Tropic Thunder

Starring Ben Stiller, Jack Black, Robert Downey Jr., Nick Nolte and Steve Coogan. Directed by Ben Stiller
Running Time: 124 mins
Rated: Rated MA15+ (strong violence, coarse language, drug and sexual references)

One approaches this action comedy with a little caution. It is a film directed, co-produced, and written by the same person, Ben Stiller, who also stars in it. Stiller plays the part of "Tugg Speedman,' a spoilt and failing action star who wants to become a serious actor and he tries to do so with very predictable results. One might expect toilet humour, vulgarity and racial taunts throughout, but some of the initial caution is misplaced. The movie is restricted to those over the age of 15, and will be accessed by many under that age and there are warnings in that; also, exposure to heavy violence is part of the mix. However, it is also a funny movie, especially if you appreciate the heavy lampooning of Hollywood and frequent satirical thrusts.

The film is about the making of a big-budget war movie in Vietnam, with definite shades of "Apocalypse Now' in its telling. As the film heads for disaster, the first-time director (played by British comedian, Steve Coogan) panics and moves the actors into the middle of a jungle where scenes they think are fake are actually real-life, in which their lives are put at risk by a violent drug brigade, headed provocatively by a 12-year old child. There are two stand-out performances in the movie. One is by Robert Downey Jr., who plays the role of an Aussie actor, Kirk Lazarus, who is an Oscar winner. His make-over in this movie as a black soldier, and his extraordinary attempts to always stay completely in character, cleverly lampoons method-actors and their style. The other is a cameo performance by Tom Cruise who plays the role of an agitated and disturbed Hollywood studio executive. He plays it in an almost unrecognizable way; and one can only assume that the impact of his portrayal draws tellingly from his own experience. Nick Nolte is gruff enough as the difficult author of the book on which the film being made is based.

There are parts to this movie that are potentially offensive. One comes from Lazarus's episode (in a so-called picture of his) of two priests engaged in an illicit love affair that is signalled by meaningful stares and the anticipation of impending doom. This, some other jokes, the odd gross visuals, the strong language, and the references to easy drug-taking may cause offense. Stiller plays his usual role as a leaden-face actor who responds in a typically grimacing fashion to almost every awkward situation. The direction of the movie is reasonably low-key (though the content of the film isn't), but some scenes are too obvious as vehicles for the humour. However, the film has a satirical thrust that more often than not hits its mark. It intelligently satirizes the egos behind method-acting, the pretensions of Hollywood Oscar performances, how not to play the role of a person you aren't, and the Vietnam War effort. It is very much a multi-layered movie that has you trying to keep up all the time with copious references to past movies and those in them; and Stiller manages to hold it all together.

In the prelude to the movie, the main actors present themselves briefly to us in comic fashion. This immediately establishes the movie as unusual, and it keeps firing satirically at its targets throughout. In summary, this is a film that is different; and although it is potentially offensive and crude in parts and lives up to its classification rating, it manages along the way to be funny and intelligent as well. It could have been shorter and less emboldened, but with the above reservations it unquestionably entertains. Perhaps its main problem is that it is obviously marketed for a youthful audience on the hunt for laughs. In reality, however, it intelligently lampoons itself and Hollywood almost at every turn.

Dream Work Pictures Out August 21, 2008

Peter W. Sheehan. Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.

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