“Tropic Thunder” Goes Above and Beyond All Expectations

(On the eve of this film’s DVD release, I finally sit down and make myself write a review…which is tragically three months behind. Better late than never, right?)


R, 107 minutes, Dreamworks Pictures

There’s no question that Ben Stiller has been slipping over the past few years, resorting to strictly physical humor comedies that offer nothing more than cookie-cutter plots and characters. There used to be a more intriguing, risk-taking side to the actor, where he would take on roles in films like Flirting With Disaster, Zero Effect, Your Friends & Neighbors, or The Royal Tenenbaums. However, since being a part of that Wes Anderson masterpiece some seven years ago, the amount of even decent roles Stiller has been in could be counted on almost as many fingers as his character, Tugg Speedman, has toward the opening of Tropic Thunder. Let’s just say that’s not a whole lot. Even throughout the actor’s ongoing attempts to create something behind the camera as a director, there still have been many misfires. The three major films he has helmed in the past; Reality Bites, The Cable Guy, and Zoolander, all had small amounts of promise but never could overcome their mounting flaws. So you can imagine the skepticism I had upon my first thoughts of Tropic Thunder, because I had pretty much lost all hope in Stiller, thinking he had forever gone into the realm of idiot cinema – but within the first two minutes of Thunder, all expectations were blown out of the water. It’s one of the 3 funniest films of the year.

Stiller’s film opens in a way that will later be understood as not only perfect, but the only way to rightly introduce the three main characters; with trailers of the latest films they are to be starring in. Each actor is at a different level of stardom at this point in their careers, whether that be Kirk Lazarus in the award-winning spotlight, Jeff Portnoy making dough from cookie-cutter comedy sequels to feed his drug addiction, and Tugg Speedman in the desperation stage, once-heralded as Hollywood’s action hero but now merely forgotten and in need of a comeback. Stiller plays Speedman with all the right tones to turn in his best performance in a very, very long time and really holds his own (as best he can) alongside the brilliant Robert Downey Jr., whose Kirk Lazarus is one of the most memorable comedic characters ever. The two are both hungry for an Oscar win, but the difference is that Lazarus is looking for another gold statuette to add to his mantle that is already full of them, and Speedman, now middle-aged, is wondering what he has to do to even get a nomination sometime in his life. Pitted together with Jack Black’s Jeff Portnoy, who is a semi-parody of Eddie Murphy in his “I play every character in my films” stage, the three headline an ensemble cast of characters in Tropic Thunder, a war film based on the book written by “real-life” war hero Four Leaf Tayback, who is played by Nick Nolte in a hilarious performance. Problems arise immediately as the film begins production, with the deadly combination of actor’s egos fighting against each other from scene to scene, not to mention it all trying to be orchestrated by a first-time director, Damien Cockburn, who is played by the always impressive Steve Coogan.

Once Cockburn is threatened to have his job taken away by the ruthless executive producer, Les Grossman, he ponders what he must do to take control of the movie and the actor’s. With a little influence from Four Leaf and an entire bottle of Patron one night, Cockburn decides to drop his cast right into the middle of an actual war ground. With hidden cameras set up throughout the area, the actor’s are unleashed into the jungle with nothing but the screenplay and their clashing beliefs, senses of humor, and ideas. When what certainly doesn’t appear to be a freak accident occurs within minutes of them arriving, the majority of the people involved are led to believe that what they are doing is no longer making a film of any kind, and their lives are in danger. Of course, Tugg Speedman thinks all of it is an elaborate prank to try and get the best of their abilities out of them, and since he is in charge the show must go on. Tropic Thunder is filled with extremely original bits and pieces throughout the entire thing, and kudos must go to a trio of screenwriters here, including Justin Theroux, Etan Cohen, and even Stiller himself. It’s about time that Stiller delivered a complete follow-through on the small promise he has shown with each film he’s directed so far…and it helps that his cast was terrific all around. Also giving excellent supporting performances are Jay Baruchel as the quiet, timid little actor, Brandon T. Jackson as Alpa Chino, a shameless self-advertiser/rapper, Danny McBride as the film’s trigger-happy pyrotechnics specialist, Matthew McConaughey as Tugg’s faithful agent, and Tom Cruise in a turn that cannot even be even slightly given away in any review. It must be seen to be believed.

10/10

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