12 August 2008

At the movies: Tropic Thunder.

Any discussion of Tropic Thunder must begin and end with Robert Downey Jr. He plays Kirk Lazarus, an Australian multi-award winning actor who undertakes a controversial surgical process to darken his skin to play a black soldier in a war film. Thematically and semiotically, he’s like a one-man boxed narrative focusing on performance, race, and the fluidities of identity with each line he delivers. I foresee dissertations focused exclusively on this performance popping up throughout academia over the next decade or so, and even if there had been nothing else worthwhile in Tropic Thunder, it would have been worth it just for this.

Fortunately, though, Tropic Thunder is kind of great. It’s an overblown spectacle about overblown spectacles that’s meant to read as a Hollywood insider movie. These kind of films are usually excruciating to anyone not in the film industry, and are often tonally confused as to what kind of message they are trying to convey. But Director/co-writer/star Ben Stiller finds the razor-sharp balance of the material, using the structure of the action event film as the perfect scaffolding on which to layer all of the horror and hilarity of big-budget filmmaking. Take the opening of the film; displaying an understanding of the contemporary moviegoing experience much deeper than anything seen in theatres in years, we are hit by a commercial and trailers set within the universe of the film. We are given context, backstory, and metatextual action before the film even properly starts, but it works, and beautifully.

Matthew McConaughey and Tom Cruise do great supporting work as two sides of the Hollywood coin, both relaxed and trying something different to an impressive yield. Know at least that no one will ever be able to hear Flo Rida’s “Low” again without thinking of Tom Cruise dancing his way into the dark heart of the human soul. Similarly, there’s a relaxed and breezy interplay amongst the entire cast that deflates the unspoken yet near-palpable tension that comes from making (and watching) a big summer blockbuster, making this the most effervescent 100 million dollar-plus action flick since Paul Verhoeven’s 1997 masterpiece Starship Troopers. Stiller has made something truly unique in the realm of the event movie: a film that rewards knowledge. You don’t have to know anything about the movie industry or semiotics or action films to enjoy Tropic Thunder, but if you do, you’ll find a film with as much hardcore arthouse truth-telling as it has big summer action.

If Pineapple Express is the quieter, scruffy egghead takedown of the action genre, then Tropic Thunder is the amped-up, Senior Varsity takedown. Just as funny, just as smart, but in completely different ways. It’s been long overdue, this expansion of the action film, and it bodes incredibly well for moviegoers.

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