Here’s a fantastic movie idea: Tropic Thunder takes place on the set of a big-budget Hollywood Vietnam War film also entitled Tropic Thunder.
With a finicky A-list cast causing endless delays in shooting, the studio orders the project’s neophyte British director (Steve Coogan) to clamp down on the stars’ rampaging egos. To this end, he sets them loose in a remote stretch of Southeast Asian jungle, intending to film them guerrilla-style for maximum realism. The plan is blown to hell within seconds – what happens to the director is the movie’s single biggest laugh – and the actors are stranded in an area controlled by drug lords, cut off from all other human contact, and, worst of all, left without bottled water and TiVo. They don’t panic, though, because they think everything that’s happening around them is part of the filmmaking process, even when they’re captured and tortured. This comic premise is so great that the movie occasionally has trouble living up to it, but this highly amusing Tinseltown satire comes off in the end.
Three fake movie trailers and a fake music video at the beginning introduce the film-within-the-film’s stars – fading action-flick hero Tugg Speedman (Ben Stiller), drug-addicted comedian Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black), and rapper Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson) are all acting in the movie because they’re looking for cred with the critics. On the other hand, Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr.) is an Oscar-winning white Australian actor seeking a new thespian challenge by portraying an African-American officer – he performs in full-on blackface. For all the movie’s satirical intentions, this is its one truly dangerous element, and the filmmakers get away with it only by placing an actual African-American – Alpa – on hand to mock the Aussie’s Method-actor pretensions at every turn.
Stiller doubles as the director here, and his work is unbalanced and slapdash. The plot gets seriously lost in the middle, and the native drug lords don’t add anything, not even when they recognize Tugg and force him to act out one of his worst movies. Yet the screenwriters (Stiller, Justin Theroux, and Etan Cohen) turn out yards and yards of first-rate comic material to paper over the flaws. The actors do their part to carry this thing too, with Jackson frequently outshining his more famous co-stars. Matthew McConaughey and Nick Nolte effectively send up their own screen personae as, respectively, Tugg’s slippery agent and a pissed-off Vietnam vet acting as an on-set consultant. Most striking is an unrecognizable Tom Cruise as a paunchy, bald, bespectacled studio head who’s fond of hip-hop dancing and spewing creative profanity at everyone unfortunate enough to work for him. Cruise plays the role with an angry relish that we haven’t seen from him (onscreen, anyway) since Magnolia, and the result is the funniest performance of his career. This alone would make Tropic Thunder worth watching, but this shaggy, likable comedy offers up tons of other hearty laughs besides.
Starring Ben Stiller, Jack Black, and Robert Downey Jr. Directed by Ben Stiller. Written by Ben Stiller, Justin Theroux, and Etan Cohen. Rated R.