(director/writer: Ben Stiller; screenwriters: Justin Theroux/Etan Cohen/story by Ben Stiller & Justin Theroux; cinematographer: John Toll; editor: Greg Hayden; music: Theodore Shapiro; cast: Ben Stiller (Tugg Speedman), Robert Downey Jr. (Kirk Lazarus), Jack Black (Jeff Portnoy), Steve Coogan (Damien Cockburn), Jay Baruchel (Kevin Sandusky), Danny McBride (Cody), Brandon T. Jackson (Alpa Chino), Nick Nolte (Four Leaf Tayback), Matthew McConaughey (Rick Peck), Bill Hader (Studio Executive Rob Slolom), Brandon Soo Hoo (Tran), Tom Cruise (Les Grossman); Runtime: 106; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Stuart Cornfeld/Eric McLeod/Ben Stiller; DreamWorks; 2008)
“Bad as both an action pic and as a comedy.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Tropic Thunder is not a new strain of potent weed like Pineapple Express but just another unfunny movie about making a movie. It’s a coarse sendup satire on Hollywood and what Hollywood’s egotistical personalities will stoop to do in order to get a hit. It pretends to show how a crass Hollywood really makes an action film. The only problem is the film is unimaginative and is just as crappy as the films it’s so smugly dissing. For its comedy antics there’s a white actor in blackface (always a riot), a retarded character named Simple Jack (the mentally challenged are always good for an easy laugh), a series of fart jokes (toilet humor always flushes down well with certain demographics) and a stereotypical portrait of a pushy Jewish studio boss dressed up as what a Jew is supposed to look like (it’s always sporting fun to be self-deprecating). The usually offensive Ben Stiller (“The Cable Guy”/ “Zoolander”/”Reality Bites”), who thinks anything he does is funny, directs, cowrites (with Justin Theroux and Etan Cohen) and stars in a film that has the distinction of being bad as both an action pic and as a comedy. It’s not bad because it’s necessarily offensive, though all its comic routines were vulgar, but because the jokes lacked wit, were dumb, hit a too obvious target to resonate as anything meaningful and the few laughs garnered were merely hollow triumphs.

Vietnam vet Four Leaf Tayback (Nick Nolte) wrote a memoir about his war experience and sold the rights to Hollywood. Rookie British director Damien Cockburn (Steve Coogan) is filming Tropic Thunder on location in Vietnam but the prima donna pampered actors are not following his instructions and the harried director can’t control them. The actors include: Tugg Speedman (Ben Stiller), whose once successful career is on the skids after too many sequels bombed and his attempt to go for an Oscar in a tearjerker pic playing a bucktoothed country boy retard named “Simple Jack” backfired. Tugg now needs a quick image change in a hit actioner to resuscitate his career and is set to play the part of a gung-ho sergeant. Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr.) is the pretentious five-time Oscar winning actor, who undergoes a skin-darkening procedure to play the part of a black sergeant and stays in character as a black man even with no film rolling. Alpa Chinoan (Brandon T. Jackson) is an actual black man and rapper, who resents that a white man stole the best part for a black man in the film; he also shows business skills as he peddles an energy drink called Booty Sweat. When not tricked into letting out that he’s gay, Alpa’s around to poke fun at the Aussie Kirk’s black man impersonation. Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black) is a heroin-addicted comic looking for a change of pace film after appearing in a string of fart-based hit comedies that has him attired in fat suits in which he plays multiple roles. The fifth star is newcomer Kevin Sandusky (Jay Baruchel), who is the most rational one in the cast but the one least respected.

The megalomaniac studio boss is played by an almost unrecognizable Tom Cruise, in a cameo, who has a hairy chest, wears specs, is balding, overweight, foul-mouthed and made up with a heavy latex face to look supposedly Jewish. Matthew McConaughey plays the high-powered agent of Tugg’s who wants to make sure he has a TiVo in the jungle as stipulated in the contract.

On the set, is a hyper explosives expert named Cody (Danny McBride) and the book writer Tayback is retained as the technical adviser. Tayback gets the bullied director to relocate the shoot further into the jungle for a more realistic film; that’s where the grizzled, handless, ex-soldier hero says the action actually took place. Soon the actors find themselves in real jungle combat and it takes them a long time to realize the enemy firing at them are not actors playing Viet Cong but an Asian heroin drug ring called the Flaming Dragon operating in the jungle and led by an adolescent named Tran (Brandon Soo Hoo).

Robert Downey Jr.’s goofy performance, especially him saying such things as “I don’t read the script – the script reads me” and “how the n-word has held “his people” down for the last 400 years,” is the only reason I could think of for sitting through this ugly mess, where Stiller hoped to run with his gross-out material and use his shock yuks to appeal to one’s base instincts by laughing at someone else’s expense. There wasn’t one thing risky or edgy about this soft satire on the movie industry, an industry that has done real well for all those involved in the film. But the only real objection I have is not over its offensive characterizations or profanity or vulgarity, but at how this is just another crappy mainstream Hollywood film that pats itself on the back thinking it’s something special.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”