Hammer of the gods

Tropic Thunder has the distinction of being the movie that knocked The Dark Knight out of the top spot at the American box office after its remarkable run there—very few movies in the past few years have actually stayed at number one for more than a week. (It had four)

Perhaps after the relentless griminess and grimness of The Dark Knight, for all its thrills, viewers wanted something to make them laugh. God knows, if he exists, that we all need something to make us laugh.
And Tropic Thunder undoubtedly does that—at least for most of its length. It also has many big stars, which the other comedy competitor, Pineapple Express, lacks.

Tropic Thunder is about the making of a movie about the Vietnam war, which means large chunks of it are parodies of other movies about the Vietnam war, chiefly Apocalypse Now and Platoon. Certainly Platoon is ripe for parody, but Apocalypse Now is harder to send up because it contains an inbuilt sense of its own absurdity, or at least the absurdity of the war and the absurdity of its central character’s quest. But then it does also contain a great deal of self-regarding portentousness, especially by the time we finally get up the river and meet Marlon Brando ruminating chewily on his weight problem.

Apart from anything else, Tropic Thunder is a send-up of the modes and mores of Hollywood in general, and that is one thing that Hollywood is very good at, when it finds the right vehicle: sending itself up. The film kicks off with a series of trailers for imaginary movies made by the fictional stars of the Vietnam film being made—and they are hilarious.

Tugg Speedman (Ben Stiller, who also directs) is the Sylvester Stallone-type action star who has milked his most famous franchise to death—and then made an ill-advised attempt at serious acting. Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black) is a comedian who has made his name with endless fart movies. Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr) is a Russell Crowe whose latest film is a bodice-ripper pretending to be a serious art flick about gay priests (and now, being a Very Serious Actor, he’s in surgically applied blackface for his new role). These faux trailers set the scene and tell us more about the actors and their characters than more extensive and careful characterisation would have been able to do; it works because this is a comedy and these are easily identified stereotypes.

Then we’re on to the set of the movie-within-the-movie, where a gigantic cock-up leads to the director (Steve Coogan) getting massively abused by a hideous producer back in Hollywood. The producer is a smallish but very juicy role for a transformed Tom Cruise. Maybe here he’s getting back at the producers who cancelled his contract after he went a bit too Scientological, or because he demanded too much money, or both; whatever the case, his performance here is repulsively magnificent. This is his best work since Magnolia.

After being lashed by the producer, the director tries to save the day with a dose of vérité. He dumps his leads in the middle of the jungle and tells them they have to find their own way back to base. Of course, things go horribly wrong. Not helping is the battle-scarred veteran of Vietnam played by Nick Nolte (also very funny), upon whose book this film is based.

There is much to amuse here, and it is all very skilfully orchestrated by the filmmakers. The script is sparky and the situations fresh, at least for the first two-thirds of the film. After a certain point, however, there is a reversion to narrative type and we are fed another one of those scenarios in which a bunch of non-heroes get to rescue people and be heroes, or at least to redeem themselves in some notional way. Naturally, they learn some lessons in the course of this adventure, such as being true to yourself and so on.

In the process, we get the Platoon and Apocalypse Now parodies. The former work because they are also parodies of standard Hollywood narrative devices; the send-up of Apocalypse Now is more opaque. It certainly won’t make sense to anyone who hasn’t the Francis Ford Coppola extravaganza, or has only the vaguest sense of what its Brando-heavy concluding scenes may have meant. Even for those, like me, who have seen Apocalypse Now (and the Redux version too), this scene in Tropic Thunder is relatively obscure and not funny. You simply register that it’s a parody of Apocalypse Now without getting any impact from it. And you sympathise with the characters looking on who say to each other, “What the hell is going on?”

Despite such confusions, where the film flies just that little bit too far up its own bum, Tropic Thunder is a pleasurable package. It’s good to see so many actors of different types and stripes in one movie, and all doing good work. Stiller may do his Zoo-lander face a few of times too often, but he must also be given credit for the directorial work that holds all this together—in that respect, he trumps the unfortunate director in the film and should have his Cruisey producers grovelling with joy.

War—what is it good for? This comedy, if nothing else.

Shaun de Waal

Shaun de Waal

Shaun de Waal has worked at the Mail & Guardian since 1989. He was literary editor from 1991 to 2006 and chief film critic for 15 years. He is now editor-at-large. Recent publications include Exposure: Queer Fiction, 25 Years of the Mail & Guardian and Not the Movie of the Week. Read more from Shaun de Waal

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