THE POPCORN REEL FILM REVIEW/"Tropic Thunder"

Apocalypse Platoon: Wild, Wild War Games, Stiller Style
 
Brothers In Arms: From right to left - Brandon T. Jackson as Alpa Chino, Ben Stiller as Tugg Speedman, and 9yes, that's) Robert Downey, Jr. as Kirk Lazarus/Osiris, in "Tropic Thunder", which Mr. Stiller directed.  (Photo: Paramount Pictures)

By Omar P.L. Moore/August 13, 2008

Ben Stiller's "Tropic Thunder" does a delicate dance on a high barbed wire, and manages to keep its balance.  At times patently unfunny yet hysterical, this venture into absurdum and situations most foul features some downright hilarious ham acting (most notably by one well-known actor who plays a movie studio mogul.)  This particular actor has been known for his onscreen vanities and there's a nice moment where he and Matthew McConaughey (who plays an agent) square off -- vanity (or as viewers will see, lack thereof) versus vainglorious.  It's a moment that works well, and the other instances where the actor who plays producer/movie studio head Les Grossman appears are priceless scene-stealing extravaganzas.  These parts of the film, with Mr. McConaughey and the actor who plays Grossman are the best thing about "Tropic Thunder", which is about a band of hapless actors led by Tugg Speedman (Mr. Stiller) and Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey, Jr.) who are making a film about a war in Vietnam, directed by a struggling British director named Damien (Steve Coogan), based on a book by a Vietnam veteran played by Nick Nolte.  The shoot gets complicated (surprise, surprise), and many bizarre things occur along the way.
 
Mr. Downey plays Lazarus, an Australian who is such a method actor that he stays in character right up until the DVD commentary on the film is complete.  "I don't read the script.  The script reads me," Lazarus says in one of the film's funniest lines.  Mr. Downey plays Lazarus, who plays a character in the movie's film in blackface (ouch!), Osiris, a soldier out to prove he can cut the mustard in combat.  He also imitates Mel Gibson in a somewhat amusing way as well.  (Mr. Gibson was Mr. Downey's co-star in the 1988 film "Air America", which was a comedy about flying missions in Vietnam during the war there.)

Mr. Downey, one of America's great acting talents of the last 20 years, straddles a fine line between racially offensive caricature and parody when playing Osiris, and some will find the character either occasionally funny or a sad trip to minstrelsy (actually it's both.)  Perhaps anticipating the fallout from the appearance of Mr. Downey's blackface character-within-a-character, the film's own self consciousness about Mr. Downey's Osiris is addressed with a refutation of sorts -- in the form of an "authentically" black actor (played by Brandon T. Jackson), a soldier playing Alpa Chino, a character who markets an energy beverage called "Booty Sweat" (marketed in one of a series of spoof trailers prior to the start of the film -- trailers that would either work well either as an April Fool's joke or as a more-restrained answer of sorts to the spoof trailers shown in between films in last year's "Grindhouse".)  On a number of occasions Mr. Jackson's Alpa Chino (maybe a not-so subtle reference to Al Pacino's playing characters of other races, i.e. in "Carlito's Way") confronts Mr. Downey's Kirk Lazarus-as-Osiris on his blackface routine and voice.  "I don't talk like that . . . you're Australian!", and other dialogue to that effect, providing Mr. Stiller's film with a safety net defense against would-be criticism.  (Watch Spike Lee's "Bamboozled" as a counterpoint and wonder whether Mr. Jackson's character wearing white shoe polish would have made "Tropic" more or less funny in context of Mr. Downey's character's antics.)

No such safety net defense exists however, for Mr. Stiller's on screen character Simple Jack, a mentally challenged farm hand in the acting repertoire of Tugg Speedman, a woebegone talent who is trying to advance his career beyond a series of "Scorchers" films and Jack.  (Advocates for the disabled have recently protested the film's treatment of the mentally challenged, and such groups have the right, as well as a good argument for their claim, for sure.)  In a way, Mr. Stiller's Tugg Speedman is an ironic yet parallel commentary about Mr. Stiller himself.  Of late -- well, since "Zoolander", Ben Stiller's material on film has sagged -- most recently last year's pathetic "The Heartbreak Kid" -- and perhaps he's trying with this satire to shake things up a little and make his audience laugh in a different way and for a different reason.  In this he triumphs, not in the most tasteful fashion, and this of course is by fiat, but his own performance in front of the camera is what it is -- hollow.  The film relies on spoofs of numerous American-made Vietnam war films like "Platoon" and "Apocalypse Now" among others but one wonders, after the zaniness of the first half hour how on earth the film will manage to sustain itself.  On many occasions it falters in its quest to get to the finish line; on a few occasions it accelerates to its destination with unrestrained vigor, child-like glee and over-the-top giddiness.  To use potty parlance: "Tropic Thunder" has the equivalent tenor of a young boy who fails to hit the target in the bathroom and having realized such, continues to miss, becoming ever more reckless and unhygienic in the process. 

One other mention: Jack Black, as a drug-starved soldier trying to go cold turkey probably represents juvenile zeal the most.  Here, Mr. Black, who isn't bad in more serious films, knows only one volume: maximum.

"Tropic Thunder" is a wild, wicked ride through the hell of war, a spicy, side-splitting satire that hurls fire and funny at anyone and everyone in its path.  Frenzied and ferocious, furious and fantastical, Mr. Stiller's film sprawls all over the place, with plenty of mean-spiritedness to go around.  It is relentlessly incorrect, so get ready to laugh or be repulsed.

(The film is written by Ben Stiller & Justin Theroux and Etan Cohen, based on a story by Mr. Stiller and Mr. Theroux.) 

"Tropic Thunder" is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for pervasive language including sexual references, violent content and drug material.  Be warned, the film contains the usual ingredients: blood, guts and glory.  Running time: one hour and 47 minutes.

Copyright The Popcorn Reel.  PopcornReel.com.  2008.  All Rights Reserved.

 


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