film proper, an advert for an energy drink called Booty Sweat features an upcoming black comedian Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson) is shown followed by three trailers — one for each main star of the fiction “Tropic Thunder” movie. First, box office action hero Tugg Speedman (Stiller) in “Scorcher VI: Meltdown”, an unnecessary sequel to a dead franchise, then white comedian Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black) in “The Fatties 2”, poking fun at the fat suit comedies, and finally Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr.) in “Satan’s Alley”, the kind of pompous Oscar material that deserves to be ignored. The opening of the movie sees “Tropic Thunder” in production and the filming of the big climax: a group of soldiers rescue their Sergeant Four Leaf Tayback (played by Speedman) from Vietnam’s jungles amid a major shootout. As it all goes wrong when Speedman and Lazarus fail to deliver their lines, it quickly becomes apparent rookie British director David Cockburn (Steve Coogan) can’t control the prima donna behaviour of his egotistical stars and the vast amounts of cash wasted on minders, entertainers, hotels and Speedman’s need for every luxury available in America exported to location. So far, so spot-on to the wild activities that go on behind the scenes of modern day blockbusters.
Tropic Thunder probably should have stayed a trailer.
As an example of just how funny it all is, Tom Cruise comes across as having a sense of humour for the first time since Magnolia (Paul Thomas Anderson, 1999). His fat, balding studio CEO Les Grossman is on the kind of idiotic power trip at the centre of so many bad filmmaking decisions and when he abuses Cockburn for failing to transfer his British stage directing skills you can picture a similar situation happening on numerous spectacular failures in recent film history… Around the World in 80 Days (Frank Coraci, 2004) springs to mind sharing Coogan as a cast member and sure to have been on his mind during these scenes: “Tropic Thunder” looks set for the same kind of scrapheap as United Artist’s Heaven’s Gate (Michael Cimino, 1980) mistake.
Stiller’s good work continues with the three key actors of Speedman, Lazarus and Portnoy appearing to be accurate spoofs of stereotypical Hollywood stars. Speedman just does what he’s told in Derek Zoolander “I look good” fashion while Portnoy is a smack-addicted comedian who can only make people laugh by farting and playing multiple characters in the same film (Eddie Murphy take note). Downey Jr. has the pick of roles, though, as a celebrated Australian who undergoes skin pigment treatment to play a black army officer. His method acting of staying in character until the DVD commentary pokes fun at the lengths some claim to go to for their parts.
But just when Tropic Thunder looks set to keep going on its upward trajectory, it all comes crashing to a tiresome trudge through Stiller’s typically silly comedy which lacks bite and descends into a mess. In a bid to get the actors to perform, Cockburn flies them to the real jungle with the intention of using hidden cameras to catch them in action and removing the unreal element of a crew and minders nearby. When a rouge mine alerts a poppy-field protection force, they find themselves in the middle of a real war situation — a plot device intended to up the ante on the jokes which falls flat. As the group miraculously survive an ambush and start arguing amongst themselves about what’s happening, their cardboard cutout characters loose their humourous edge as caricatures of real people and become thin excuses for laboured dialogue lacking in any direction. The satire removed, the spoof elements lost: it’s just a few friends unsure what the point of the film was all about. If Stiller had been clever about it, the first 30 minutes or so minutes could have filled the entire 110-minute runtime such is the amount of comic ammunition only touched on. Seeing Speedman, Lazarus and Portnoy exchange thoughts in a situation not based in any kind of reality of the filmmaking world sees Tropic Thunder veer wildly off-track and Cruise appear in ever more cringeworthy scenes. It’s a wasted opportunity and the trailer turned out to feature all the best bits: a lot like the fake trailers, the thought behind them are hilarious but in reality they have to stay trailers. Tropic Thunder probably should have stayed a trailer.