Tropic Thunder 15 Years Later: The Controversy Rages On | Features | LIVING LIFE FEARLESS

Tropic Thunder 15 Years Later: The Controversy Rages On

Looking back at Tropic Thunder, it brings up a lot of the issues found in the film discourse of today. The most tiresome being, by far, is the question of whether a movie “could be made today.” 

As always, it’s a pointless question, as I’m already tired of stating. If a movie was already made in the past, it exists, and therefore it doesn’t matter if it couldn’t be made today. It’s always a matter of pure conjecture, which is ultimately pointless. 

The movie this is said most about, of course, is Blazing Saddles. But not far behind is the 2008 war movie satire Tropic Thunder, which was released in 2008 and turns 15 years old this month. 

Every couple of years, someone — usually a young person new to watching movies of the past — goes viral on social media by noticing something: Robert Downey, Jr., plays his part, essentially, in blackface, and that “would never fly today.”


In some versions of this, there’s a straw man argument that “liberals” or “the left” or “they” are trying to “cancel” the movie, with evidence of such cancellation efforts always elusive, aside from the odd Twitter rando

Of course, this is wrong. The entire point of the character in the movie is that Downey is playing a crazed Method actor who has undergone a surgical procedure to appear African-American while playing the role. Something that makes his co-stars, including the ones who are actually Black, very uncomfortable. It’s a sophisticated racial satire that was done pretty well in the movie.

Tropic Thunder 15 Years Later: Hollywood Satire Done Right | Features | LIVING LIFE FEARLESS

 When Tropic Thunder came out, only 15 years ago, this caused some controversy, but it ultimately didn’t inhibit the movie’s success. Even today, the film hasn’t been suppressed or “canceled” or denounced by its stars or anything; you can rent it today from every major VOD provider. And besides, it’s not like out-of-context blackface wasn’t considered a huge no-no in 2008. The Downey part of the film was a huge risk that ultimately paid off. 

But of course, there’s much more to Tropic Thunder than that. 

Tropic Thunder Nails Hollywood Satire

The point of most of the jokes in the movie, from the blackface actor on down, is the hubris and arrogance of Hollywood itself, as told by a large cast of A- and near-A-listers that includes Ben Stiller (who directed), Downey, Matthew McConaughey, Jack Black, Bill Hader, and (yes) Tom Cruise. It’s a Hollywood satire with actual teeth, unlike subsequent trash like The Bubble (directed by Stiller’s old early-career running buddy Judd Apatow). 

The high concept is wonderful. A group of Hollywood stars are in the jungle, shooting a Vietnam epic. With the project out of control — very much in the tradition of Apocalypse Now‘s production, if you know that story — they run into a group of actual guerrillas and have to fight (and improvise) their way out. Meanwhile, foul-mouthed producer Les Grossman (Tom Cruise, behind a mountain of makeup) tries to get them out. 

Not all of the gags work. There are things that don’t hold up so well, from the “Simple Jack” and “Full Retard” stuff, as well as a character having the surname “Sandusky.” But the parts that do work, work very well. 

Most of all, Tropic Thunder succeeds because it has an expert grasp of the film grammar and tropes of American war movies, especially the ones made about Vietnam. There are homages everywhere to Apocalypse Now and Platoon and the super-bloody opening scene owes quite a bit to the opening of Saving Private Ryan

Tom Cruise’s Funniest Performance

The performances are fantastic, starting with Cruise, delivering a performance radically different from every other role the superstar has played in his career. He doesn’t typically do funny voices, or employ screaming or over-the-top cursing, nor does he often lapse into an inexplicable dance, as he does in Tropic Thunder:

Coming just a few years after the actor got the worst press of his career after the Oprah couch incident, it was the sort of risky, off-beat performance that Cruise never gives anymore. And while his recent action movies have been great, I sort of miss the phase of Cruise’s career when he was making weird choices and working for cutting-edge directors. Although I suspect as he gets older, Cruise will re-embrace that, as he re-discovers the imperative of trying to win an Oscar.

In all, Tropic Thunder is the best film Stiller has directed, ahead of The Cable Guy, although I’m not, particularly a fan of Reality Bites, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, or either Zoolander movie. And no, it really doesn’t matter whether you could make it today.

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