Tropic Thunder Review

Let me give you an idea of how funny Tropic Thunder is. It’s so funny that it would have you rolling in laughter before the movie even starts.

That’s not hyperbole—it’s actually true. Tropic Thunder introduces its characters through a series of fake trailers with frighteningly accurate trailer cheesiness, and then the movie actually starts with a sequence from the ridiculous Vietnam war movie-within-a-movie they’re supposedly making, also called Tropic Thunder. It’s a fun way to open the movie, as we can immediately spot the war movie cliches.

The star-studded shoot hits a snag when the egotistical actors throw hissy-fits, so the director (Steve Coogan) and screenwriter (Nick Nolte) devise a diabolical idea to put these primadonnas in actual dangerous territories to get believable reactions. Unfortunately, they stumble into a drug cartel and sucked into a real war. In a notion previously explored in Team America, these actors actually manage this difficult task because, as Robert Downey Jr. put it, “We trained actors, muthaf-cka.”

What’s really fun about the premise is that the war movie send-up doesn’t stop when these actors cease shooting. Action hero Tugg Speedman (Ben Stiller) ends up being the action lead of both the movie and the story, who of course has to undergo an emotional change. Comedian Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black) is that overweight comic foil who’s always a liability to others. Kevin Sandusky (Jay Baruchel), playing a nervous young private in the movie-within-a-movie, is an inexperienced young actor fresh off the festival circuit. Then there’s rapper Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson), supposedly playing a token black character, but turns out to be equally superficial as his role is little more than a device to point out the ridiculousness of Downey’s blackface performance. The clincher and the movie’s runaway hit, though, is the five-time Oscar-winning thespian Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr.)—the joke here is that he’s the first to realize that they’re in real danger, yet he continues his offensive impersonation of a black man out of his dedication to his profession. “Man, I don’t drop character ‘til I’m done with the DVD commentary,” he explains. It’s all very meta, making the whole thing even funnier.

Stiller’s previous directing effort, Zoolander, was an underrated work of genius. Several sequences in that movie proved him to be a very capable satirist: the authenticity during the fashion awards show and the music montages that perfectly captured the shallowness of those JC Penney-Calvin Klein type ads. In Tropic Thunder, we get some of that in the way Stiller shoots his war movie, ribbing everything from Terrence Malick beauty shots to Steven Spielberg spectacles to melodramatic Oliver Stone moments. As a director, Stiller emulates these things splendidly with the help of The Thin Red Line cinematographer John Toll.

I don’t always (read: very rarely) appreciate Ben Stiller vehicles, as he tends to involve himself in uninspired comedies; but continuing the legacy of the late great Ben Stiller Show, his own pet projects are always pleasantly clever. In Zoolander, he satirized the competitive and backstabbing environment of the fashion industry by equating it to the world of espionage. As ridiculous as that premise was, it turned out to be an effective one as there is some measure of truth in that comparison. In Tropic Thunder, Stiller is again dead-on in portraying Hollywood as a modern day warzone. The ultimate joke driving the film is that Tinseltown stars, agents and studio heads are all qualified to handle life-or-death situations because they approach the ins-and-outs of the movie biz with equal seriousness. When the bad guys call up studio exec Les Grossman (hilariously played by a balding, pot-bellied Tom Cruise) to negotiate ransom, he hardballs the criminal syndicate with unwavering confidence that would make Presidents jealous.

Tropic Thunder’s humor is slightly eccentric in that it’s peppered with various inside industry jokes. It’s almost as if Stiller’s intended target audience were Hollywood insiders and fellow actors. Take, for example, how the preceding fake trailers use actual logos of other studios typically known committed to those exact kind of movies (the big dumb action movie is from Universal, the juvenile comedy is from New Line, and the Oscar-baiting gay drama is from Fox Searchlight). It’s easy to imagine that their reps are the ones laughing the hardest at those jabs. Rather than just poking fun at easily recognizable faces, Tropic Thunder also targets Academy voters, kiss-ass producers, and people sensationalizing their life stories to get a movie deal. It’s a complete mockery of how Hollywood operates without being direct about it a la The Player. It’s also a very funny movie—so far, the funniest of the year.

"Tropic Thunder" opens August 13, 2008 and is rated R. Action, Comedy. Directed by Ben Stiller. Written by Ben Stiller & Justin Theroux and Etan Cohen . Starring Ben Stiller, Bill Hader, Danny R McBride, Jack Black, Jay Baruchel, Nick Nolte, Robert Downey Jr, Steve Coogan, Brandon T Jackson.

Arya Ponto • Contributor

As former Editor of JPP, Arya likes to entertain peeps with his thoughts on pop culture, when he's not busy watching Battle Royale for the 200th time. He lives in Brooklyn with a comic book collection that's always the most daunting thing to move with, and writes for


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