Is there a movie more parodied than Apocalypse Now? Something about that movie seems to speak to wags in the movie business. Maybe it’s because even the making of Apocalypse Now lends itself to parody; all the self-important madness of Hollywood condensed into one film: the egotistical director, the deluded star, spiralling costs and a set caught mid-Tet offensive. Ben Stiller’s new movie, Tropic Thunder, is a satire of war movies, and it features (lo and behold) a lot of images that may remind you of Brando and co. lost in the jungle. No-one lashes out at their reflection this time around, but most actors will recognise “the craft” in this mirror.
The movie begins on-set. “Tropic Thunder” is three weeks behind schedule. The cast are feuding, the director is out of his depth, millions have just been lost in a premature pyrotechnic explosion, and the head of the studio (Tom Cruise) is apoplectic. The solution, put forward by the movie’s ’Nam consultant, is to put aside all conventional wisdom, fly the cast into the jungle, open fire on them and film what happens. Everyone is just desperate enough to agree to this. After all, veteran action star Tugg Speedman (Ben Stiller) hasn’t had a hit in years; Australian Method actor Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr.) can’t risk breaking character; flatulent comedian Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black) craves respectability; and chauvinist rapper Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson) needs a new “revenue stream”.
Ben Stiller kills a panda. That’s how far this movie is prepared to go in search of laughs. Not only does Stiller kill a panda; he skins a panda and wears its head for a hat. Whether or not we are meant to infer some veiled critique of American/Chinese business relations from this gag, it’s definitely a good pointer as to the kind of comedy Stiller’s aiming for. This is a Farrelly-brothers-go-to-war satire (think: There’s Something About Mary-ine Corp.). Tropic Thunder has no scruples. Over the course of one hour and fifty-some minutes: Jack Black kicks heroin for laughs, Robert Downey Jr. wears black-face, Tom Cruise says the f-word more than he did in Magnolia and Ben Stiller licks blood from a severed head (severed human head … well, Steve Coogan at any rate. This is besides the panda).
Mostly – even if Stiller does go too far at times – it’s funny. Robert Downey Jr. deserves some kind of award. Downey defuses the potential Al Jolson-ness of his role by simultaneously being ridiculous and hugely likeable. We know, as Downey’s character does, that he’s “a dude playin’ a dude disguised as another dude”, and Downey plays his character so well that you never think of him as anything other than Russell Crowe over-doing it (as usual). There’s a great scene where Downey laughs mid-take and Stiller keeps the flub in. The audience needs an actor to wave at them sometimes – to ease the pressure on a high-wire act.
Will Tom Cruise’s bald, bearded, bullying studio chief be enough to persuade audiences to forgive him for being a Scientologist? It’s possible. Cruise says f— better than anyone (bar Dennis Farina), and he always seems more like a human being when he’s swearing than when he’s quoting L. Ron Hubbard. A joke about his character dancing inappropriately is probably prolonged a bit much, but otherwise Cruise is funny (not “funny” the way he was on Oprah).
Vietnam can’t have seemed that amusing when America was involved the first time, nor even when Francis Ford Coppola was faking Vietnam in the Phillipines. But Apocalypse Now did a lot for ’Nam trauma. It re-told the story of a war badly fought; made it into a mythic war, full of larger than life figures. For actors, the movie’s effect was ten-fold. Apocalypse Now didn’t just create legendary characters, it made acting legendary. And when something’s that big, you just have to spoof it. Tropic Thunder is as hysterical, over-long and in love with acting as any good Apocalypse Now lampoon should be. Just one thought: do the Vietnamese make these sort of movies?