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"Of the ten men sent, four returned. Of those four, three wrote books about what happened. Of those three books, two got published. Of those two, just one got a movie deal.
This is the story of the people who attempted to make that movie."
Tropic Thunder is a satirical American action comedy film (with more focus on the comedy) from 2008, based (very loosely) on the train wreck that was the production of the classic Apocalypse Now.Movie producer Les Grossman is in need of an award-winning movie and decides to make the best and most expensive Vietnam War movie ever. He hires rookie director Damien Cockburn (Steve Coogan) and five very different actors, who cause quite a stir in the press due to their very different backgrounds:
The action star: Tugg Speedman (Ben Stiller), whose attempts at serious acting (most notoriously, the Oscar Bait film Simple Jack) have been disastrous so far, nearly ruining his career.
The award-winning Australian actor: Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey, Jr.), who is known for his violent tabloid antics and for taking Method Actingup to eleven — most recently, going through cosmetic surgery to play an African-American.
The comedian: Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black), who specializes in disgusting and vulgar comedy and playing multiple roles in one movie. He's also addicted to "jelly beans."
The popular rapper turned actor: Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson), who markets an energy drink called "Booty Sweat" and doesn't take kindly to Kirk's portrayal of a black man.
And the unknown actor: Kevin Sandusky (Jay Baruchel), also the only one who had to audition for his role and the only one (aside from Lazarus, maybe) who actually prepared for it.
Naturally, nothing goes as planned, much to Cockburn's frustration. In a matter of days, the movie is way over budget and the actors won't cooperate. Having finally become fed up with the actors, and following the suggestions of the film's subject and consultant John "Four Leaf" Tayback (Nick Nolte), he decides to drop the actors in the jungle and simulate realistic warfare, hoping to get real emotions from them. This plan drives production even further off the rails when the cast runs afoul of a Laotian drug ring known as Flaming Dragon, and the actors end up having to become the soldiers they're playing, despite not knowing how to use their weapons or navigate through the jungle.A critical and financial success, this rude, crude, and very funny film mocks the way Hollywood works and, to that end, it showcases filmmaking tropes like a peacock displaying his feathers, and the extremelyGenre Savvy characters poke fun at them.A spinoff focusing on the Les Grossman character has been announced. Little else is known about it.
All There in the Manual: The DVD bonus disc contains several in-universe documentaries about the movie which explain some of the plot threads that were left hanging, such as why Cockburn wasn't mentioned more.
Armored Closet Gay: Alpa Chino has shades of this when you look at his career as a supposed sex-maniac. Granted, if you listen to the song, "I Love The Pussy," it sounds like a guy who's obsessed with keeping himself in there.
Armor-Piercing Question: "Or are you a dude who has no idea what dude he is, and claims to know what dude he is, by playing other dudes?" Basically, Speedman is pointing out that Kirk method acts so hard that he loses his true self. During their conversation Kirk stays in character because he can't remember who he is any more and breaks down crying saying that he's a no body.
Based on a Great Big Lie: Spoofed. We're told at the start this is a record of a true story. We find out halfway through that Four Leaf, the "Vietnam War veteran" who wrote the book the film-within-the-film is based on (and is on the crew, suggesting the Enforced Method Acting concept), is a total liar.
Even better: He does the commentary as Kirk Lazarus in character as Lincoln Osiris. He's "a dude playin' a dude, disguised as another dude!"
Recently seen in the cable-TV snark-hosted replays, when focusing on the failed attempt at infiltration disguised as a Chinese farmer: "Watch Robert Downey Jr. pretend to be an Aussie who is pretending to be black who is pretending to be Asian."
He gets so into his character he has to be reminded at one point that he is Kirk Lazarus.
Bi the Way: It's hinted that Kirk Lazarus is bi when he says, "Everybody's gay once in a while. This is Hollywood!"
Given his fake trailer where he plays a gay monk and how seriously he takes his roles, it's not much of a hint.
To go into more detail Kirk really takes his roles seriously and tries to become them, spending months at a time in character and living their lives. Considering his comment above and that he played a gay monk we can take this as a big, fat yes.
Jeff Portnoy was really sick and tired of people laughing at his farts...
Not as serious, but Kirk comes extremely close to breaking character as Alpa reels off every Aussie joke he can think of. Which is itself a result of his getting pissed off at Lazarus' Uncle Tomfoolery.
Brick Joke: Tobey Maguire's role in Satan's Alley gets him nominated for an Oscar.
Also a meta-example: Kirk Lazarus, while in his Sgt. Osiris mode, mentions that he "won't break character until the DVD release." Sure enough, when Tropic Thunder was release on DVD, Robert Downey Jr. does the commentary in-character to Kirk Lazarus, himself acting in-character to Sgt. Osiris.
Cluster F-Bomb: Personified in Les Grossman, especially when Flaming Dragon call with a ransom demand after they capture Tugg. Gratefully transcribed from the DVD:
Grossman: This is Les Grossman. Who is this?
Flaming Dragon Mook: This is Flaming Dragon!
Grossman: Oh. Okay. Flaming Dragon. Fuckface. First, take a step back, and literally FUCK YOUR OWN FACE!! *Beat* Now, I don't know what kind of Pan-Pacific bullshit power play you're trying to pull on me, but Asia, Jack, is my territory. So whatever you're thinking, you better think again! Otherwise I'm gonna have to head down there and I will rain down an ungodly fucking firestorm upon you! You're gonna have to call the fucking United Nations and get a fucking binding resolution to keep me from fucking destroying you. I'm talking about scorched Earth, motherfucker! I will massacre you! I WILL FUCK YOU UP!!!
Enforced Method Acting: An In-Universe example; Damien really takes this to the extreme when he drops his actors in the middle of a real war zone. It still doesn't work, except on Speedman — who insists everything is a trick even after Cockburn explodes into giblets.
Everyone Is Bi: Referenced at one point ("Everyone's gay once in a while!", after Alpa Chino accidentally outs himself), and hinted to be completely true in-story.
Guns Akimbo: Lazarus revealing his guns on the drug compound guards after his cover his blown attempting to sneak in. "I'M A LEAD FARMER, MOTHERFUCKA!"
Have I Mentioned I Am Heterosexual Today?: Alpa Chino is a rapper who's mostly famous for writing a song where he sings about "wet pussies". The song is used to advertise an energy drink. He's actually gay.
Tugg loses it after he kills a panda, an animal he loves more than anything else in the world.
Kirk has a breakdown after Tugg convinces him that he's having an identity crisis while Kirk is trying to get Tugg to snap out of the role he's immersed in.
High-Pressure Blood: The tendency for "realistic" Vietnam War movies to engage in this is parodied here; the scene we see from the film within a film has characters shooting jets of blood from their heads and spewing more intestines than would fit inside their bodies, all while the hero is shot a preposterous number of times to little effect.
Hot-Blooded: Les Grossman, the producer, flies off the handle at the slightest provocation. He will vacillate between roaring inventive profanity at the top of his lungs and calmly taking care of business.
I Choose to Stay: Near the end of the movie, Tugg tells the rest of the crew that he is staying with the Flaming Dragon, as they appreciate his performances and he feels he has something akin to a family there in the shape of a young child who enjoys his performances. The moment he walks out of sight, gunshots are heard and he comes running back with the child on his back, stabbing him repeatedly, and the rest of the cartel chasing him while he shouts that he was mistaken.
Subverted with Speedman telling Kirk, "Or are you a dude who has no idea what dude he is, and claims to know what dude he is, by playing other dudes?" which to the other actors sounds like gibberish, but describes Kirk so well that he breaks down into tears.
Infant Immortality: Despite being very close to an explosion, none of the children in the movie die. One of them even gets crushed through several floors by Jack Black and survives.
I'm Cold... So Cold...: Parodied in the movie within the movie, when Four-Leaf loses his hands trying to deflect a stick grenade from detonating near the evac chopper. Parodied for "real" when Tugg claims to not be able to feel his legs while they're trying to escape from the drug compound. Turns out it's just that he's sitting in a pool of cold, muddy water.
Lazarus: Check it out. Dustin Hoffman, Rain Man, look retarded, act retarded, not retarded. Count toothpicks, cheat at cards. Autistic, sure. Not retarded. You know, Tom Hanks, Forrest Gump? Slow, yes. Retarded, maybe. Braces on his legs. But he charmed the pants off Nixon and won a ping-pong competition. That ain't retarded. Peter Sellers, Being There Infantile, yes. Retarded, no. You went full retard, man. Never go full retard. You don't buy that? Ask Sean Penn, 2001, I Am Sam. Remember? Went full retard, went home empty handed...
Introdump: It is literally the second scene in the film.
Ironic Echo: "I can't feel my legs." First as part of the film within a film, and then said during the final escape sequence. Except that Tugg's able to cry and can't feel his legs because he's sitting on a cold puddle.
"I don't know what it's called. I just know the sound it makes when it takes a man's life."
"I think I know a prop head when I see one!" says Tugg as he hefts what is an obvious prop head, seeing as Cockburn's actor is still alive...
Well, if you want to go there, "Osiris' rifles are full of blanks, Tran's aren't." Obviously, all the guns are full of blanks. In the same vein, the bridge demolition took a lot more work than one guy with dynamite sticks and det-cord stringing stuff to a single clacker. Indeed, the making of the movie about making a movie that never got made must have been epic.
Lost in Character: Kirk Lazarus has this as a recurring problem for his roles. Eventually, Tugg gets traumatized into this.
Magic Plastic Surgery: Kirk's transformation from white to black in itself is not that impressive. What's really impressive is that it "wears off" over time.
Not that unrealistic; the book Black Like Me is a real-life account of a white man masquerading as black for a social experiment, and has him having to recharge his "blackness" several times over six weeks. The surgery in his case, however, was very different from what Kirk is shown to have done.
The Man Who Knew Too Little: It takes Speedman a looong time to realize that he is no longer filming a movie. It didn't help that everything during his ordeal was supposed to occur in the script. One can make the argument that, subconsciously, he knew everything fell apart when Cockburn "disappeared" and that he was lying to himself to keep sane.
Mean Character, Nice Actor: Tugg Speedman despite playing action heroes. He donates to charity to save pandas, co-wrote a children's book and is close with his agent.
Meta Casting: All over the place, you can almost see the actors as themselves in a less meta movie. All of the actors have elements of themselves, with only marginal changes (usually combining elements of other famous actors). Jack Black's character has his own personality, but stars in movies of the style popularized by Mike Myers or Eddie Murphy. Arguably, Portnoy is a parody of what Black could end up becoming if he doesn't watch where he's cast. Robert Downey, Jr. is critically acclaimed and gets too into his job.
The main exception (and something often commented upon) is that Ben Stiller mostly plays comedic roles, not Action Heroes. Tom Cruise's cameo Playing Against Type was part of the joke, but has probably never played a character this... in-your-face. With the possible exception of Magnolia...
And Jay Baruchel plays that guy in the movie who no one remembers because he wasn't played by an A-lister — not even mentioned on the posters.
The Millstone: Jeff manages to fuck up the rescue plan (as fucked as it already was) by going straight for the drugs and allowing an open enough distraction for the more genre-savvy guards to reach for their guns.
Mistaken for Badass: The Vietnamese guerrillas are stunned by what they think is a heavily-armed American military team. One of them steps on a landmine? The others make fun of him while using his disembodied head as a prop for their amusement. Under heavy fire? They stand up, chests squared, and spray the forest with assault fire. The Vietnamese planning to ambush them are visibly shocked by how fearless the actors appear by sheer virtue of not actually knowing what's going on.
Alpa Chino is another not-so-subtle parody of the trend of rappers who are increasingly showing up in films as actors, and his Booty Sweat was a direct parody of the various brands of soft drinks pimped out by various mainstream rappers, mostly Nelly's Pimp Juice. A direct reference to R. Kelly's peeing scandal pops up in the Director's Cut: "Hell naw I didn't pee on that girl..."
Les Grossman is based on Stuart Cornfeld, the producer of The Fly, Zoolander and, yes, Tropic Thunder.
No Matter How Much I Beg: One scene has Jeff Portnoy going through withdrawal, and asks to be tied to a tree until he "gets it out of his system." He tells the others not to untie him, no matter how much he begs. Predictably, he does, even going as far as to promise recently outed Alpa Chino a blowjob.
One-Scene Wonder: In-universe. Les Grossman, although just having three scenes in the entire movie, has become one of the most memorable characters. He's even getting his own film.
Only Sane Man: Compared to the others, Kevin is a perfectly normal individual. A bit of a geek maybe, but we, of all people, have no room to criticize.
WOW. The insecurity level on you guys isRIDICULOUS!
Oscar Bait: Kirk's specialty. Tugg tried this with Simple Jack, playing a mentally challenged man, and it didn't go so well. At one point, Kirk explains why to him, citing many of the performances of that sort of role listed at the trope entry. And of course, the film the characters are making is an example of this.
Incidentally, of all the crazy things in the movie, the key controversy about this film was its supposed treatment of the mentally challenged — which may be considered a case of Completely Missing the Point.
That would explain the downright surreal "Special Message From Dreamworks" PSA on the DVD.
Robert Downey, Jr. gets nominated for an Oscar for the role of Lazarus. While parodying the late Heath Ledger who won that same Oscar.
Outrun the Fireball: Subverted. Tugg does this near the end, when the bridge to his helicopter's landing spot is rigged with explosives. He isn't quick enough, but he's alright afterwards.
Overdrawn at the Blood Bank: Parodied at the beginning, where a soldier suffers a headshot through his helmet and proceeds to spout a three foot high fountain of blood into the faces of his comrades, probably about three gallons in total.
Painting the Medium: The fake spots for the characters' fake movies (and energy drink) air right after the real trailers do.
Prima Donna Director: Damien Cockburn gets this rap amongst people, but it's really only because his actors and his producer are the real prima donnas constantly breathing down his neck.
Real Award, Fictional Character: Kirk Lazarus is a multiple-Oscar-winning actor. The film-about-the-making-of-the-film-within-the-film itself picks up a number of Oscars and Lazarus gets another one.
Real Trailer, Fake Movie: The movie opens with three very-realistically-designed fake trailers and a commercial to introduce the main characters, and what they usually do:
Scorcher VI: (Ben Stiller) Universal Pictures presents this parody of the typical cash-grabbing action summer blockbuster sequel:
Trailer Announcer: In 2013, when the Earth's rotation came to a halt, the world called on the one man who could make a difference. When it happened again, the world called on him once more. And no one saw it coming three more times! Now, the one man who made a difference five times before, is about to make a difference again. Only this time, it's different.
[Speedman is shown standing on an iceberg, and everything in the background is frozen. He has a set of twins on him and he's holding two rifles]
Tugg Speedman: Who left the fridge open?
Trailer Announcer:[voice over] Tugg Speedman. Scorcher VI: Global Meltdown.
Trailer Announcer: In a time where to be different was to be condemned... [Lazarus and Tobey Maguire, both dressed as monks, look longingly at each other]... and to be condemned was to die, one man chose to question his God.
Trailer Announcer: From Fox Searchlight, five-time Academy Award winner Kirk Lazarus and MTV Movie Award Best Kiss winner Tobey Maguire; winner of the Beijing Film Festival's coveted Crying Monkey Award, Satan's Alley.
Kirk Lazarus as Father O'Mallie:[whispers] I've been a bad, bad boy, Father....
Even before the fake trailers, you have a... suggestive ad for the products Alpa Chino pushes throughout the movie. As it happens, Booty Sweat is a real energy drink sold online. It had been temporarily available at theatres, too.
Refuge in Audacity: The whole movie — a clear case where toning it down would have actually made it much more offensive than it is. Among the tropes spoofed/subverted in this way:
Children Are Innocent — The leader of the drug cartel is a preteen, and the tot Tugg "adopts" at one point turns out to be quite vicious as well.
What Measure Is a Non-Cute? — Tugg kills a snarling animal in the dark — then is horrified to learn it was a Panda, as he's done adorable ads with Pandas for a wildlife conservation group. Doesn't stop there, as he skins the panda and wears its head as a Going Native ensemble he creates for himself.
Robert Downey, Jr.. as Kirk Lazarus as Lincoln Osiris. A black guy acting stereotypically black? Not funny. A white guy acting stereotypically black? Really not funny. A white guy who's dedicated enough to convince himself that he actually is a black guy, to the point that he lectures an actual black guy who uses the n word? So ridiculous it can't be taken seriously.
Retirony: The usual "girl back home" discussion promptly spins out into a reiteration of how messed-up the main characters are. None of the leads even have a girl... though one of them has a guy he never talked to... In the end, since none of them have someone waiting for them, nothing comes of it.
Kevin: Now, if you recall that whole hullabaloo where Hollywood was split into schisms, some studios backing Blu-ray disc, others backing HD DVD. People thought it would come down to pixel rate or refresh rate, and they're pretty much the same. What it came down to was a combination between gamers and porn. Now, whichever format porno backs is usually the one that becomes the uh most successful. But, you know, Sony, every PlayStation 3 has a Blu-ray in it.
Kirk: ...You talkin' to me this whole time?
Kevin: I was talking to whoever was listening.
Running Gag: People keep asking Four Leaf "You've got hands?!" after it's revealed he never lost them.
Scary Black Man: Kirk tries to be this, as he "gets into the role". Method acting at its finest, people. Take notes.
Sequelitis: Parodied In-Universe. Tugg Speedman's Scorcher series received no less than five sequels. The 6th one, Scorcher VI: Global Meltdown, turned the concept of the Earth, being a giant fireball in the previous movies, to a frozen wasteland because the previous films had exhausted the previously mentioned concept.
Acting. The actors in the movie are all extremely passionate about their art, and Kirk and Tugg in particular take acting very seriously, as the former is an Academy Award winner famous for going to extreme lengths of Method Acting and the latter is a washed-up action star trying to gain recognition as a "serious" actor and win an Oscar.
Tugg's manager is completely obsessed with ensuring he has TiVo, as his contract stipulates it, and he is very attached to the man. When things start going bad, he recognizes that the lack of TiVo can be used to show the contract has been broken, and near the end of the movie, he shows up at the last second to block a rocket-propelled grenade with a TiVo kit, having trekked through the jungle just to deliver it.
Shape Shifter Swan Song: Near the end of the movie, Lazarus briefly cycles through some of his previous roles before finally breaking character and assuming his own identity.
And then looking ridiculous as he overacts getting shot.
The party early in the film bears a resemblance to the out-of-control Playboy party in Apocalypse Now. Another Apocalypse Now reference is the scene when Kirk tells the others he was a saucier, like Chef does in Apocalypse Now.
The production problems of the in universe Tropic Thunder are based on the infamous production cycle of Apocalypse Now, which also went insanely over budget, over schedule and drove Francis Ford Coppola to mental breakdown and attempted suicide.
When Kirk is trying to snap Speedman out of his trance and go home, the lighting and shadow on Speedman's face when he says, "I am home" mirror Marlon Brando's final moments as Kurtz in Apocalypse Now. The horror!
A really subtle one: The shot of Tugg removing his Simple Jack makeup in the camp is very similar to the shot of Chaplin removing his tramp makeup in the opening of 1992's biopic "Chaplin". Bonus points for Chaplin being another Oscar Bait film which starred Robert Downey, Jr. in his first Oscar nominated role.
When Kirk enters the gang's camp in a wide straw hat and poncho, then opens fire, it is very similar to a Big Damn Heroes moment by Lee Van Cleef's character in the Spaghetti Western Death Rides a Horse.
Satan's Alley, the film that won the Beijing Film Festival's coveted Crying Monkey Award, is a spoof of Brokeback Mountain.
Talkative Loon: Portnoy, as his "vitamins" and "jelly beans" wear off.
Take a Third Option: Pecker, Tugg's agent, is offered the chance to try and save Tugg from terrorists, or to get a G5 Gulfstream jet and "Llllots of money." He takes the Jet and the money — and uses it to save Tugg.
Hats off to the much-beleagured Only Sane Man Kevin Sandusky in particular, though. He devises the plan to rescue Speedman, takes charge whilst Speedman, Lazarus, and Portnoy have their breakdowns, leads the escape from the heroin processing plant, survives being hit by a FUCKING ROCKET-PROPELLED GRENADE whilst driving away in a truck, and is seen at the end of the film dating Jennifer Love Hewitt.
Commentary on the Director's Cut boxset reveals that some shots required different hits for the theatrical version.
Vulgar Humor: Jeff's usual fare. At a premiere, he tries to deliver a Take That, Critics! with regards to this, but drug-addled as he is, it isn't effective.
Wangst: In-universe: Kevin points this out to the actors themselves whenever they always breakdown.
What Happened to the Mouse?: The director of the movie dies. Except for the Special Effects guy and Four Leaf panicking, and Lazarus attempting to tell everyone else he's really dead, he's not mentioned again, aside from confirmation that Cody didn't blow him up at the climax.
Also, The original ending had Pecker captured by Flaming Dragon, but test audiences didn't like it, so he just gives Tugg a thumbs up and disappears into the jungle. He's later seen, during the closing credits, flying safely away aboard his brand-new jet.
White-Dwarf Starlet: Tugg is on the verge of becoming this according to Les, who actually uses the term "white dwarf".