‘Tropic Thunder’ Sounds Off The Brutal Savagery Of Hollywood Filmmaking

One of the most popular topics among filmmakers is to poke fun at Hollywood. Sometimes, it works with movies like The Player and Bowfinger and sometimes it fails like most recently Babylon. As the TV show Community boldly said people grow tired of movies about making movies about making movies.

But a movie like Tropic Thunder works best because it’s starts out as a satirical look at filmmaking before transitioning into an action comedy the same way Three Amigos or Galaxy Quest had its cast of actors playing actors turning into real-life heroes. The movie, which was released in the summer of 2008, has recently come up on the radar again as Ben Stiller, who acted in it as well as directing and co-writing, was asked if he’d ever apologize for it. Stiller has said he won’t nor does he have a reason to.

Prior to its release, there was controversy over two key elements of the movie. Stiller plays a washed-out actor, Tugg Speedman, trying to find success. After his action movies stalled, he made an action comedy Chitlin and the Dude with Martin Lawrence. All we know is from the poster art which features Stiller as Speedman in drag. But Speedman has also appeared in Simple Jack, a movie about a developmentally disabled man with the brain of a young child. Simple Jack used the “R” word in its tagline.

However, many people found the fake trailer to be offensive as if it was making fun of people with developmental disabilities. A website featuring the fake trailer was pulled. It was located shown on YouTube where you can still find it today. The fake trailer actually pokes fun at actors and filmmakers who make movies like Forrest Gump or I Am Sam in hopes of winning awards. And over recent years, Gump‘s popularity has waned as many younger audiences see it as offensive. But at one time, in the latter quarter of the 20th Century, playing a simple-minded, dimwitted, or mentally challenged person often garnered awards and accolades.

However, I Am Sam, which is referenced in Thunder during a memorabke scene, was heavily criticized especially with Sean Penn’s performance. There was also the movie The Score in which Edward Norton plays a criminal who pretends to be a developmentally disabled man. Critics pointed to these two movies, both released in 2001, as a sign for needed changes. Now, many audiences are calling for actual people who are mentally challenged or developmentally disabled to appear on screen in these roles. And directors such as the Farrelly Brothers have been the ones who are more quick to cast them in roles than other directors.

In the end, Speedman’s attempt to make Simple Jack into Oscar bait was fruitless as it bombed at the box office and received negative reviews across the board. Since then, Simple Jack in real life has taken on a term to criticize these types of movies which are only made as Oscar bait. Thankfully, they aren’t being made at the way they were in the 20th Century.

The other criticism over the movie was the performance of Robert Downey Jr. playing Austrailian actor Kirk Lazarus who underwent a controversial pigment augmentation and plastic surgery to make himself appear black. Lazarus was hired to play platoon sergeant Lincoln Osiris in the big-budget adaptation of a Vietnam memoir titled Tropic Thunder written by Staff Sgt. John “Four Leaf” Tayback (Nick Nolte), who lost both of his hands during a firefight in which he jumped up in the air to deflect a live grenade thrown at his fellow soldiers.

While some people looked at Downey’s casting and performance as he spends most of his scenes talking and sounded in a stereotypical black lingo as “blackface,” it’s actually a commentary on the white-washing of Hollywood. It reminds me of Robert Townsend’s Hollywood Shuffle in which black actors were being instructed on how to talk and walk. It’s also a commentary on rather than hiring non-white actors for non-white roles, Hollywood producers will insist on popular white actors playing them. Remember the stories that someone wanted Julia Roberts to play Harriet Tubman? And it’s also a criticism of method acting as some actors, mainly Daniel Day-Lewis, have gone to extreme lengths for roles, such as when he had to be force-fed as he played a character with cerebal palsy.

Both Speedman and Lazarus are part of the ensemble of actors compiled to film the movie. Others include Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black), who mostly does gross-out stoner and sex comedies such as The Fatties, in which he plays every member of a family like Eddie Murphy in The Nutty Professor movies. And like those movies, everything consists of them farting. With the controversy over The Whale, you can also look at it as how slimmer actors put on fat suits and make-up to portray obese people as disgusting or filthy. Portnoy is also known for his rebellious substance abuse off screen as he is addicted to heroin.

There’s Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson), a rich rapper whose music and lyrics mostly are about how much sex he has with women. It’s later revealed Chino is a closeted homosexual who is in love with Lance Bass, who appears briefly in a cameo. And rounding out the cast is a lowly actor Kevin Sandusky (Jay Baruchel), who is the straight man of the movie. And in the movie-within-a-movie, he’s the red shirt soldier who dies a gruesome death because none of the mainstream celebrities were willing to.

The movie-within-a-movie is directed by Damien Cockburn (Steve Coogan) an inexperienced movie director and being financed by hot-head mogul, Les Grossman (Tom Cruise) who is believed to be a composite character of Scott Rudin and Harvey Weinstein. Cockburn is also reportedly based on director Richard Stanley, who was the original director of the 1996 adaptation of The Island of Dr. Moreau. Cruise has make-up on to make him heavyset and very hairy that his body hair makes Robin Williams’ look like a newborn baby. Grossman screams profanities and using the F-word as punctuation. His sycophantic lackey is Rob Slolum (Bill Hader), who has his head so far up Grossman’s ass, but Grossman tells him a nutless monkey could do his job.

While filming an expensive and difficult scene goes wrong as the movie is a month behind schedule, Tayback tells Cockburn they shoot the movie more guerilla style, but setting up cameras in the jungle and not telling the actors what’s goiing to happen so they’ll get better responses. Cockburn has explosive expert Cody Underwood (Danny McBride) set up explosives in certain locations and they resume filming.

There’s only a few problems. Cockburn collects all their cell phones and destroys them to make them think they’re 40 years in the past. But Cockburn makes the misfortune of stepping on an actual land mine left behind from the actual Vietnam War and blown apart. However, Speedman playing the real Tayback doesn’t believe Cockburn is dead and says it’s all make-up and special effects despite everyone else believing he’s dead. Cockburn gave Speedman of a map of the terrain and a route they’re supposed to follow so he continues on the path as the rest of the cast follows reluctantly debating on if they actually did see Cockburn die.

They are also being tracked by the Flaming Dragon, a heroin-manufacturing organization in the Golden Triangle, who thinks they’re an actual military unit sent to take them down. They are able to kidnapped Underwood and Tayback, who is revealed to be faking his injuries. He actually served in the Coast Guard and never overseas. Everything in the book is fake. Speedman also gets kidnapped when he ventures away on his own. But when the Flaming Dragon and their 12-year-old child leader Tran (Bandon Soo Hoo) discover who they have, they want to ransom him for millions. It just so happens that the Simple Jack is a favorite of the organization.

Initially when hearing the ransom, Speedman’s agent, Rick “The Pecker” Peck (Matthew McConaughey wondering parodying his himbo status) thinks Speedman has found a new agency, but Slolum researches the name “Flaming Dragon” only to discover who they really are. However, Grossman won’t negotiate and even says if Speedman is killed, they can write the production off as a loss and collect on the insurance which is more than the movie was budgeted. Grossman entices Peck by saying he will bought a Gulfstream V jet if he co-operates.

Back in the Golden Triangle, the rest of the actors discover Speedman has been kidnapped and devise a plan to get him out using a tactic Tayback wrote about in his book. Yet, Sandusky is the only one who read the book. And of course, when Portnoy discovers they’re making heroin, he has different ideas.

What makes the movie work is how every actor is used perfectly. Stiller got the idea while he was acting on Empire of the Sun as he had heard about real actors going through boot camp practice prior to filming war movies. He then co-wrote a first draft with friend and fellow actor, Justin Theroux. Etan Cohen was then brought on to beef up their script by including Lazarus and the extreme lengths actors go through. Cohen had previously co-wrote the script to Idiocracy.

While Stiller is hard to picture as an action star, he comes off perfectly as a pampered actor who can’t see how unpopular he is. When one of the Flaming Dragon members comments Speedman should’ve won an Oscar for Simple Jack, the smile on Stiller’s face is brilliant. Baruchel is perfectly cast as the no-name actor who everyone ignores. The actor had been in so many previous hits including the Oscar-winning Million Dollar Baby yet still some people to this day can’t come up with his name if they were to see him.

Black has the difficult role of playing a character who is so over the top he still has to be likeable. Normally, for me Black is hit or miss but here he works very well. His performance is loosely inspired by Chris Farley who had a substance abuse problem. Even McBride, another actor who I can get easily annoyed by, is utilized the best here.

But this movie really belongs to Cruise and Downey. Cruise’s vulgar character exposes how so many people in Hollywood are willing to put up with the most toxic behavior. During a camera streaming meeting, Grossman orders a key grip to punch Cockburn as hard as he can. There’s been so many reports on movie sets of how directors and producers have gotten out of control and physically assaulted other people while the cast and crew watched doing nothing. The video of David O. Russell getting upset with Lily Tomlin it looks like he’s going to hit her while Dustin Hoffman and others just walk away makes you wonder why they put up with it.

And Downey seems to be parodying the foolishness of actors who think what they’re doing is curing cancer. He’s constantly at odds with Chino, who’s upset over a white man pulling out all the same stereotypes. You can just hear the disdain and anger in Jackson’s voice and performance. Downey got an Oscar nomination for his role which is ironic because Lazarus is one of those actors who only does movies he knows will get him Oscar nominations. In many ways, Downey’s performance puts the spotlight on both what’s wrong with Hollywood and our society in general. We’ve created stereotypes about black and brown skinned people that we can’t see them doing anything different. It’s like in Bamboozled where Michael Rapaport tells Damon Wayans’ character he’s “more black.”

And while I can see and understand the controversy over negative portrayals of black actors and characters as well as disabled people, the movie isn’t making fun of them. No, it’s making fun of the people who underestimate developmentally disabled and still think black people are inferior. Tayback’s memoir is all fake which in itself is a parody of the legitimacy of all memoirs. But the irony is Lincoln Osiris doesn’t exist. It makes Lazarus a dumber character that he screams, “I’m the dude, playing a dude, disguised as another dude.”

Stiller, the son of actors Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara, has been involved in the entertainment businesss since he was a kid. He’s not the first to show the hypocrisy of the entertainment industry and how they make movies less for entertainment but more for their own benefits. A fake trailer, Satan’s Alley, in which Lazarus plays a gay monk who falls in love with a younger monk played by Tobey Maguire, is a subtle look at how Hollywood viewed the LGBTQIA community. The fact that Chino is gay but portrays himself as a lothario is also a look at how the stigmata against gay black men, which is even more relevant as Lil Nas X has come out as openly gay.

Movies are a reflection of our society. And Tropic Thunder is also pointing its finger at us the viewers and saying we’re kind of responsible for the behavior of the actors. Speedman has appeared in numerous Scorcher movies, all seem to have the same plot. While it wasn’t a major franchise at the time, it seems similar to The Fast and Furious movies as in they all seem to have the same plot and just used to make more money. But who’s really responsible? The filmmakers or the audience. Fast and Furious could’ve ended at Tokyo Drift if Vin Diesel hadn’t appeared briefly. We talk more about actors, TV shows and movies in our society rather than scientists and actual social issues because we like the escape. But then we get mad if too much attention is given to celebrities in the news.

What do you think? Please comment.

Published by bobbyzane420

I'm an award winning journalist and photographer who covered dozens of homicides and even interviewed President Jimmy Carter on multiple occasions. A back injury in 2011 and other family medical emergencies sidelined my journalism career. But now, I'm doing my own thing, focusing on movies (one of my favorite topics), current events and politics (another favorite topic) and just anything I feel needs to be posted. Thank you for reading.

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