After a big gap (so big it almost feels like two different turns), Conor brought us his second film – 2008’s Tropic Thunder, directed by a guy who just can’t stop casting himself as his own star (Zoolander, Tropic Thunder, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Zoolander 2), Ben Stiller.
Tropic Thunder is one of those eponymous movies, taking its name from the fictional Vietnam war film whose production is going disastrously poorly as we join the action. Ben Stiller is the fading action star, while Robert Downey Jr. is the Australian Oscar winner who has undergone skin treatment therapy to play a black role. With, as is later pointed out, a really bad southern accent.
With the film said to be a month behind schedule only a week into shooting, big shot producer Tom Cruise is extremely upset and the director is at a loss for how to motivate his actors.
Unfortunately, also on set is the author of the original story – Nick Nolte’s hook-handed staff sergeant whose memoir was the basis for Tropic Thunder. Later we will find out that Nolte is a fraud (he didn’t serve in Vietnam, and his hooks are false as well) but for now he makes the wonderful suggestion to go for a guerrila-style film session – get the actors out in the jungle with real weapons (carrying blanks, unknown to them) with the director on a hand-held, and have Nolte and a pyro technician rig up the jungle to make the actors think they’re actually under fire.
Joining Stiller and Downey are heroin addict comedian Jack Black, actual black actor Alpa Chino (get it? GET IT!?!?!), and Jay Baruchel, who seems to manage to play the sensible one in all the “let’s-make-fun-of-how-terrible-actors-are” movies (wave hello, This Is The End!)
However, things go south really quickly when the crew is unknowingly set down in territory controlled by the Flaming Dragon heroin cartel. The director steps on a real land mine (at this point only Stiller is convinced they are still acting) and the fraudy veteran and the pyro tech are taken captive.
Following several arguments over the direction they ought to be going, Stiller leaves the other actors, accidentally kills a panda, and is ultimately captured by the Flaming Dragon cartel, who, discovering that he is the actor behind Simple Jack (a film where Stiller “goes full retard”, and also the only VHS tape owned by the cartel) force him to reenact the movie several times a day.
In the end, the other four actors come upon the heroin factory and stage a ludicrous rescue, and while the film is never made, instead the actors win plaudits for the film documenting the disastrous making of Tropic Thunder. The End.
If nothing else, it’s a funny film. It won’t change your life, but “never go full retard” will make its way into your vocabulary, however non-PC such a declaration might be. Still, for the most part it’s a cookie-cutter comedy that hits all the standard tropes – Jack Black has to overcome his heroin addiction, Downey needs to recognize his acting perfectionism, the producer is a corny Jew… In point of fact, the film is strongest when it bucks expectation. As an example, Stiller has been trying to adopt a southeast Asian child, and when captured by the Flaming Dragons he forms a bond with a young child. When the rescue finally happens, Stiller initially declines rescue on the grounds that he has formed a bond with his captors, only to finally come running back out of the camp with his “adoptee” on his back and being chased by the cartel. And you think, “Man, saving that adoptee kid is really cheesy” but it turns out the the kid has actually jumped on his back and is repeatedly stabbing him as Stiller tries to get away. Moments like that only come up about five times in the film, but they really form the backbone in my eyes for why one should watch this film as opposed to any other random comedy.