15 October 2008 | bob the moo
Although it is right on the edge of disaster, the film is actually pretty funny and smart if you go with it
When an all-star Vietnam film is put in the hands of a first time British director, the results are an ego-dominated shambles that is a month behind schedule after only five days of shooting. Director Damien Cockburn makes a decision that the experiences of "Four Leaf" Tayback will be best captured on film by dropping the basic cast in the jungle and forcing them to experience as close to reality as possible while catching it all on camera. Sadly when Cockburn is killed by a mine mere minutes into the mission, the cast are left in the middle of a dangerous jungle, not entirely sure of whether this is real or not.
When I went to see this film I hadn't expected it to be much more than a basic comedy but the reality is that this is a pretty smart satire of Hollywood and movie acting that also produces silly laughs one would expect from a Ben Stiller film. The "black-face" issue has been mentioned in regards the film walking a fine line between being funny or offensive but to me the bigger tightrope act is between being funny and being stupidly silly. Here and there it gets very close to falling over that line (eg all of Tom Cruise's stuff) but if you are with it then it manages to just about stay on the right side of the line. The daft plot allows for micky-taking in regards big studio action movies, spoilt actors, bad projects, studio executives and so on it is never sensible but it is mostly very funny. I think the film doesn't always succeed though because it sort of straddles two stools and those who want one or the other will have reservations while the smaller number who recognise both stools will perhaps see flaws on both. To explain that better I should probably say what I mean rather than referring to furniture and backsides. See as a satire it is undeniably broad and clumsy with the digs being made in clever but still quite obvious ways and you do have plenty of laughs that are knock-about that don't sit with those looking for smart satire. On the other hand you have those who love the silliness of it but don't really "get" it when it is trying to make digs even if they laugh their heads off at a character eating blood in the misunderstanding of it being a special effect. Somehow though it just about works by just going all out for it and things like the racial issues, anti-Semitic stuff etc all hang together sufficiently.
The cast are a big part of making it work. Stiller is solid throughout and works his character as well as he makes fun of him. Downey Jr is very impressive as the deep-method actor who produces the controversy. Black is a necessary evil but at least his character's drug addiction makes him of value within the satire even if his performance is still a fat guy shouting. I liked the support from both Baruchel and Jackson, who held their own alongside the starry cast. The rest of the cast include solid turns from Nolte, Coogan, Maguire (great superhero movie reference), Pollack and others are all in the shadow of a great Tom Cruise who to me is the one we should be talking about when it comes to controversy tightropes. He is always about an inch away from being embarrassingly silly but yet he pulls it off.
Tropic Thunder is not a perfect film by any means. The satire and the knock-about humour don't compliment one another that well but somehow it all works and the majority of the risky moves are pulled off even if it is not quite as clever as it would like to be. To some it will be the stupidest thing they have ever seen, to others the funniest; the truth is somewhere in the middle and it is enjoyable for it.