Tropic Thunder Film Review

Posted on 01. Aug, 2008 by in Film/TV

by Todd Gilchrist

In order to enjoy Tropic Thunder, it helps if you’ve seen a lot of movies about Vietnam, but it’s probably better if you’re well-versed in Hollywood satires. A send-up of A-listers, power players, and the vanity projects that bring them together, Ben Stiller’s latest is a frequently hilarious dissertation on modern Hollywood moviemaking that also manages to work pretty well as an action movie. 

Stiller stars as Tugg Speedman, an action star slowly declining into hackdom thanks to a series of decreasingly inventive sequels, not to mention a failed bid for critical success playing a mentally challenged character in a film called Simple Jack. His latest project, an adaptation of an acclaimed true-life war tome about Vietnam, offers him a last chance opportunity for redemption, but the film is falling behind schedule thanks to the diva-like behavior of him and his co-stars, including Oscar-winning method actor Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr.), comedian-turned-thespian Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black), and power drink-hocking rapper Alpa Chino (Brandon Jackson). But when director Damien Cockburn decides to take his cast deep into the actual jungles of Vietnam to create some authenticity, Speedman and co. find themselves in a real battle for their lives as they accidentally cross paths with drug manufacturers who mistake the actors for D.E.A. agents. 

Where Stiller succeeds best is in his depictions of the various Hollywood archetypes who populate the film-within-a-film, as well as the craftspeople who help make movie dreams a tangible reality: Notwithstanding the pitch-perfect renderings of glory-hound action heroes, self-serious method actors, scatological yuksters, and enterprising hip-hop stars, the writer-director enlists Steve Coogan, Nick Nolte, Matthew McConaughey, and Tom Cruise to flesh out the universe of deluded visionaries, glad-handing agents and filth-spewing producers to spectacular effect. At the same time, he somehow manages to work in some of those war-movie clichés, and amazingly, actually make them work even when he’s making fun of them. Best of all he allows each of his co-stars to fully develop and indulge their own inner demons – not the least of which by hiring actors who at least superficially resemble their characters – and in the process exorcising at least a little bit of the Hollywood hubris that stars embrace any time their efforts see success.  

While ultimately the film tries slightly too hard to remind you that it’s clever, it’s one of those rare modern comedies that will appreciate with multiple viewings, thanks as much to a wealth of in-jokes and references as its impish deconstructionism. (When up-and-comer Jay Baruchel somehow saves the day, it is simultaneously a testament to Stiller’s generosity, Baruchel’s heroically understated performance, and the film’s iconoclastic spirit.) And even if you’re only interested in it for the flying viscera, there’s plenty of that too; but suffice it to say that Tropic Thunder is likely the only film this summer that is as likely to thrill your pulse and prod your funny bone.

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