Tropic Thunder

Director    Ben Stiller
Starring    Ben Stiller, Robert Downey Jr, Jack Black, Tom Cruise, Steve Coogan
Release    13 AUG (US) 19 SEP (UK)    Certificate 15
4 stars


22nd September 2008

It's been seven years since Ben Stiller directed a movie, poking fun at the conceited world of male models in Zoolander. Now he's jabbing at a target closer to home - Hollywood actors and their diva-esque behaviour. There's no danger of Stiller being castigated by his own industry, mind - he's not so much biting the hand that feeds him, more playfully nibbling on its fingers. The result is Tropic Thunder, a movie with laughs as big as its budget and a fearless cast of A-listers with 24-carat credentials. To be honest, it's just nice to see a comedy that doesn't have Judd Apatow's name on the poster; fittingly, it's the funniest movie since Apatow's own Knocked Up/Superbad double-header last year.

Stiller plays fading action star Tugg Speedman, whose ailing Scorcher franchise (trailed before the movie proper) and misguided attempt at disability drama Simple Jack ("Yu-you muh-make mah pee-pee maker tuh-tingle!") sees Hollywood hang him out to dry. His last chance at success is war movie Tropic Thunder; a Vietnam epic directed by rookie Brit Damien Cockburn (Steve Coogan). Sadly, production is 'troubled' thanks to the prima donna cast, principally Speedman, Oscar-winning Aussie actor Kirk Lazarus (Downey Jr.) - who dyes his skin to play a black soldier '- and chemically dependent fat-suit comedian Jeff 'Fats' Portnoy (Black). The solution? Go gonzo, dump the coddled cast in a real jungle and shoot guerilla style. Naturally, things go fubar in record time.

With one character rocking blackface and another playing a buck-toothed, stuttering retard, it was no surprise that Tropic Thunder courted controversy before release. But though it may seem insensitive on the surface, it's actually a fairly sharp deflation of the movie star ego ("I don't read the script," says a pretentious Lazarus, "The script reads me."). Tropic Thunder is a film that's pretty shameless in chasing laughs no matter who it offends, but it strikes the right balance - Downey Jr's absurd portrayal of an angry African-American is nicely tempered by Brandon Jackson's actual angry black man Alpa Chino, while Stiller's dribbler is savagely critiqued by RDJ's method actor. "You went full retard," he surmises. "Never go full retard." Note to sensitive audiences: you're supposed to be laughing at them, not with them.

Tropic Thunder even fulfils the over-looked side of comedy: the visuals. Stiller proves himself a fine director, opening with an spectacular chopper attack (complete with an Apocalypse Now-rivalling napalm explosion) and maintains those strong visuals throughout. There's gore, there's pyrotechnics, there's slo-mo... The first twenty minutes is like the Saving Private Ryan of comedy. It hardly matters a jot, but aesthetics are a nice bonus in a comedy, particularly one that's almost two hours long.

Indeed, perhaps the only criticism you could accuse Tropic Thunder of is that there's too much going on. The first half is solid five-star stuff but soon gives way to a flabbier final third that feels overly busy, with many characters - including Matthew McConaughey's agent - given an unwarranted excess of screen-time. It means Stiller, in an apparent act of selflessness, is almost relegated to the role of bit-parter in his own movie, reprising the acute vanity that served him well on Zoolander. But hey, if that means more Downey Jr. and more Tom Cruise - who cameos as a grotesque movie producer, complete with bald-cap and foul mouth - then who's complaining?

Tropic Thunder is an easy film to enjoy. It appeals to the basest levels of humour without patronising its audience, while pricking the pomposity of the movie industry without going too 'meta' - this is far from self-fellation. Laughs are consistent, the cinematography rivals any 'serious' war film while the screenplay from Stiller (and Justin Theroux, currently working on Iron Man 2) is so good, you wonder why he doesn't write more often. How long before Stiller looms large over Hollywood comedy like a certain other super-producer? Let's hope it's not another seven years before his next effort.

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