, 107 min, 2008
Director: Ben Stiller
Writers: Justin Theroux (screenplay) & Ben Stiller (screenplay) and Etan Cohen (screenplay), Ben Stiller (story) & Justin Theroux (story)
Stars: Ben Stiller, Jack Black, Robert Downey Jr.
Ben Stiller’s Tropic Thunder, a curious, odd, and often very funny satire of Hollywood egos, big budget action films, and the Vietnam War, is somehow slightly less than the sum of its parts. That being said, the parts add up to enough to highly recommend it.
The film stars three big Hollywood stars, playing three big Hollywood stars, playing three Vietnam War movie stereotypes: Stiller is Tugg Speedman, the Stallone-esque aging action star of the Scorcher series of films (his sixth film in the series is presented as a faux trailer at this film’s start). He is the overly-gung-ho leader of the pack.
Jack Black plays Jeff Portnoy, whose Fatties: Fart 2 is the second faux trailer at the beginning. Basically a cross between Chris Farley and Eddie Murphy, Black is the heroin-addicted scatalogical comedy star who has come to this Vietnam epic we know not how.
And finally Aussie Kirk Lazarus (think Russell Crowe) is a 5-time Oscar-winning method actor (I wouldn’t dream of giving away his – the best faux trailer since Grindhouse) who (as played with tremendous courage and energy by Robert Downey Jr.) has undertaken a skin pigmentation procedure to make himself into the leading black character in the film within the film. This is much to the chagrin of Booty Sweat energy drink and Bust A Nut protein bar shilling Alpa Chino (think about it) played by Brandon T. Jackson, who gets the supporting black role.
Rounding out the cast is the typical youngblood nerdy type (well-played by Jay Baruchel of the Judd Apatow camp) who is the only one to have gone to boot camp, read the book the film’s script is based on, or read the script for that matter.
This fivesome is contending with a psychotic redneck explosives manager (Danny McBride who only one week previous played a ratfink druggie in David Gordon Green’s Pineapple Express), a terribly inept former stage director-turned-filmmaker named Damien Cockburn (played all-too-briefly by Steve Coogan) and the author of the book/inspiration for the story Fourleaf (Nick Nolte, in full on raspy mode).
When the egos begin to clash and get in the way of what could be the best Vietnam movie turned disaster turned classic since Apocalypse Now, the director and his crew take the actors and some digital cameras into the “real deep shit”; and leave them to their own devices, resulting in a Three Amigos-esque scenario where a group of dumb Hollywood types think they’re still acting even when real gunplay and explosives start happening. Add to this a couple of great cameos (credited) by a couple of big name Hollywood actors (the least recognizable of the two provides much of the humor), and you have a wild, insane, nonsensical and ultimately silly film that is sure to entertain.
If I have one complaint, it’s that Stiller’s effects budget (while probably parodying Hollywood action epics) threatens (like the violence in Pineapple Express) to kill the jokes, and makes the film overly loud (along with the overbearing soundtrack at times) in such a way as to make a DVD rental necessary just to get the dialogue you missed. This is odd for a comedy, no? If Pineapple Express is funnier for sheer laugh velocity, this is still a very worthy effort.
Note: The film was nominated for the Best Supporting Actor Oscar (Downey, Jr.). The unrated director’s cut runs 121 minutes on DVD.