14 August 2008
Tropic Thunder is a movie you know should be good just from hearing the names of the actors involved and the characters they play—and, boy, does it deliver on that promise.
Ben Stiller, who directed and wrote the screenplay with Justin Theroux and Etan Cohen, is Tugg Speedman, a once great action star whose career has fallen on hard times. His attempt at respectability, starring as a mentally-challenged man in a movie called Simple Jack, was a colossal flop. The Vietnam war epic Tropic Thunder might be his last chance to salvage his flailing career.
Jack Black is Jeff Portnoy, the drug-addicted star of the Fatties comedy franchise, in which he plays every character in a morbidly obese family.
Robert Downey Jr., following Iron Man with his second tour de force of the year, is Kirk Lazarus, an Australian thespian with five Academy Awards under his belt. So committed to the Method is Lazarus that undergoes a pigmentation surgery to darken his skin in order to portray a black soldier in Tropic Thunder. He stays in character throughout the production, speaking in a Southern drawl indicating a significant portion of his research came from watching Sanford and Son.
Brandon T. Jackson is rapper-turned actor Alpa Chino, introduced to us before the movie begins in a “commercial” for a drink called “Booty Sweat.” (A trio of fake trailers introduces the three leading actors.)
Nick Nolte is the grizzled war veteran who was captured by the Viet Cong, lost his hands and wrote the book on which the movie within the movie is based. He convinces the novice director (Steve Coogan) to take the actors deep within the jungles of Vietnam to get the most realistic footage possible. Tugg, in particular, is gung-ho about the idea and it takes some time before he figures out that the people shooting at them are native druglords who believe he and his fellow actors are DEA agents.
Matthew McConaughey is Tugg’s agent, Rick Peck, whose priority is getting Tugg the TiVo he is contractually obligated to have in his quarters when working on location.
And the biggest scene-stealer of them all: Tom Cruise as the evil, exceptionally hairy (except on his head) studio executive Les Grossman. When he hears Tugg has been taken prisoner, all he thinks about is the large insurance payment coming his way when the star is killed.
Cruise gives one of many fearless, remarkably un-self-conscious performances in the film. He, Stiller and the whole troupe go after everything and everyone in the movie business—including each other—with wild abandon, from inane actors to clueless directors to studio heads who care about nothing other than the bottom line.
Stiller doesn’t direct often, and when he has, the results have been wildly uneven affairs like Zoolander (2001) and The Cable Guy (1996). He finally has figured it out with Tropic Thunder, which rivals Forgetting Sarah Marshall as the funniest film so far this year.
Some have taken offense, but I love the way the movie attacks certain areas a “safe” movie wouldn’t even consider—the white actor Lazarus not only portraying a black man, but trying to live the life of one while working on the movie, for example. Most of the controversy, though, has come Simple Jack, the depiction of the mentally challenged and the use of the word “retard.” What the protesters fail to realize is that the particular group of people singled out is not so important. Actors and the Academy Awards are the objects of ridicule here. Those angered need to look at the material in context. This is a smart, witty movie with an admittedly twisted sense of humor (it plays a severed head for some of its biggest laughs). The groups of people it truly mocks are the groups of people that made it.
It is also a competently-made action movie that blows stuff up real good when that’s called for. It’s appropriate that it hits theaters a week after Pineapple Express. This is an action-comedy done right.
(Rated R for pervasive language including sexual references, violent content and drug material. 107 minutes.)