Tropic Thunder

TropicThunderThis offensive movie requires a more selective audience to recognize and understand current popular culture and Hollywood references throughout the long 107 minute running time. Any star with a Ben Stiller association gets some kind of role in this movie which is geared towards people inundated in Hollywood culture explored in films like Get Shorty, modern classic The Player, Bowfinger, and the admirable Be Kind Rewind.

The common sense casting is impressive and very reflective of the trio who play a group of high-profile actors. Ben Stiller plays big movie star Tugg Speedman coming off a box office bomb, called Simple Jack, that threatens his career. Real life parallels for Stiller — The Heartbreak Kid and some protests over “retarded” references. Mentions of dreams as “head movies” and crying as “making my eyes rain” provide more fodder. Most of the humor can go either way, but the no-holds-barred approach never changes. Tugg, teased for being a star on the wrong side of 40, really goes off the grid in a jungle scene then Stiller separates a bit from his co-stars to seemingly focus more time on his directing duties.

Stiller also co-wrote the screenplay with his Zoolander co-star Justin Theroux. This duo mixes ransom and foreign dangers into the mix with some memorable dialogue overshadowed by numerous clunkers like “when a herd loses its way, then kill the bull” and “beds give me nightmares.” The action-driven story offers nothing creative or groundbreaking — it just crosses the line of taste and morality then jumps up and down on this side of cinematic decadence. The situations evoke memories of Apocalypse Now and the iconic Platoon yell while kneeling on the ground — the first of many jokes repeated at least once.

Jack Black plays a popular comedian, Jeff Portnoy, who contends with a hidden problem during this more serious acting role. Black dives right into his character well on the physical side, but his dialogue doesn‘t really improve until the second half of the movie. The awkward dialogue scene where Jeff (playing his soldier character) seems to be channeling Marlon Brando with a southern accent as he‘s walking through some tall grass falls flat.

An almost unrecognizable Robert Downey Jr. plays talented Australian actor, Kirk Lazarus. “I don’t read the script, the script reads me,” says Kirk. Downey Jr. makes fun of the Hollywood establishment that shunned him when he was in real trouble. He also channels Russell Crowe and his real life friend Mel Gibson as the five-time Oscar-winning Kirk.

Each character gets a creative introduction in the beginning through some funny spoof previews. Stiller, Black, and Downey Jr. hit the funny bone with genuine humor occasionally (e.g. Tugg’s “I’m not a rocket ship” when Kirk presses him to instantly turn on the emotion during a scene), but the bad definitely outweighs the good. Nick Nolte also stars as the film’s military consultant Four Leaf Tayback while Brandon T. Jackson plays rapper turned actor Alpa Chino. Each of these characters follow an arc where they eventually discover/reveal their true selves.

A few authentic characters provide different perspectives. Steve Coogan stars as the film’s director who is trying to set up the greatest war movie ever. Jay Baruchel stars as Kevin Sandusky who rounds out the main group of actors while Danny McBride has an impressive role as the movie set demolition expert who gets right into the action. “I‘m moving to catering after this,” says McBride after an over-the-top action sequence. Bill Hader plays studio executive Rob Slolom while Stiller’s wife Christine Taylor makes a cameo appearance.

Several regular star cameos continues the one-two comedy approach where a star is mentioned in the dialogue (or shown as in MTV Movie Award Best Kiss Winner Tobey Maguire) then makes a visual appearance. Big stars like Matthew McConaughey fill out the supporting cast, which includes a surprising high level star appearance. Some characters find redemption (a Hollywood agent does not succumb to greed) and understanding (Kirk apologizes for offending a fellow actor with his cultural insensitivity). These elements have no anchoring connections or dramatic tension so resolving these “conflicts” have little impact on the movie.

The guerrilla filmmaking approach yields some interesting reality vs. Hollywood scenarios, which initiates some real tension, but quickly deflates, but still yields an impressive noticeable acting debut from Brandon Soo Hoo, who plays Tran, the young leader of the antagonistic Flaming Dragon syndicate. Not recommended and rated R for pervasive language including sexual references, violent content, gore, and drug material.

Copyright © Michael Siebenaler

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