Sunday, November 25, 2018

Tropic Thunder (DreamWorks, Paramount, 2009)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I picked out a movie from the DVD backlog called Tropic Thunder, a curious spoof of war movies whose auteur was Ben Stiller: he not only starred but also directed, co-wrote the script (with Justin Theroux and Etan Cohen) and had one of the multifarious producer credits that have grown on modern movies like kudzu. The film takes place in 1999 and deals with a film crew on location in Quang Tri, Viet Nam reproducing an event described thusly in the movie’s opening titles: “In the Winter of 1969, an elite force of the U.S. Army was sent on a top secret assignment in Southeast Viet Nam. The objective: rescue Sgt. Four Leaf Tayback from a heavily guarded NVA Prison Camp. The mission was considered to be near-suicide. Of the ten men sent, four returned. Of those four, three wrote books about what happened. Of those three, two were published. And of those two, only one got a movie deal. This is the story of the men who attempted to make that movie.” The men who attempt to make that movie include several actors with clashing agendas but similar prima donna attitudes: Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey, Jr.), a serious actor with five Academy Awards and a penchant for totally losing himself in his characters, who’s undergone a controversial “skin pigmentation change” to play a Black character; Tugg Speedman (Ben Stiller), who’s become an action star with a series of films called Scorched which detail what would happen if the earth stopped rotating on its axis but took a career nosedive when he made a film called Simple Jack, a sort of Forrest Gump meets Dr. Doolittle about a mentally retarded (oops, “learning disabled”) farm kid who talks to animals, which bombed both critically and commercially; Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black), who’s coming off a series of films called Fatso Fart about a family of oversized people, all played by Portnoy; Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson), a Black rap star whose big hit is about women’s genitalia (“I Love Tha Pussy”) but who’s really a deeply closeted Gay man (though we don’t learn that about him until the movie is really over) and who’s naturally resentful that though he’s in the film, its most significant Black character is being played by a white actor; and Kevin Sandusky (Jay Baruchel), who’s young, hungry and enough of a beginner he takes his job seriously and doesn’t indulge in the antics of his bigger-named co-stars.

Tropic Thunder does a lot of meta-movie tricks: after the usual program of trailers to genuine movies we’ve come to expect to preface a DVD, the first thing we see when we hit “Play” is … more trailers, these for the fictional films the actor-characters of the film we’re about to see have made. (There’s a nice one for Satan’s Alley, a medieval costume drama in which the fictional Kurt Lazarus and the real Tobey Maguire co-star as monks who have a forbidden affair with each other: an in-joke reference to the film Wonder Boys, in which Robert Downey, Jr. and Tobey Maguire were shown as Gay lovers … well, as one-night stand partners, anyway.) All the actors are working for a crazy British director named Damien Cockburn (Steve Coogan) who’s managed to fall one month behind schedule after only five days of shooting, and who blows the film’s big scene when Speedman and Lazarus get in an argument over which of them should cry during a big scene, and as a result Cockburn (whose last name is pronounced the way it’s spelled — the actual pronunciation is “Coburn” but obviously a group of comedians whose stock in trade has been dirty jokes couldn’t resist pronouncing the name to put the word “cock” in it) doesn’t have the cameras running for the big combat scene involving three aircraft dropping bombs and lighting up half the Viet Namese jungle and setting the other half on fire. The film’s producer, Les Grossman (Tom Cruise, virtually unrecognizable with a shaved head and glasses that, except for his goatee beard, make him look like President Merkin Muffley in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove), says he’s going to fire Cockburn if he doesn’t gain control of the actors, and as a result Cockburn hits on a strategy: he’ll wire the entire jungle with digital cameras and film the movies with the actors not knowing, and thinking they’re in real danger.

Only Cockburn gets killed almost immediately — he’s beheaded and the actors come on his severed head and at first think it’s a prop (one of them gets his blood on his fingers and licks it, thinking it’ll be maple syrup) — and the actors find themselves lost in the jungle and facing a real enemy. At first I thought they were pulling the old Harry Langdon Soldier Man gag of having the actors run into a company of real Viet Cong who were stationed in such a remote part of the jungle they didn’t get the word that the Viet Nam War was over, but it turns out they have drifted out of Viet Nam into the nearby country of Laos and stumbled on a drug cartel called the Flaming Dragon, whose head is a 12-year-old boy and who manufacture one-eighth of the world’s entire supply of heroin. The Flaming Dragon fighters are convinced the actors are really agents of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration out to get them in the jungle and destroy their operation, and they fire back with everything they have — real bullets against the actors’ prop guns. The film consists of the actors and the Flaming Dragon going up against each other, and scenes in which Speedman (deliberately made up to look like the relatively young Sylvester Stallone from Rambo) and Portnoy are captured by the Flaming Dragon and Speedman is forced to put on his Smiling Jack costume and re-enact scenes from the film, since the Flaming Dragon members appear to be the only people in the world who liked the film.

At one point the Flaming Dragon demands a $50 million ransom for Speedman’s return, which they later raise to $100 million — and in the film’s funniest and most viciously satirical scene, Les Grossman, to the horror of Speedman’s agent Rick Peck (Matthew McConaughey, also virtually unrecognizable), does a dollars-and-cents calculation and figure that between the life insurance policy they have on Speedman and all the money they can make on reissuing his films as a memorial tribute, he’s literally worth more dead than alive — and they bribe Peck into going along with not ransoming the actor by offering Peck his own private jet. The actors finally escape the Flaming Dragon after Portnoy, a drug addict who had concealed his supply in jellybeans and who was tempted to snort the Dragons’ entire heroin production in one go, figures out how to get the Dragon guards to sleep for 16 hours by shoving their faces into the pile of heroin — and this gives the actors the chance to escape via the helicopter their special effects team head has provided for them, though Speedman briefly says he wants to stay with the Dragons because he’s found real meaning in his life with them and even adopted one of them as his son — only when his “adoptee” tries to stab him in the neck with a pen knife, Speedman realizes what’s up and gets the hell away in the nick of time. The final sequence takes place at the Academy Awards ceremony, where Speedman wins the award for Best Actor for Tropic Blunder, a movie made about the fiasco of filming Tropic Thunder which, in a Seven Keys to Baldpate-style metafictional ending, is the film we have actually just seen. After Tropic Thunder was over, Charles said, “I don’t know if I liked it or not” — which was my feeling exactly: I’m tempted to put it in the good-movie-that-could-have-been-better category — it occurs to me that instead of killing off Cockburn so early, they should have kept him alive in a secret jungle redoubt, where he’s monitoring the output of the cameras with which he’s wired the jungle and maintaining an almost god-like detachment as he sits in front of the monitor screens and edits the movie in real time.

Charles described it as a meeting of the making-of-Apocalypse-Now documentary Hearts of Darkness with The Hunger Games, and that’s largely accurate (though my idea for the film and Cockburn’s role in it would have made it even more Hunger Games-esque than the film we have) and I suspect his I-don’t-know-if-I-liked-it reaction came from the same source as mine: the film is so relentless in its violence (even though Cockburn is the only person we actually see killed) and shot so much like a serious war movie that through much of it you don’t know whether you should be laughing. When the lame fart jokes (it’s practically a law that you can’t make a comedy these days without lame fart jokes — something for which I suspect the blame rests with Mel Brooks, who did a tasteless but also screamingly funny fart scene in Blazing Saddles which seems to have regrettably inspired the next two generations of “comedy” filmmakers) and the other snippy lines of supposed wit appear, they almost seem more like comedy relief in a “serious” war movie (just as Buster Keaton’s Doughboys seemed to lose any sense of balance and become a surprisingly grim look at war for something that was supposed to be a comedy). It’s a weird movie that is perched oddly on the boundary between comedy and drama, though it does avoid one trap a lot of war movies have fallen into: the troops (and/or the actors playing them) aren’t given sappy love-interest stories to play in between battles. Tropic Thunder is also the sort of movie that references so many other movies Charles and I both lost count, and as an edgy war comedy I think I liked Hot Shots! Part Deux better (I’ve never seen Part Un) if only because it had elements of political satire and it benefited from Richard Crenna repeating his role from the original Rambo — but it’s considerably better than most so-called “comedies” today and its satirical observations on the movie business and the whole cult of celebrity ring vividly true.