On iPlayer: Tropic Thunder

Tropic Thunder follows in the great tradition of films about film production, from Adaptation to Barton Fink, Seven Psychopaths to Galaxy Quest. It’s most similar to this last film, as a group of actors are forced into a real version of their film. But where Galaxy Quest lampooned sci fi, Tropic Thunder takes on the war movie. 

When they head to the jungle to get footage, a group of pampered movie stars gets lost in the territory of violent local drug lords. As they gradually realise they’re not on a movie set any more, they’re forced into real life fighting after one of their number is kidnapped…

The film’s real coup is in having Hollywood A listers play Hollywood A listers, giving it a pleasing sense of self deprecation. It opens with fictional trailers for its characters’ movies which don’t look as bad as some of these actors’ real life films, so it’s fair to say they’re sending themselves up here.

Ben Stiller, who also co-wrote and directed the film, is impressively bulked up for his part of action star Tugg Speedman, and Robert Downey Jr throws himself into his character: an absurd method actor who has undergone a skin pigmentation procedure to appear black. Fittingly his well-judged portrayal of this larger than life character came at the time of his own cinematic risorgimento and shows why he’s once again at the top of his game.

Also outstanding is a barely recognizable Tom Cruise in his most energetic role since Magnolia. He plays to his rich nutter image and looks like he’s enjoying himself for the first time in years. His part is small, and I found myself wishing for the first time in my life that he actually had more screen time.

While at times un-PC, it’s plain that the joke is on the actors and Hollywood executives. The movie’s stars have cynical conversations about the right level of mental illness to portray to bag an award, and the profit-driven movie executives bargaining for an actor’s release paint a very unflattering picture of the movie industry.

Its main problem is that the eclectic mix of exaggerated acting stereotypes, while enjoyable to watch, feel very two dimensional, meaning the mood of the film never feels any deeper than an over the top comedy. But it delivers plenty of comedy and action where it counts, succeeding in being a very entertaining satire of Hollywood’s delusions. Perfect awards season viewing.

Tropic Thunder is on iPlayer until 23rd January.

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