I’m not quite sure what to make of Tropic Thunder - Ben Stiller’s raucous romp through Indochina (Zoolander meets Apocalypse Now). Some belly laughs (mostly covering my mouth going “Oh my god!”), some knowing smiles, a whole lot of “what now?”s. I got all of the jokes and everything; I just didn’t find them all that hilarious. Or maybe it’s because the comedy rollicks along so briskly, there isn’t time to let it all sink in?
The movie’s premise is simple; during the filming of a big-budget Vietnam war movie, several over-primped and self-obsessed movie stars are dropped in the middle of the jungle and forced to make their way home without personal assistants, TIVO or little bankies of cocaine. Along the way they fall foul of the Flaming Dragon drug cartel ruled by a vicious pre-teen thug with a bamboo whip and a penchant for a particular soppy Hollywood drama…..
Yes; no matter what you’ve heard, Tropic Thunder is not a throwaway, third grade-schoolyard style bullying of disabled folk but rather a sharp skewering of the vanity, vapidity and insincerity of Hollywood. And that’s a good thing, right? The cast is great – I have fondest memories of Steve Coogan as the hapless Brit director trying to contain the team of divas before – whump! – he steps on a mine, and a semi-naked, drug-addled, bleach blonde Jack Black strapped to a tree. Or the back of a buffalo. (Off set, the buffalo had a calf during filming they called “Little Jack” – I kid you not.) Downey Jnr would have been even better if he hadn’t lost me up front with a dreadfully fake Australian accent and Stiller of course is always Derek Zoolander – something for which he is still, just, forgiven.
I also secretly believe that Tom Cruise in reallife actually is just like foul-mouthed, fat-fingered Les Grossman; the fact that Tom in a fat-suit is a dead ringer for someone I once worked with made it all the more unnerving.
For a movie about fakes, it’s not surprising the team chose a fake Vietnam; the movie was shot on Kauai, where Stiller has a home. Locations included the movie’s two major set pieces, the Hot LZ and Flaming Dragon Compound. The Hot LZ – location for the tumultous opening “war scene” – was situated on an expansive valley of tropical land, part of the privately-owned 40,000-acre Grove Farm property. TheFlaming Dragon Compound where the movie’s final action sequence takes place was filmed a few miles inland, on set that was constructed over several months at the edge of Mount Waialeale. Mount Waialeale gets 350 rainy days per year – more rain than any other place in the world.
Wsbradio has some interesting production notes on the film; the Hot LZ explosion was apparently created with a 450 foot-long row of explosive pots filled with 1100 gallons of a 90/10 gasoline/diesel mix that were arranged across a field lined with coconut palm trees. In one take and at the flick of a switch, 11 cameras captured the controlled explosion that created a mushroom cloud fireball reaching 350 feet in the air. The entire staggered explosion consisted of 12 separate explosions, the full run of which was completed in 1.25 seconds.