Tropic Thunder (2008)

1 May

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Where do I begin with the sheer comic brilliance of Ben Stiller’s fantastic comedy “Tropic Thunder?” Should I merely start with the inventive plot? The brilliant cast of characters? The way it seems to understand and love movies? Or even the real show-stealer of the film that everyone remembers with great fondness? Well…I guess I should go ahead and start with the plot.

The movie tells the fictional story of the making of a war film based on the (fake) true story about a Vietnam vet. Among the main cast is a diverse group of actors/personalities. There’s Tugg Speedman (Ben Stiller, who also directed and co-wrote the film), a former big-time action hero who needs a big break after his attempt of a dramatic performance (as a retarded farmhand named “Simple Jack”); Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black), a heroin-addicted comic actor best known for his comedy franchise, “The Fatties,” which seems to be filled with flatulence jokes; Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson), a hiphop artist who promotes his own merchandise (including the energy drink Booty Sweat); newcomer to the acting department, nerdy Kevin Sandusky (Jay Baruchel); and last but definitely not least, five-time Academy-Award winner Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey, Jr.), an Australian method actor who goes to many extremes to play roles—for this particular movie, he received “pigment alteration” in order to portray the African-American sergeant that takes center-stage.

And yes, Robert Downey, Jr. spends a majority of the movie in black makeup, and actually plays it like an Australian actor playing an African-American man while constantly keeping in character even when the cameras aren’t rolling—he’s that committed to the role. Downey is not only hilarious in this movie, but he’s convincing in the role. It’s amazing how he’s able to pull this off, and it’s a great deal of fun to watch him continue to do this throughout the movie. It never gets old. He is comedic gold in this movie.

To be sure, this is the most controversial aspect of “Tropic Thunder,” putting Robert Downey, Jr. in blackface. It’s a very bold, risky move to make, and Stiller, as director and co-writer, has the nuts to go ahead and go through with it. Thankfully, he has the intelligence to back it up by casting Downey in the role, and also by having him go up against Brandon T. Jackson, whose Alpa Chino (say it out loud) really is black and constantly tears into Lazarus for “keeping in character.” It helps that the character of Lazarus isn’t aware that he’s being somewhat offensive in his portrayal.

Anyway, I’m getting sidetracked. As for the plot of “Tropic Thunder,” the director of the fake movie, Damien (Steve Coogan), can’t seem to control his actors, nor can he get the realistic reactions he needs from them (particularly from Speedman). Four-Leaf Tayback (Nick Nolte—yes, Nick Nolte), the old Vietnam vet turned screenwriter, suggests that he takes them out into the actual jungles of Vietnam and have them act out the entire war film while being filmed with hidden cameras in the trees (how exactly that works, seeing as how actors don’t know where to go, is beyond me, but who cares?), while supposed surprises are waiting for them as they continue. But something goes wrong when Damien is blown up (quite unexpectedly) by an old land mine, and Speedman, thinking it was fake (there’s a particularly disgusting bit in which he carries Damien’s “prop-head” and tastes his “corn-syrup” blood), takes charge of the movie. But it may not actually be a movie anymore, as heroin processors become involved and open fire on the actors for real.

I love this distinct group of actors that are playing in this movie-within-the-movie—they’re all different but appealing personalities. And they’re all established early on, as “Tropic Thunder” opens with (get this) fake trailers and advertisements, each featuring one of the actors. We have Alpa Chino hawking his Booty Sweat; Tugg Speedman in his sixth “Scorcher” action flick; Jeff Portnoy in “The Fatties: Fart 2” (Black portrays all members of the Fatty family, much like Eddie Murphy in “The Nutty Professor”); and the funniest of them all, Kirk Lazarus as an Irish priest in a period drama with Tobey Maguire as his lover. These fake previews are among the most hilarious parts of the movie, which is mainly a 100-minute rip of Hollywood filmmaking. There are many elements of the Hollywood system (such as the egotistical director, the obsessive agent, the overzealous producer, etc.) that are broadened for good laughs, while also providing a bit of truth to them. I won’t give away most of the details that are brought upon by Stiller’s deranged, brilliant mind, but they’re beyond funny.

Ben Stiller, as the heroic leading actor, acquits himself nicely as basically an idiot who thinks he’s better than the movie he’s in, and then takes it upon himself to run the show. He gets his laughs from sheer goofiness in the way he thinks he’s right about everything. Jack Black, despite being given second-billing between Stiller and Downey, is not particularly a scene-stealer except for one particularly funny scene in which he begs for the others to tie him to a tree while going through heroin withdrawals, and then begs to be untied. Brandon T. Jackson is brilliant as he speaks for African-Americans who might be offended by Downey’s performance. Jay Baruchel is probably the weakest of the group, but I guess that’s the point—he’s mainly the straight arrow; nothing else is required of him.

Other actors include Matthew McConaughey, who is an absolute delight as Speedman’s agent who is determined to make sure he gets his TiVo; Danny McBride as the team’s pyromaniac explosions-expert; and probably the most holy-bleep-I-can’t-believe-it performance to come around in a long, long time—Tom Cruise as a fat, balding, profane producer who cares about nothing but making money. Cruise almost challenges us to forget about Downey and focus on his character; it’s just too bad the two don’t share any scenes together.

Oh, and let’s not forget the cameos. Tobey Maguire isn’t the only recognizable face to make a cameo appearance. Keep an eye out.

“Tropic Thunder” is also high on violence and energy, particularly in the climactic sequence in which Speedman is captured and the other actors have to sneak into a heroin-processing plant to rescue him. But even that gets its share of laughs, and even moments of character development, such as when Speedman and Lazarus think about what distinguishes themselves from the characters they play. It’s an odd but effective moment to have in an action scene.

“Tropic Thunder” has so much energy that it’s hard not to pay attention to it, and has so many broadly developed moments that you can’t help but laugh at. It’s funny, it’s smart, it’s energetic, and it’s just a true blast!

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