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Tropic Thunder (2008)

  • Review: *** (out of ****)
  • Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Jack Black, Jay Baruchel, Brandon T. Jackson, Ben Stiller, Steve Coogan, Nick Nolte, Matthew McConaughey, Tom Cruise
  • Director: Ben Stiller
  • Screenplay: Ben Stiller, Justin Theroux, Etan Cohen
  • Length: 107 min.
  • MPAA Rating: R for pervasive language including sexual references, violent content and drug material.

Taking a small page from the Tarantino playbook, Ben Stiller's latest directorial achievement shows that he's still capable of delivering clever films.

A deconstruction of Hollywood profiteering and the filmmaking process, Tropic Thunder follows five actors as they are dropped in the middle of a Southeast Asian rainforest to capture the greatest war film ever made.

When Quentin Tarantino roasted teaser trailers in his film Grindhouse, it was clear that we would soon see similar gimmicks drifting into the cineplex. This film opens with a faux commercial and three faux trailers, each introducing one of the film's main characters. It starts off with Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson) hocking an energy drink called Booty Sweat and a candy bar called Bust-A-Nut. When it first came on, the quality of the production made it seem like a real theater commercial. I was a bit shocked at first wondering how some of the kids in the audience might react to some of the language, then the drink's name appeared and I knew we were in for a wild opening.

The first trailer is an advertisement for Scorcher VI, another sequel in his failing career and a clever send-up of Sylvester Stallone featuring Tugg Speedman (Ben Stiller). The second trailer is also for a sequel, this time for Jeff Portnoy's (Jack Black) The Fatties 2 mocking Eddie Murphy's Klumps sequel, Portnoy seems to be a blend between Murphy and late comedian Chris Farley. The final trailer is for a film called Satan's Alley featuring five-time Academy Award winner Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr.), an obvious parody of Russell Crowe, and appears to be a monastery-set version of Brokeback Mountain.

The established stars played by these four have signed on for the adaptation of acclaimed novel Tropic Thunder written by a Vietnam veteran who got a book deal for his exploits in that war. Four Leaf Tayback (Nick Nolte) is an arm double-amputee who tells a harrowing tale of his platoon's escape from the Vietcong.

The film progresses quite well until prima donna Speedman can't force himself to cry on camera, causing the waste of a $40-million special effects sequence to go to waste and causing a huge blow up between the director, Damien Cockburn, (Steve Coogan) and the studio head, Les Grossman, (Tom Cruise). In a bid to bring realism to the project, but mostly to avoid getting fired, Coogan takes Tayback's suggestion of putting the actors into "real" turmoil in the jungle might help him to elicit better performances. What Cockburn doesn't realize is that he has dropped himself and the actors off in the vicinity of a heroin operation with ruthless drug dealers who believe them to be DEA operatives trying to bust their operation.

Although the film goes to a bit of an extreme with regard to its Hollywood parody, many of the spoofs hit a little too close to reality. From Cruise's money-enamored morally-bankrupt studio exec and the zany agent (Matthew McConaughey) trying to keep his client happy by ensuring his contract riders are upheld to Downey's excessively-deep method actor lost in his role as a white man who went through pigmentation surgery to appear black just to take the role in the picture and Jack Black's drug addicted portly star who just wants to be loved for being himself and not as the man people see on the big screen. Each facet is entirely amusing within the confines of the film and speaks clearly about the failings of many celebrities who either take themselves too seriously or whom audiences take too seriously.

Stiller's screenplay, co-written with Justin Theroux and Etan Cohen, is witty and amusing although it borders on offensive at times, but seldom steps over any line that isn't appropriate when applied to a parody.

Downey's performance is the stuff of legends, making for a supremely convincing method actor who delves far deeper than necessary to deliver a strong performance. It's effective and engaging, which is one of the reasons why he could be considered one of our greatest modern actors.

Black and Stiller are generally annoying with the former grating on my nerves quite often. Cruise is fantastic, but McConaughey is too far over the top. Jackson does solid work, as does Nick Nolte, but one of the unsung heroes of the film also gives one of the more interesting and nurtured performances. Jay Baruchel plays Kevin Sandusky, a relatively new thespian who is making his first major feature. His indignation when he discovers his fellow thespians haven't even read the book on which the movie is based is one of the best scenes in the film. Baruchel doesn't have the history within the industry that most of his castmates do, but he stands strongly against them and, aside from Downey, delivers one of the better performances.

Like most parodies, this film's biggest failure is that it goes too far. Cribbing one of the final scenes in the terrific war film Platoon is terrific. A bit about fake blood from a real wound dragging on for more than a minute is annoying. The opening trailer for Satan's Alley was absolutely hysterical and probably the most enlightened and inspired segments in the entire film, protracting both The Fatties 2 and Scorcher VI trailers creates tedium. And don't get me started on the lame, unnecessary tree-bound intervention scene late in the film.

But, when you sit down to watch movies like this, you have to share your head with both your entertainment hat and your critic hat. And while the film isn't the stuff of legends, it is an amusing examination of the money-driven Hollywood machine and the fickle nature of the entire industry, including its actors.