Very few people saw Empire of the Sun when it came out 21 years ago, and possibly even fewer people remember it. But the effects of that World War II film—one of Steven Spielberg's most underrated efforts—live with us still. It introduced the world to a 13-year-old kid from Wales named Christian Bale, who has since conquered the box office as The Dark Knight. It also featured a young man named Ben Stiller, in one of his very first roles, as a prisoner of war named Dainty. And it was while working on that film that Stiller first got the idea for Tropic Thunder.
Directed by Stiller from a script he wrote with Etan Cohen (not to be confused with Ethan Coen of the Coen brothers) and Justin Theroux, Tropic Thunder concerns a bunch of actors who are working on a Vietnam War epic—a genre that was, itself, very popular in the late 1980s. Things are going very badly on the set, though, so their exasperated director, tired of fighting over the script and how to interpret it, drops them in the middle of a jungle rigged with explosives and hidden cameras, hoping to catch some genuine emotions instead. Naturally, however, the actors get lost—and when they stumble across a heavily armed drug cartel, at least some of them assume that they have met some fellow actors.
So the movie is, on one level, about art imitating life, and about life imitating art, but it is also about the lengths that people will go just to get a movie made, and to win the fortune and glory that might come with it. As such, the film is a sometimes blisteringly funny send-up of the movie industry, but it also raises some interesting questions about the nature of acting that, coming from these people, feels not only like good-natured self-mockery ...1