Tropic Thunder: War Satire Goes To Extremes

Jack Black, Robert Downey Jr., and Ben Stiller in Tropic Thunder. Courtesy of DreamWorks/Paramount.

Tropic Thunder, the Vietnam War satire directed by Ben Stiller and released in 2008, goes to extremes with all sorts of surprises.

This year marks the 13th anniversary and while Tropic Thunder may be one of the edgiest satires I’ve ever seen, it certainly hasn’t aged well. There is language in this film that we don’t use anymore. A whole sequences in the film features a derogatory slur repeated at a mile a minute. The word wasn’t right to use back in 2008 either. If the film were made today, I want to believe that Ben Stiller, Justin Theroux, and Etan Cohen would not write it in such an offensive matter. I get that they’re going for satire but at the same time, it detracts from the bigger picture. However, I should note that there is a scene where they point out the actors who played mentally handicapped roles on their way to critical acclaim. This is certainly true and you can make a similar argument about cisgender actors playing transgender roles.

The cut I viewed is the unrated director’s cut. It is 12 minutes longer than the theatrical release. Aside from the problems in the film, there are some beautiful set pieces as we journey back to Vietnam in 1969. Tropic Thunder‘s visual effects are par for the course for action films. There’s two key pieces with the explosion early on and the bridge at the end of the film. The action pieces in the film can rival any Vietnam War film in history. Even the soundtrack features the typical songs that accompany such films. Present day scenes aside, of course. You can’t go wrong with a Creedence Clearwater Revival tune, “Run Through the Jungle.” Buffalo Springfield’s classic, “For What It’s Worth,” also makes an appearance. But again, the musical selections speak to the satire of it all.

Tugg Speedman (Ben Stiller) is an action star in need of a role to save his career. As such, he takes on the role of John “Four Leaf” Tayback (Nick Nolte) in the film they’re shooting. Stiller’s character is a satire of all those summer action blockbuster stars. Speedman’s career hit a major bump by taking on the role of a mentally handicapped farm boy in Simple Jack. I understand what they’re doing in terms of satirizing actors going too far in route to an Oscar but in doing so, this film goes too far!

Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black) is drug-addicted actor doing films similar to some of what we’ve seen from Eddie Murphy where he plays all the roles. Portnoy and Murphy differ in that Murphy never turned to drugs during his career. Black is one of many comedic actors in the cast. Jay Baruchel, a solid comic actor in his own right, plays the straight man against all of these actors on camera. It’s an impossible task whether it’s as Kevin Sandusky or Brooklyn but he gets the job done. Imagine being the rookie actor going up against five-time Oscar nominee Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr.)!

One of the things that this film gets right is how easy it is for a director, Damien Cockburn (Steve Coogan) to lose control on set. Even when studio executive Rob Slolom (Bill Hader) is on set, nothing goes right. Cockburn loses so much control of the actors that he hands them a map and script and leaves them to fend for themselves. Hardly the behavior you’d expect from the greatest Hollywood directors of all time. It’s not like they’re working with a rubber shark that refuses to cooperate!

Another problem with the film is that Robert Downey Jr.’s character performs in blackface until very late in the movie. This sort of method acting is simply unacceptable. It hasn’t hurt the actor’s career although every now and then, somebody will write an article in disbelief of his actions. And while they have every right to be offended, I view the film as commentary on the practice. It is wrong now, it was wrong then, and it was wrong when it happened during Hollywood’s Golden Age. And yet, the dude playing the dude disguised as another dude would earn himself a number of award nominations. One last thing on Downey Jr.: he is the third-billed actor. It seems impossible after watching him skyrocket in popularity after playing Tony Stark.

Tom Cruise absolutely steals the show as Imagicorp mogul Les Grossman. Paramount kept him out of the marketing so it was one of the biggest cinematic surprises in recent years. His scenes are among the best scenes we’ll see in the movie. Grossman’s anger issues and his treatment of assistants reminded me of someone like Scott Rudin. We might never see the spin-off film that’s been talked about for years. That said, part of me wants to see what Tropic Thunder would look like in a post-#MeToo/Time’s Up world.

Just like with Blazing Saddles, Tropic Thunder cannot be made today. Both films are certainly edgy for their own era with biting satire. But at the end of the day, it features scenes and dialogue that cross a line. If you made the film today, they would satirize the idea of a cisgender actor playing transgender in a film while going for Oscars. Or maybe they’d lampoon Scarlett Johansson for her controversial roles. There’s no shortage of opportunities to satire things that happen in Hollywood movies but there’s also a fine line. Tropic Thunder certainly has flaws but at the end of the day, it is an over-the-top satire that shows everything that’s wrong with Hollywood.

DIRECTOR: Ben Stiller
SCREENWRITERS: Justin Theroux & Ben Stiller and Etan Cohen
CAST: Ben Stiller, Jack Black, Robert Downey Jr., Nick Nolte, Steve Coogan, Jay Baruchel, Danny McBride, Brandon T. Jackson, Bill Hader, introducing Brandon Soo Hoo, Reggie Lee, Trieu Tran, with Matthew McConaughey and Tom Cruise

DreamWorks released Tropic Thunder in theaters on August 13, 2008.

Danielle Solzman

Danielle Solzman is native of Louisville, KY, and holds a BA in Public Relations from Northern Kentucky University and a MA in Media Communications from Webster University. She roots for her beloved Kentucky Wildcats, St. Louis Cardinals, Indianapolis Colts, and Boston Celtics. Living less than a mile away from Wrigley Field in Chicago, she is an active reader (sports/entertainment/history/biographies/select fiction) and involved with the Chicago improv scene. She also sees many movies and reviews them. She has previously written for Redbird Rants, Wildcat Blue Nation, and Hidden Remote/Flicksided. From April 2016 through May 2017, her film reviews can be found on Creators.