You have to hand it to Ben Stiller: he’s a pretty safe pair of comedy hands. Whether it’s rom-com, screwball, kids’ flick or gross-out, he rarely sets a foot too far wrong. And as the director of cult faves Cable Guy and Zoolander, he’s also shown that he knows funny from a technical point of view.
And given that Tropic Thunder finds him again doing what he did so well with Zoolander - ripping the piss out of the pompous and self-deluded - it’s hard to see how anybody wouldn’t end up snorting drink out of their nose in mirth at this one.
Based on observations of actors who felt that the gruelling shoot of a war film is akin to war itself, Tropic Thunder is a post-modern pop at those deluded saps. Stiller plays Tugg Speedman, an actor needing to get things back on track after an attempt to escape a crappy action franchise by playing the mentally disadvantaged card goes badly wrong.
Speedmann and his fellow thesps are signed up for a big-budget adaptation of a Vietnam vet’s memoirs, but the project drifts off the rails, and hard-ass studio boss Les Grossman (Tom Cruise, eh?) threatens to pull the plug. In desperation, director Damien Cockburn (Steve Coogan) decides to go all gonzo and verite, hijacks the cast and drops them into a live guerrilla-infested jungle. Blissfully ignorant, the troop attempt to fight their way to safety while giving good footage, believing all the carnage to be special effects.
It’s loud, crude and full of stupidity, yet while very broad and blokey in its humour, Tropic Thunder is underneath a pretty cruel yet pointed satire on Hollywood. Drawing heavily on overly used clichés offers quick laughs, but it scores points when it really goes to town on a number of targets - Cruise’s potty-mouthed scumbag Grossman mocks infamous cinematic fatcat Harvey Weinstein, while Downey Jr’s infamous “Never go full retard” speech highlights the acting community’s willingness to exploit the lives of those less fortunate for artistic gain.
The casting of Downey Jr is an act of genius that virtually justifies the existence of this film in its own right. Ripping Russell Crowe a new one with his portrayal of antipodean method actor Kirk Lazarus, who “blacks up” for his role as an African-American soldier, Downey Jr throws himself into it with jaw-dropping abandon, totally dwarfing everyone else on the screen every time he opens his mouth.
It’s little wonder, though still surprising, that he’s just been nommed for the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for this. Of course it may offend some, but the film smartly contextualises it and makes it clear where we’re to stand on it. That, and it’s damned funny.
A brash and riotus hoot parade that continually bombards you, it boasts a startling cameo from Cruise, who almost steals Downey Jr’s thunder, a liberal dose of vinegar-sharp one-liners. A cult classic in the making. Probably.
Starring: Ben Stiller, Robert Downey Jr, Jack Black, Tom Cruise
Directed by: Ben Stiller
Extras: single disc: commentaries, featurettes, trailer, Tom Cruise make-up test and mags. Three-disc set: extended cut, featurettes, mockumentary, deleted scenes, alternate ending, rehearsals and the film in WMV and iTunes formats.