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Before the credits even make their way onto the screen, one can sense that Tropic Thunder is going to be a little different than the average yukfest. From the word go, we’re blinded by the bling and backside fiesta that is the advertisement for rap star Alpa Chino’s latest corporate venture, Booty Sweat; a Red Bull-like beverage one can drink to wash down Alpa’s other endorsement, the Bust-a-Nut energy bar. Following that spot are three others, each establishing our featured players, B-list action hero, sequelmeister Tugg Speedman, Jeff Portnoy, star of his own series of vulgar comedies and the deeply serious Oscar-winner, Kirk Lazarus, shown in an epic about forbidden love between two monks. Yes, sirree, right from the start we’ve got the heads-up that Tropic Thunder is a comedy like no other.

British director Damien Cockburn has a problem – several, really. His first Hollywood project is a megabucks Vietnam War epic and nothing is going right. He can’t get any of his actors to listen to him and some very expensive mistakes with explosives have brought him to the fiery attentions of studio mogul, Les Grossman, and the Brit’s neck - and career- are officially on the line. When Cockburn is convinced to scare straight his intractable (- and in some cases, wildly untalented) troupe with some real boot camp training, he drops them in the middle of the Vietnam jungle and won’t retrieve the men until he’s convinced they are acting as a real team. However, thanks to an interaction with some actual Vietnam War technology, that pick-up might take a bit longer than planned. The actors, believing they are being safely monitored by planted hidden cameras, gamely take on the exercise. Frictions among the group ensue when Tugg Speedman wields his action film experience and refuses to believe the cameras aren’t rolling and team might be in actual jeopardy. Kirk Lazarus’ decision to undergo an experimental pigmentation procedure in order to play his black character, Sgt. Osiris, chafes the nerves of his actual African-American co-star, Alpa Chino. The young rapper protests the use of a blackened Australian who quotes the theme song from The Jeffersons as down-home wisdom. Flatulent funnyman Jeff Portnoy is forced to undergo an involuntary rehab as his hidden stash of heroin is carried off by a bat, and the only person taking anything seriously is young rookie actor, Kevin Sandusky. This last inclusion is very helpful because besides having no clue that they aren’t actually being watched by their film crew; the actors have unwittingly fallen into the territory of a vicious drug lord, who mistakes the five for DEA agents about to invade his operation. The thespians must put aside their petty differences and pull together not only to finish their alleged movie, but to get out of the jungle alive.

Plot, schmot, the send-up of Apocalypse Now, Platoon, and nearly every Chuck Norris Missing in Action film ever made is only a fertile ground for Stiller and co-writer Justin Theroux to careen between the clever and ridiculous with a big side trip into “I can’t believe they just went there.” In his first time back in the director’s saddle since 2001’s Zoolander, Ben Stiller takes many sacred cows and exuberantly roasts them on a spit, taking special care to put the self-indulgent, egomaniacal silliness that permeates the production of Hollywood films on broil. Actors, directors, studio heads, writers, even special effects guys aren’t safe from Stiller’s gimlet eye. Though each character is priceless – Jeff Portnoy’s DT’s are possibly Jack Black’s funniest moments on film – the first of two of the film’s big talking points is Robert Downey Jr.’s turn as Kirk Lazarus, a volatile blend of Mel Gibson and Russell Crowe, who insists on getting so under the skin of his characters that he actually turned himself black to play Sgt. Osiris.  Downey Jr. so fully immerses himself in the role of the absurdly method Lazarus, that Sgt. Osiris becomes his own living, breathing character. The audacity of even seeing a Caucasian onscreen made up to look like an African-American is voiced by the righteous outrage of Alpa Chino, played nicely by Brandon T. Jackson, who lets his indignation at Lazarus’ casting and patronising affectations be known. Lazarus gets his references for playing the African-American Osiris from television and the media and his gaffes are justifiably embarrassing (- and funny as heck), but never intentionally insulting. Somehow, as Osiris, Kirk Lazarus the actor becomes more real as a person than he ever was before in his own skin. The money-minded Alpa Chino has his own reality fluctuations to deal with and confronting Lazarus, who is a “dude playing the dude disguised as another dude,” teaches the young rapper about being true to himself. Downey Jr. treads a very fine and dangerous line with this performance as only someone with his remarkable acting chops could and I can’t picture anybody else pulling it off or daring to.

The other filleted stereotype is the worst-kept secret bit part in Hollywood, Tom Cruise as monster mogul, Les Grossman. In a hairy fat suit and balding wig, complete with weedy comb over, Cruise is frightening as the vulgarian studio head who intersplices curse-filled, vitriolic tirades with a little G5 dance from time to time. Grossman has no faith in the war film project and is only too happy to let Tugg Speedman be executed after he is ransomed by the drug gang, seeing it all come back to the studio in beneficent publicity and insurance money. Cruise, who as any semi-informed hermit knows, has had some personal image difficulties in the past couple of years. As the aptly-named Grossman, Cruise spews more blue language than he has since Magnolia and the end credits reveal Maverick Maguire as quite the fan of hip-hop star Nelly in a way no moviegoer could have suspected. The performance is invested with enough gusto and unselfconsciousness that those who may have read the tabloids and doubted Cruise’s sanity should probably realise that he’s crazy like a fox.

Great performances from the rest of the cast include the aforementioned Jackson, Danny McBride as the crew’s gonzo explosives expert shattered when his hero and the film’s inspiration, Four Leaf Tayback, played by Nick Nolte as equal parts Apocalypse Brando and Jaws’ Robert Shaw, turns out to be a fraud. There’s also the fun cameos sprinkled throughout by Tobey Maguire, Jon Voight, Jason Bateman, Lance Bass, Tyra Banks and Alicia Silverstone. A special mention for Brandon Soo Hoo, the young actor playing the Tran the drug lord; his Tran is a snarling, feral beast and I haven’t been so terrified of someone so small since the Zuni warrior fetish doll from Trilogy of Terror. Despite that scariness, everybody looks like they’re having a great time on the film, which looks ambitiously expensive. The explosion shots that seem to burn down an acre of Kauai, and the eerily Dianetics-esque CGI backgrounds of Tugg Speedman’s Scorcher trailers alone must have cost enough to buy him back from the heroin traffickers. Tropic Thunder could’ve been shot on a blank soundstage and still be one of the funniest films of the year. The brilliant comic camaraderie between the actors, particularly Robert Downey Jr.’s impossibly hilarious performance and the unflinching skewering of so many taboos; social, cinematic and otherwise made Tropic Thunder worth the seven years it took to get Ben Stiller back in the director’s chair.

Very well done.

 

~ Mighty Ganesha

Aug 6th 2008

 

 

 

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(Courtesy of  Paramount Pictures)