"I thought about that movie, asked if it was that way.
He just shook his head and smiled at me in such a loving way.
As he thought about some friends he will never see again,
He said, 'I never saw John Wayne on the sands of Iwo Jima.'"
— "Sands of Iwo Jima," The Drive-By Truckers
Tropic Thunder is an extremely funny disappointment. Directed and co-written by and starring Ben Stiller, this tale of a group of actors on location shooting a Vietnam War film who find themselves in the middle of real combat is an enjoyable, often uproarious farce, but it's not a particularly brave film.
Perhaps predictably, Stiller & Co. take the easy road in skewering Hollywood arrogance and duplicity while only mildly questioning the legitimacy of make-believe war, particularly its appeal to and impact on audiences. For that reason, the film's alleged satiric savagery too often feels more like a self-congratulatory pose.
Tropic Thunder opens with a comedic bang in the form of a series of fake advertisements and film trailers that introduce most of the central characters and establish the gonzo tone of the comedy: Rapper Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson) is shown hawking products — namely, Booty Sweat energy drink and Bust a Nut candy bars. Aging action hero Tugg Speedman (Stiller) promotes the latest installment of a flagging action series (Scorcher VI: Global Meltdown). Hard-living comedian Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black) is back with a "family" comedy sequel, The Fatties: Fart 2. And Aussie master thespian Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr.) is a monk in love opposite Tobey Maguire in a bit of Oscar bait.
As the film proper opens, these actors are in the jungle of Southeast Asia, filming a Hollywood epic based on a memoir of a 1969 military mission and led by an overwhelmed director (Steve Coogan) and a hard-bitten author (Nick Nolte). With the production in trouble, the author convinces the director to try to salvage the film by taking his actors "off the fuckin' grid" and putting them "in the shit," with handheld cameras to document the gritty reality — resulting in a howlingly abrupt and thorough mockery of directorial hubris that is the film's finest moment.
The Hollywood targets here are specific — the fake-gore extremity of Saving Private Ryan, Russell Crowe, Eddie Murphy, an overly familiar but still funny riff on how playing characters with mental or physical handicaps is the road to the Oscar. ("You went full retard, man. You never go full retard," Lazarus explains to Speedman about his failed lead performance in the would-be career-changer Simple Jack.) And the actors — especially Downey and Tom Cruise — chomp into flashy parts with admirable gusto.
Cruise's inherent maniacal intensity serves him well in his grotesque caricature as a hairy, belligerent studio chief, just as it did when he played a self-help guru in Magnolia. (Perhaps he just needs an excuse to let that inner asshole out.) But it's Downey — whose Lazarus takes the next step in Method acting, undergoing a "pigmentation alteration procedure" to play a black soldier — who owns the film.
Wearing brown makeup and wig and spouting "jive talk" even after the reality of the situation is clear ("I don't drop character until I do the DVD commentary," he explains), Downey's character skirts offensiveness, which is good. The film balances him out with Jackson's Alpa Chino, an actual African-American character (though one who certainly engages in his own racialized role-playing) who takes considerable umbrage at the act. (At one point, Alpa Chino realizes that the inspirational speech Lazarus is giving is actually the lyrics to the theme song from The Jeffersons.) The humor here isn't in Downey's character as an emblem of black speech and behavior but as a commentary on what white people think of as black speech and behavior. After his lascivious Tony Stark in Iron Man, Downey surely deserves some kind of special Oscar for enjoyable performances in summer popcorn movies.
As with recent comedies such as Pineapple Express and, especially, Hot Fuzz, the protagonists here ultimately bumble into success in action sequences that mock Hollywood convention while ultimately trying to match it. An honest comedy about pretend warriors in real combat would result in a far harsher comeuppance and would be considerably more challenging for the audience.
For a glimpse at what Tropic Thunder might have been in bolder hands, make a video-store search for Small Soldiers, Joe Dante's bravura 1998 war-move satire that was disguised — far too well, it turns out — as a summer kid movie. Now there's a satire that goes places Stiller isn't willing to.