PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.

Tropic Thunder

Tropic Thunder tells you that race and masculinity and class identity issues make men in this business mean and juvenile. And then it tells you again.

Tropic Thunder

Director: Ben Stiller
Cast: Ben Stiller, Jack Black, Robert Downey, Jr., Steve Coogan, Brandon T. Jackson, Jay Baruchel, Danny McBride, Nick Nolte
MPAA rating: R
Studio: Paramount Pictures
First date: 2008
UK Release Date: 2008-09-19 (General release)
US Release Date: 2008-08-13 (General release)
Here we go again. Again.

-- Scorcher (Tugg Speedman)

"We are no longer actors in a movie," announces Damien Cockburn (Steve Coogan), "We are five men in a helicopter!" Even as he says it, the director looks unconvinced. These are not men, and he knows it. They are actors.

The camera pans the faces of the stars, including Tugg Speedman (Ben Stiller) and Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey, Jr.), who look equally unconvinced. Ah well, Damien sighs once they're dropped off into the Southeast Asian jungle, they will shoot this Hollywood action flick "guerrilla-style." They will turn around a current disaster in the making, Tropic Thunder ("a month behind schedule just five days into production," according to Access Hollywood), they will live off the land, and they will make a real movie. The actors hold up their fake guns over their fake-helmeted heads, and they raise their voices in agreement. Sort of.

This is actually the second beginning of Stiller's rambunctious, bloody, and often tedious new comedy, also called Tropic Thunder. The first had Damien surrounded by crewmembers with clipboards and headsets, expensive cameras on cranes, stunt men shooting and falling, a helicopter providing a noisy backdrop. In that first scene, Tugg was playing the heroic Tayback, his hands shot off, his future dire, and Sergeant Lincoln Osiris, played by Kirk, was urging him to press on: "Ain't nothin' but a thing."

Indeed. As the camera closes in on Kirk's tear-streaked face, Tugg stops the action. Damien looks exasperated as his star begins to ponder the details: "If I'm crying," he asks, "should Osiris be crying too?" It's a question that, if not especially compelling, characterizes the problems on Damien's set: the actors are prima donnas, he complains, competitive and childish. Damien pays the price for his lack of control: during a video call from the fat-and-balding producer, Les Grossman (Tom Cruise), he's loudly rebuked. Les goes so far as to have a key grip hit him, "really fucking hard," to encourage Damien to regain control.

This manly display by proxy sums up Tropic Thunder's primary joke. It means to skewer the movie industry by taking aim at its most precious fiction, that what it does matters. This is, of course, related to the fiction that those doing it are real men, as opposed to, say, gross men, or girly men or -- according to the movie-within-a-movie's consultant, grumpy Vietnam War veteran John Tayback (Nick Nolte) -- "pansy-ass actors." It's his memoir providing the basis for the script, so when he holds up one of his hand-replacement hooks to make a suggestion, Les listens. They'll lose the contracted luxuries, go in to the jungle ("where a man's worth is measured") and not only complete the production, but also become real men.

They will also run smack into catastrophe, mostly in the form of a brutal 12-year-old drug lord, Tran (Brandon Soo Hoo) -- not exactly a man, either, but a plot-pushing stereotype. That plot involves Tugg's capture by Tran's thugs and Kirk/Osiris' efforts to rescue him. it also involves their continued competition, as each is differently immersed in his role: Tugg is forced by his captors to reenact their favorite movie, Simple Jack, in which he once starred as a "retard." They fashion for him a wig of grasses and burlap overalls, and mouth the words with him as they watch, beating him when he makes a mistake.

For Tugg, the adoration and abuse provide a faux revelation: viewers invest in his work. Even as he learns this seeming lesson, though, you know it's silly. These particular viewers -- violent, non-English-speaking others all -- love a terrible piece of work. Back in the world, his effort to be "taken seriously" was a flop.

Tugg isn't the only ersatz lesson-learner in Tropic Thunder. Egomaniacal comedian Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black) is also supposed to come to terms with his damage. Star of a franchise in which he plays every member of the farting "Fatties" family, Jeff's also a big-time drug addict, the mere thought of piles of heroin at Tran's camp sending him into red-faced spasms. Reduced to a subplot that's even less interesting than it sounds, Jeff is mostly on board so Black can contort his face and flop his body the way he usually does.

At least Jeff doesn’t have to provide coherence, which is the unhappy assignment for newbie actor Sandusky (Jay Baruchel), who might best be described as Tropic Thunder's designated driver. The only actor of the bunch who attended their training camp, Sandusky knows how to read a map and worries about doing the right thing, even as he's following along after the big boys, still imagining they have Great Acting Wisdom to share.

Chief among his idols is the award-winning, neo-Methody, completely self-loving Kirk, lately lauded for his role as a monk with a crush on another monk (Tobey Maguire). To play Osiris, Kirk has had his complexion surgically altered and spent long months learning how to "talk black." ("I don't read the script, the script reads me," he explains, soliciting the appropriate response from Tugg: "I don't even know what that means.") So deeply engrossed is Kirk in Osiris, that even when he and his fellow actors discover they are not being filmed, he stays in character. Thus he conjures a Rambo-like scheme to enter Tran's village -- with fake guns.

So you're assured the movie knows Kirk's blackface is offensive, it includes an actual black actor, a rapper with a business plan (he's always hawking his energy drink, "Booty Sweat") and dreams of movie stardom. Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson) knows how he's real and unreal, and perpetual code-switching doesn’t cause him angst, the way it does for the white performers. This means he has little patience for Kirk/Osiris' antics, much less his speechifying about race relations. When he starts reciting the theme from The Jeffersons and Alpa Chino calls him out, Kirk/Osiris defends himself: "Just because it's a theme song don't make it not true."

He might have a point, especially in the context Tropic Thunder establishes. If the relationship between truth and fiction is so warped, even impossible to parse, then how to "measure" the worth or even the definition of a man? The movie, much like the movie-within-the-movie, is resolutely un-insightful. It tells you what you already know: the industry is corrupt, the men in it (and here they are all men, especially fond of using language associated with men) are simultaneously insecure and narcissistic, the product is banal. It tells you that race and masculinity and class identity issues make men in this business mean and juvenile. And then it tells you again.


Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.





Laura Veirs Talks to Herself on 'My Echo'

The thematic connections between these 10 Laura Veirs songs and our current situation are somewhat coincidental, or maybe just the result of kismet or karmic or something in the zeitgeist.


15 Classic Horror Films That Just Won't Die

Those lucky enough to be warped by these 15 classic horror films, now available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection and Kino Lorber, never got over them.


Sixteen Years Later Wayne Payne Follows Up His Debut

Waylon Payne details a journey from addiction to redemption on Blue Eyes, The Harlot, The Queer, The Pusher & Me, his first album since his 2004 debut.


Every Song on the Phoenix Foundation's 'Friend Ship' Is a Stand-Out

Friend Ship is the Phoenix Foundation's most personal work and also their most engaging since their 2010 classic, Buffalo.


Kevin Morby Gets Back to Basics on 'Sundowner'

On Sundowner, Kevin Morby sings of valleys, broken stars, pale nights, and the midwestern American sun. Most of the time, he's alone with his guitar and a haunting mellotron.


Lydia Loveless Creates Her Most Personal Album with 'Daughter'

Given the turmoil of the era, you might expect Lydia Loveless to lean into the anger, amplifying the electric guitar side of her cowpunk. Instead, she created a personal record with a full range of moods, still full of her typical wit.


Flowers for Hermes: An Interview with Performing Activist André De Shields

From creating the title role in The Wiz to winning an Emmy for Ain't Misbehavin', André De Shields reflects on his roles in more than four decades of iconic musicals, including the GRAMMY and Tony Award-winning Hadestown.


The 13 Greatest Horror Directors of All Time

In honor of Halloween, here are 13 fascinating fright mavens who've made scary movies that much more meaningful.


British Jazz and Soul Artists Interpret the Classics on '​Blue Note Re:imagined'

Blue Note Re:imagined provides an entrance for new audiences to hear what's going on in British jazz today as well as to go back to the past and enjoy old glories.


Bill Murray and Rashida Jones Add Another Shot to 'On the Rocks'

Sofia Coppola's domestic malaise comedy On the Rocks doesn't drown in its sorrows -- it simply pours another round, to which we raise our glass.


​Patrick Cowley Remade Funk and Disco on 'Some Funkettes'

Patrick Cowley's Some Funkettes sports instrumental renditions from between 1975-1977 of songs previously made popular by Donna Summer, Herbie Hancock, the Temptations, and others.


The Top 10 Definitive Breakup Albums

When you feel bombarded with overpriced consumerism disguised as love, here are ten albums that look at love's hangover.


Dustin Laurenzi's Natural Language Digs Deep Into the Jazz Quartet Format with 'A Time and a Place'

Restless tenor saxophonist Dustin Laurenzi runs his four-piece combo through some thrilling jazz excursions on a fascinating new album, A Time and a Place.


How 'Watchmen' and 'The Boys' Deconstruct American Fascism

Superhero media has a history of critiquing the dark side of power, hero worship, and vigilantism, but none have done so as radically as Watchmen and The Boys.


Floodlights' 'From a View' Is Classicist Antipodal Indie Guitar Pop

Aussie indie rockers, Floodlights' debut From a View is a very cleanly, crisply-produced and mixed collection of shambolic, do-it-yourself indie guitar music.


CF Watkins Embraces a Cool, Sophisticated Twang on 'Babygirl'

CF Watkins has pulled off the unique trick of creating an album that is imbued with the warmth of the American South as well as the urban sophistication of New York.


Helena Deland Suggests Imagination Is More Rewarding Than Reality on 'Something New'

Canadian singer-songwriter Helena Deland's first full-length release Someone New reveals her considerable creative talents.


While the Sun Shines: An Interview with Composer Joe Wong

Joe Wong, the composer behind Netflix's Russian Doll and Master of None, articulates personal grief and grappling with artistic fulfillment into a sweeping debut album.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.