Just last month, Robert Downey Jr was nominated for an Oscar for his role in Tropic Thunder. If all you’ve seen is the advertisements, you may well be wondering: How did an actor in blackface manage to pull that off, in a Ben Stiller comedy, no less?
If you’ve seen the Hollywood war movie satire, you’ll think something else: How is it not going to Tom Cruise? Because let’s face it, it’s the only chance he’s going to get – and he’s the best part of this movie.
The concept behind Tropic Thunder is a cleverer one than standard Hollywood comedies. Here, all-star comedians and movie big names (such as Ben Stiller and Jack Black) star alongside the more artistic types (Robert Downey Jr) in a satire about Hollywood making just such a movie – a Vietnam war film starring commercially big names and an Academy Award-winning method actor.
While filming on location, the mixed-bag cast is chucked into the jungle by their British director (Steve Coogan) in order to get more realistic performances. But then real people start really shooting at them, with real guns.
The team behind Zoolander have come up with some funny bits, and most are handed to Downey. He does them justice as an Australian method actor who undergoes a skin darkening procedure to better fit the role of his black soldier. Aside from arguing with an actual black man about who’s blacker, he explains to Stiller’s bewildered action hero that the Academy doesn’t hand out Oscars to actors who go “full retard” in films portraying less able types.
Downey’s much better than the other star turns – Stiller is essentially replaying Zoolander and Jack Black phones it in as an overrated fat joke comedian who wants to be taken seriously… so basically, he’s playing himself.
But while Downey steals the jungle scenes, the biggest buzz after the release of Tropic Thunder wasn’t his captivating performance or criticism of his blackface or “retard” lines. No, it was all for Tom Cruise. (When was the last time that happened?)
Cruise plays the bombastic, loud, offensive, arrogant and rather horrible studio exec, Les Grossman, complete with bald cap and bad dancing. Hey, if his ex, Nicole Kidman, can pick up an Oscar for “going ugly” with a bad nose in The Hours, why can’t a bald cap be enough for Cruise?
His sendup of all that is powerful in Hollywood – as in, people like Cruise, himself – is a wonderful display of self-mockery. The energy with which Cruise makes an ass of himself makes both the character and the actor come across as rather likeable – a feat deserving of a lifetime achievement award from the Academy, after Cruise’s last few years of couch jumping, Scientology and “Free Katie” headlines.
It’s largely thanks to the hilarious Cruise and insane Downey that Tropic Thunder manages to stay funnier than a less high concept comedy, but there are enough laugh-out-loud bits to make it worth a look – and yes, even possibly an Academy Award.
We were only given two of the three discs, so we’re a bit short. Still, the one disc of special features offered more of Steve Coogan pretending to be a director, so if you found yourself wanting more of him, you’re in luck – but really, you’re probably the only one.
The extras manage a whole two deleted scenes, both of which do little other than prove what a good idea it was to cut them. Do we really need to watch Stiller unpack his rucksack or a screaming Jack Black threaten to wrestle a water buffalo… and then not do it?
The alternate ending isn’t much better – while it does offer Matthew McConaughey getting beaten and bruised, it also features an Oscar speech from Ben Stiller. Feel free to make up your own “it’s the only one he’ll ever get” joke here.
Other than interviews with the cast of Tropic Thunder – as in, the actors in character – there’s not much on offer. Indeed, the cast lineup fails to include the one man we want to see more of: Tom Cruise as Les Grossman. Hopefully, the third disc of extras is entirely made up of Cruise’s self-mockery, otherwise we’re just going to have to wait for the spin-off film…
2 February 2009