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Tropic Thunder

Tropic Thunder

What She said:

She

Where to begin, where to begin, where to begin?  Tropic Thunder is one of those movies that makes me laugh so hard that I pee a little.  You know, the laughs are just that deep and gut busting.  But it’s also one of those movies that kind of makes me feel guilty for liking it.  Funny?  Yes.  Politically correct?  Soooooo far from it.  We’ve got jokes about Asians, African Americans, drug addicts, Jews, and practically any and every stereotype you can think of.  I laughed really, really hard watching this movie, but afterwards I was glad that I was viewing it in the privacy of my own home.

Tropic Thunder is a 2008 comedy directed by Ben Stiller, who also wrote the screenplay with the help of Etan Cohen and none other than Mr. Jennifer Aniston, Justin Theroux.  It tells the story of a bunch of entitled actors pulled together to shoot a war epic on location in Vietnam.  The movie they’re creating is based off a memoir by a veteran soldier, John “Four Leaf” Tayback” (Nick Nolte), who lost his hands in the war and is helping to oversee production.  The actors casted are Tugg Speedman (Ben Stiller), an aging action star, five-time Academy Award winner Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey, Jr.) who is a method actor insisting on staying in character 24/7, Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson), a rapper and money-making energy drink endorser, and Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black), and over-the-top comedian who also happens to be heavily addicted to drugs.  The only actor on the cast who isn’t a total problem is the young Kevin Sandusky (Jay Baruchel), who is new to the trade and actually took the time to study the topic, read the script, and attend the pre-production boot camp.  The rest of the crew is obsessed with creature comforts, self-indulgence, and their own egos.  Filming, and budget, has gone entirely off track, and it’s driving rookie director Damien Cockburn (Steve Coogan) absolutely nuts.  He knows that his career is on the line, and his financial backer, studio exec Les Grossman (Tom Cruise), is not happy.  He’s put the pressure on Cockburn to move production forward, or else…

Cockburn’s scheme to do so includes dumping the actors into a more real-life scenario with undercover cameras and choreographed explosions courtesy of pyrotechnics operator Cody Underwood (Danny McBride).  His goal is to film guerilla-style, resulting in an authentic experience for both actor and viewer.  But things go bad, very bad, almost immediately.  The crew instead find themselves trapped in the middle of the Golden Triangle, a production epicenter for heroin overseen by the Flaming Dragon gang.  The actors initially do not realize what’s really going on, thinking instead that it’s all part of a ruse led by Cockburn.  This results in the capture of Tugg.  Tugg must rely on the rest of the group to band together and hatch a rescue and escape plan.  Can the bunch of good-for-nothing actors make it out alive?

What’s most notable about Tropic Thunder is both the comedy and the acting.  This movie has oodles of politically incorrect humor, and much of it actually works.  It’s extremely crude, but also quite funny.  On the acting side of things, Robert Downey, Jr. really stands out as a notable.  In fact, I think this was one of the movies that really resurrected his career and opened doors for him.  Downey plays an actor who is playing a black sergeant.  Essentially, he’s in black-face for most of the movie.  It’s borderline offensive, of course, but it’s also a nod to those actors and actresses who take themselves so seriously that they don’t believe themselves truly accomplished unless they’ve fully immersed themselves through method acting and taken on ridiculously challenging and counter-natural roles.  The point is that Lazarus is so self-obsessed that he thinks he can do anything—even play a character that he should not be. 

Tropic Thunder

Ben Stiller and Jack Black both play characters for which they’re typically accustomed.  Stiller’s Tugg Speedman is kind of a goofy idiot who is panicking because his career is failing.  And Black’s Jeff Portnoy is a one-trick pony—a physical comedian who makes money via movies that rely on fart jokes.  Both actors are naturals for their roles.  Jay Baruchel is likeable and respectable as Sandusky.  He’s really the only character who doesn’t have issues, and ends up being the glue that holds the group together.  Nick Nolte also seems made for the role of Tayback.  The guy is a total scoundrel, and Nolte plays him well.  Two others that I loved were Coogan and McBride.  Danny McBride isn’t Danny McBride unless he’s wearing a button down flannel shirt with the sleeves ripped off.  He is essentially the same white-trash character in every movie we see him in, but he’s so ridiculously good at it.

And then we have Tom Cruise as Les Grossman.  Another racial/ethnic stereotype that the writers went nuts with.  Tropic Thunder was not just a big movie for Robert Downey, Jr.  It also served a role in reigniting Cruise’s career after people started to suspect him as a little bit nutty.  Cruise gives the character his all.  He’s foul-mouthed, angry, offensive, and funny.  He’s also a heck of a dancer.  He basically steals any scene that he’s involved with. 

Kudos also to Matthew McConaughey, who  plays Rick “Pecker” Peck, Tugg’s devoted agent and confidant.  He only plays a minor role, but is so, so funny in the process.

There are certain elements of this film that aren’t the most soundly written; most have to do with the general premise.  But you can tell that the writers were very careful with the characters themselves and that is what enables Tropic Thunder to truly shine.  It’s a satire of Hollywood and the actors that thrive in that setting.  So many of the jokes are quite tongue-in-cheek.  But for those who are not a fan of the more subtle, you’ll find plenty of straight forward physical or gross-out humor as well. 

Believe it or not, most of the special effects and actual production quality are quite good.  Of course, the crew did not actually go to Vietnam for the film, but they did a good job of recreating the terrain to make things feel pretty real.  The explosions in the movie look nice and the film does not appear to lean to heavily on CGI.  I consider that a good thing.

All in all, Tropic Thunder is a very funny movie, especially one to watch with friends.  It’s mildly offensive and very satirical, but if it’s your type of humor then you’ll quickly know it.  I think there are people out there who won’t find this movie funny at all, and hopefully you can self-identify ahead of time and save yourself the trouble.  For everyone else, Tropic Thunder should be an enjoyable experience.

Thumbs up.

Tropic Thunder

What He said:

He

Good grief Charlie Brown, where do I begin with this one?

Tropic Thunder

Vietnam veteran, John “Four Leaf” Tayback, has written a best-selling memoir about his experiences in the war. Those experiences include, amongst other things, losing both his hands. Four Leaf (Nick Nolte) is the stereotypical Vietnam veteran, stereotypical in fiction at least. He’s the kind of guy who lives, east, and breathes the war. It’s all he talks about. When his movie is going to be made into a movie, he camps on a beach, instead of staying in a hotel with the rest of the cast and crew. The guy lives in his own world.  In this mind, “Charlie” is all that matters.

Speaking of movies, when his book is contracted to be adapted into movie, it’s tapped to be one of the biggest movies of all time.  

Leading the way is struggling action star Tugg Speedman. Tugg’s (Ben Stiller) career is fading faster than a fart in the wind. He was – at one time – the biggest name in action movies. But as roles became harder to come by, deferred to one of his past roles, recently completing Scorcer VI: Global Meltdown. When that failed, he tried to go the serious route, starring in the drama, Simple Jack.

His co-lead is the immensely talented Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey, Jr.). Kirk is an Academy Award winner who immerses himself into every role. He is a method actor, but unlike anyone else who is known to use that technique. Kirk is a white guy playing a black guy, so what does he decide to do? Dye his skin of course!

Jeff Portnoy, Alpa Chino, and Kevin Sandusky fill out the rest of the cast. Jeff (Jack Black) is a comedic actor known for his series of “films”, The Fatties. Off-screen, Jeff is known for his hard-partying lifestyle, similar to Chris Farley or John Belushi. Alpa (Brandon T. Jackson) is a rapper who has recently hit it big with a couple of songs and an energy drink called Booty Juice. He’s going for the trifecta with this movie, which is his acting debut. Jay Baruchel plays Kevin. He’s the only one of the bunch not famous and thus has a more realistic outlook on everything. Not coincidentally, he plays the level-headed guy of the group.

Studio executive, Les Grossman (Tom Cruise) is not happy with how the production of the movie is unfolding. Les is not a quite or subtle man.

Because of this, director Damien Cockburn (Steve Coogan) decides to do something drastic. He takes Four Leaf and special effects guru – and pyromaniac – Cody Underwood (Danny McBride) into the woods to try something drastic. They place a bunch of hidden cameras and rig a bunch of explosions in the jungle and tell the actors to act out the movie on their own. They don’t know when or where things are going to pop out at them, so he’s hoping this “guerilla style” approach will create more emotion.

The problem with this plan is the jungle is loaded with a bunch of bad dudes. Heroin manufacturing gang, the Flaming Dragons, run their operation out of this section of the jungle. They are led by an angry little fella named Tran (Brandon Soo Hoo).

Tropic Thunder

Tugg is convinced it’s all a part of the script, while some of the other actors aren’t so sure. They fight amongst themselves, for some odd reason Kirk still refuses to break character, and Jeff is suffering from withdraw (remember I said earlier he was a partier). The longer they are in the jungle, and the longer he goes without drugs, the crazier he gets. Kirk still talks and acts like his character, even when he starts think they aren’t in the movie anymore, which drives Apla (who is black) nuts. Hilarity ensues.

There is so much going on in this movie and it’s all funny, but for me the most obvious place to start has got to be Robert Downey, Jr. I have no words that can do this performance just. I didn’t even know he was capable of this kind of role. He’s pretty damn funny as Tony Stark/Iron Man in the Marvel movies, but this is a different kind of funny. This movie is not only a full-blown comedy, but it’s raunchy, ridiculous, and completely over-the-top. Before this, I had only ever seen him in mostly dramatic roles. Even when he was in stuff that had humor, it was more snarky one-liner type stuff. But the stuff that comes out of his mouth in this movie is comedic gold. What an awesome decision to have him play a guy who is having an identity crisis due to method acting. I am laughing my ass off just thinking about it. If you’ve got the time, check out some of his more memorable moments from the movie. The performance is actually quite genius, which sounds weird when you are talking about such a ridiculous movie, but it’s true. He’s a scene stealer throughout the entire movie.

Speaking of unexpected, how about that Tom Cruise? I didn’t even know the guy had a comedic bone in his body. Whoever decided to cast him as the short-tempered Hollywood exec with a foul mouth deserves an award. Great casting and performance by all those involved.

Ben Stiller, Jack Black, and the rest of the guys are all funny too, but those two stand out. Danny McBride, Nick Nolte, and Matthew McConaughey  (as Tugg’s agent) are also quite good. McConaughey has some hilarious lines, which is bound to happen anytime you’ve got a character who’s nickname is Pecker. They stuff they do with the Half Squat character – Tugg’s little sidekick when he gets captured by the drug manufacturers – is beyond words. I never noticed the kid the first time I saw this movie, but was in tears over a few of his bits.

This movie is so funny, I just don’t even know what to say about it. Fart jokes, racial jokes, jokes at the expense of handicapped people – which I normally don’t like – jokes poking fun at action movies, spoofs war movies mocks actors that take them too seriously, you  name it, this movie has it. Who thought Tom Cruise dressed up as a fat balding man would be so funny? Who thought to have him dance? I’m not kidding, this movie literally has it all when it comes to comedic value.

Rating: Thumbs way up.

This movie review was written for your reading pleasure on August 20, 2014.

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