CRACKER? Tropic Thunder (2008)
This is my 400th post. It sort of snuck up on me so I had to think quick about what special movie I wanted to do. It seems not that long ago I chose “300” for my 300th. Unfortunately, there was no movie with the number 400 in its title. So I decided to go with my favorite war comedy.
“Tropic Thunder” is an action comedy produced, directed, co-written, and co-starring Ben Stiller. Stiller was inspired by his bit role in “Empire of the Sun” and spent many years developing the script. Originally the idea was to spoof actors who attend the actor boot camps to prepare for roles as soldiers. The idea was to have the actors suffer from PTSD after their experience. That is a funny idea. As it turns out, the original idea evolved into a satire of war movies, prima donna actors, and movie productions. Stiller and co-writers Justin Theroux and Eton Cohen decided to construct the script around a movie within a movie concept. The movie was a big box office success and was similar to Stiller’s “Dodge Ball” in its unexpected success. It was well-reviewed, but there was some offense taken with the “Simple Jack” retard subplot and the casting of a white man as a black soldier. The movie was also daringly R-rated for a summer comedy. This was solely for language which can be quite raunchy, although a gratuitous shot of nudie pictures was thrown in apparently to seal the deal. The violence is cartoonish – just like most recent war movies.
The movie famously begins with fake trailers to introduce the four main actors. Tugg Speedman (Ben Stiller) is a fading action star like an Arnold Schwarzenegger. Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black) is an Eddie Murphyesque physical comedian who is making millions off fart jokes. Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey, Jr.) is an Oscar winning method actor who really gets into his characters. Alpa Cino (Brandon Jackson) is a rapper turned movie star who is mainly interested in product placement for his energy drink called "Bootie Sweat". They are filming the story of American hero “Four Leaf” Taylor (Nick Nolte) who was rescued from a prison camp in Vietnam and wrote a book called “Tropic Thunder”. The movie opens with a gonzo battle scene that would be awesome in a real war movie. Midway through the mayhem a soldier takes a bullet in the head and the geyser of blood is the first hint that this is going to be a no holds barred spoof of war films. This scene includes the first of the Vietnam War movie parodies. I’ll list those in a bit. It is, in my opinion, the funniest scene in war movie comedy history.
|Brooklyn, Motown, Four Leaf, Osiris, Fats, and the director|
So we now know the movie is going to make fun of war movies, but it also becomes apparent it will make fun of actors and movie-making as well. The movie within the movie is being directed by a novice Brit named Cockburn (Steve Coogan). This movie is not subtle. He is freaking out in having to deal with his flaky cast and the production is way behind schedule and way over budget. The producer Les Grossman (Tom Cruise) threatens to shut down the production, so Cockburn decides to take Tayback’s advice to make a guerrilla movie by dropping the cast into “the shit” and getting them to improv the scenes while moving through the jungle. The five leads are dropped into the Golden Triangle of the heroin trade and quickly get the attention of a drug gang called Flaming Dragon. The actors (except Lazurus) assume this is part of the movie. When Speedman gets captured and taken to the gang’s camp, the others attempt a rescue.
|tastes like blood flavored corn syrup|
“Tropic Thunder” won my March Madness 2012 tournament to determine the best war comedy so obviously I like this movie. It is the perfect war comedy in my opinion because it makes fun of war movies and the making of war movies. It is funny on its own, but if you are a war movie buff (especially Vietnam War movies), it is hilarious. It is clear that the writers have seen some key Vietnam War movies and have lovingly poked fun at them. Here are the references that I picked up:
1. The opening chopper ingress is similar to that of “We Were Soldiers”, but choppers navigating through dense jungle foliage and hilly terrain is pretty standard.
2. The combat scene has Speedman reenacting the Elias death scene from “Platoon”.
3. In that scene, Sgt. Lincoln Osiris (Downey) uses the line “Ain’t nothin’ but a thang”. This is an obvious reference to “It don't mean nothing, man. Not a thing” from "Hamburger Hill".
4. The opening combat scene closes with a napalming nod to "Apocalypse Now"
5. At the party to celebrate one week of filming, there are dancers like the Playboy bunnies of “Apocalypse Now”
6. When they land in the jungle for the guerrilla filming, there is the tail of a downed plane like in AN
7. The panda scene is a take-off of the tiger scene from AN
8. Osiris is a saucier in an homage to Chef in AN
9. Speedman gets tortured similar to Rambo is “First Blood II”
10. The water buffalo from AN has a cameo
11. Motown (Brandon Jackson) and Sandusky (Jay Barachel) infiltrate the camp like Willard in AN
12. Speedman channels Brando’s Kurtz
13. Tayback does his version of flame-throwing like DeNiro in “The Deer Hunter”
14. The aftermath of the RPG targeting of the truck has a “Saving Private Ryan” sensory deprivation homage
15. The bridge explosion is reminiscent of “Bridge on the River Kwai”
Did I miss anything?
The movie does more than mock famous scenes. Some of it is more subtle, like the inclusion of a character named Brooklyn (Sandusky) to poke fun at the presense of someone from Brooklyn in virtually every small unit movie and another named Motown (“Hamburger Hill” has a character by that name). There are some funny references to the fact that only Sandusky went to the boot camp. The movie also makes fun of the faux soldier lingo that is put in clueless actors’ mouths in most war movies. Speedman says “load and lock”, for instance. Here are my two favorites from “Fats” (Black):
“If our asses don’t get fragged in this valley, first thing I’m doing is paying my two bucks so I can watch Brooklyn bust his cherry on a sweet little mama-san’s dinky down poon-tang”.
“Listen, you cherry fuck, you call in that snake n’ nape and get us some boom-boom now!”
The acting is very strong. It shows you what kind of director Stiller is to see how he allows his cast to outshine him. I guess this balanced his tough directing style. Downey is absolutely brilliant and deserved his Supporting Actor Oscar nomination (he lost to Heath Ledger). His character Kirk Lazarus undergoes a “pigmentation alteration” to play a black man. This was slightly controversial, but the ultimate way to lampoon method actors like Russell Crowe. He also stays in character throughout (in fact all the way through the DVD commentary – which is hilarious, by the way). One reason the movie rewards repeat viewings is to catch his facial expressions. The real revelation is Tom Cruise. He earned back a lot of good will due to his very game performance. He even developed the character, including the look and the dancing. Nick Nolte also deserves special mention. He is perfect as the real Tayback. I haven’t even mentioned Matthew McConaughey as Speedman’s agent. There are no false notes from any of the performers.
|Stiller as Hercules|
The movie is well-made as it should be for a $90 million comedy. Kudos for the studio putting that amount of money in a risky project. The Hawaiian locations are lush and appropriately jungley. The cinematography by John Toll is excellent. The sound-track has some great choices to remind of Vietnam and push the story. Any movie with “Sympathy for the Devil” is on the right track. The score joins in the mocking of action films. The special effects are noteworthy with the opening scene coming off as a modern war combat film. There is the massive napalm explosion and assorted other explosions courtesy of the pyrotechnical Cody Underwood (Danny McBride). Obviously aimed at pleasing the people who are unaware that they have wandered into a comedy. Speaking of which, the movie does a great job blending comedy and action. Keep in mind that only one character dies in the movie (and it is one of the most unexpected deaths that you will see).
|Damn, that dude can act!|
For this review, I watched the director’s cut (which has 14 more minutes) and two commentary tracks. I was still laughing the third go-around. Incidentally, the extended cut is better than the theatrical version. Most of the restored cuts were edited because of time constraints and the longer version fleshes out the characters and includes some funny stuff that did not deserve the cutting room floor. This is worth mentioning because the theatrical version is the funniest war movie comedy ever. Keep in mind that this is the opinion of a war movie lover who does not mind hearing a guy tied to a tree offer to perform oral sex to be set free.
Not everyone will find that sort of thing funny.
Does it crack my 100 Best? What do you think?
Bonus line: Osiris – “What would have happened in ‘The Great Escape’ if Steve McQueen and those dudes had turned tail and ran?”
GRADE = A+
part of the opening