Examining Tropic Thunder’s Legacy 15 Years Later

Sometimes, films just come way harder than they need to, and this seems especially true for R-rated comedies. Tropic Thunder comes, and then it comes again, and it, honestly, probably comes one too many times, but that’s why we remember it. This movie was relentless, took no prisoners of war, and lingers like an old wound that we want to tell stories about, even if it hurts. Every few years we recall the shared trauma Tropic Thunder caused these brave actors and are reminded of why this particular piece of cinema isn’t soon to be forgotten.

The plot doesn’t matter much. It’s the old classic, a play within a play, Shakespeare in the Jungle, as a group of filmmakers attempts to make art based on a lie and one really bad idea to try and shoot the thing for real strands the main actors in a hotbed of danger. The heart of Tropic Thunder is its characters, Tugg Speedman (Ben Stiller), Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr.), Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black), Kevin Sandusky (Jay Baruchel), and Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson), a group of actors and one rapper all at different points of their careers and a whole heap of baggage between them. This is the role of a lifetime for several of these men, and definitely, an adventure that will bring everything out, good or bad. Thankfully for us, most of this is handled in hilarious ways.

Tropic Thunder is layered, not just in the realms of acting and reality, but in how it attempts to deconstruct the ways some creatives perceive race, disability, and self-importance. The jabs are meant to come at Hollywood’s expense, reaching for deep satire without bordering on derision. Films like Platoon and Apocalypse Now are referenced in the beginning to give examples of the projects that historically did the things it attempts to lambaste.  

Asking most people who haven’t seen the movie in a while to recall it usually leads them to remember either: RDJ in blackface, the “Never go full retard” speech, or Tom Cruise in a fat suit dancing to Ludacris. This is a bit sad, as the more progressive parts of the film (like Chino and Lance) are overshadowed by these controversial components. Tropic Thunder uses insensitive elements to criticize, but may accidentally come across as condoning as these acts well. This is a full gag that requires the audience to think a little like the creators and those who know the industry extremely well, and thus, may be too ‘inside baseball’ for the intentions to reach everyone who watches it.  

Though RDJ’s character having surgical blackface is often one of the first problems with the film to come up, it’s actually the element that received the least pushback upon its initial release. Obviously, not everyone was happy and there were concerns, but all parties involved in making it knew the ground they were treading on and attempted to handle things as best they could. The movie was shown to the NAACP and RDJ said about the role, “I get to hold up to nature the insane, self-involved hypocrisy of artists and what they think they’re allowed to do on occasion.” 

Next to this was the criticism of the Les Grossman character, played by Tom Cruise in an abundance of makeup and prosthetics. Some saw this portrayal (which, like many characters in the movie, was inspired by real people) as a disgraceful depiction of harmful Jewish stereotypes. His despicable actions are certainly fueled by pride and greed, but it’s hard to tell if that’s more the position or the specific type of person at the top being skewered. The movie also doesn’t give much for any of its female characters to do, but the real uproar and protests came from the disabled community.

The fake film starring Speedman, called Simple Jack, about a mentally challenged boy living on a farm who can communicate with animals, caused some controversy, as well as websites promoting the fictitious project, and the repeated use of the word “retard.” DreamWorks did take down the site and arrange a screening for members of these groups that were angry about the depiction, but this did nothing to sway their feelings toward the material.

Recently, Stiller said that he continues to be proud of the work everyone did on the film. “I make no apologies for Tropic Thunder,” stating that it has always been a contentious movie, but some of his statements on the project, apologies, and the controversies surrounding it are disputed.

The film still has much to offer outside of the problematic material. Speedman watching Star Trek TOS on his iPod and then brutally killing the panda like Captain Kirk versus the Gorn makes me laugh every time. There’s a scary kid drug lord, Jack Black saying wild shit while tied to a tree, and some gnarly explosions all rock, but in the end, it’s the actors and their interactions that make this movie about the absurdity of actors great.

It’s an absolutely excellent cast with wonderful smaller characters and cameos. There are people here that viewers may have forgotten about and many actors that were just about to hit their stride (scope out who plays Peck’s secretary). Here we have performers outside of their usual environments, but enjoying it so much. It may feature my favorite performances from Matthew McConaughey and Tom Cruise. There were a ton of people who were considered for the movie, several in different roles, but the cast we received is fantastic.

The movie performed well at the box office, finally blasting The Dark Knight out of the number one spot and landing a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination, which may go against what the movie was poking fun at, but meant a lot for a raunchy comedy. There are a couple of interviews that do sound like those involved with the film may have been a little self-congratulatory, but I won’t hold that against any of them.

As far as directing goes, this may be Stiller’s best outing, and certainly, his most balanced when it comes to tone and characters. Tropic Thunder isn’t bulletproof like some fans like to think it is, not all of the jokes land, some segments needed to be trimmed, and the first half is much more solid than the second, but even the ridiculous and bloated stretches don’t hurt what remains an incredibly enjoyable laugh out loud comedy.

Someone called this movie nasty, and at times it might feel that way, but the sights of the jokes are firmly set on the people causing the problems in the industry, even if some viewers see a little friendly fire there as well. Tropic Thunder is a movie that should be viewed a couple of times at least to pick up on everything and understand how the comedy is withstanding the test of time, even if blemished. It’s still hilarious, but it’s also easy to get lost in the jungle, as some people will always miss the forest for the trees. A movie means a little more when we can enjoy it, understand its intentions, and keep in mind how it’s perceived.