DVD Review: Tropic Thunder

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This is a review of the theatrical release, published on July 26, 2008

Oh, what a lovely war movie Ben Stiller and his platoon have concocted in "Tropic Thunder." Stiller -- who stars, directs, co-writes, co-produces and probably acts as animal wrangler as well -- imagines a lost patrol of self-absorbed yet terminally insecure actors working on a war movie to end all war movies in Southeast Asia only to wind up in a real-life combat with narco-terrorists.

"Tropic Thunder" sends up all things Hollywood, from pampered actors and outrageous media tycoons to war movies in general. OK, these are easy targets. But Stiller and co-writers Justin Theroux and Etan Cohen hit 'em with a fair degree of accuracy and consistency.

After a summer devoted to superheroes -- indeed, Stiller's co-stars Robert Downey Jr. and Jack Black played superheroes in "Iron Man" and "Kung Fu Panda" -- how gratifying it is to experience a movie taking the mickey out of super-impossible heroics.

It's by no means a perfect comedy -- nor would you want it to be. Gags and stunts are all over the place, yet the film does de-Stiller-erize the essence of contemporary movie comedy even as it has fun with outrageously crude jokes. "Tropic Thunder" should give mid-August a strong shot of boxoffice caffeine.

A savvy opening has three movie trailers and a concession ad cleverly establishing our leading actors: Stiller's Tugg Speedman is a fading action star whose last, desperate bid for Oscar glory caught him playing Simple Jack, a retarded farmhand who can talk to animals. Black's coked-up Jeff Portnoy stars in a series of gross-out films built around fart jokes. Downey's five-time Oscar winner Kirk Lazarus -- think early Robert De Niro, Laurence Olivier and Gwyneth Paltrow but don't think about it too long -- is so into the "method" and physical disguise that he has surgically darkened his skin to play a black actor. Actor-comedian Brandon T. Jackson plays rap star Alpa Chino -- say it to yourself slowly -- who promotes a "Booty Sweat" energy drink and "Bust-A-Nut" candy bar.

In the name of authenticity, the film's British director (Steve Coogan) helicopters this gang along with acting newcomer Kevin Sandusky (Jay Baruchel), a possibly shellshocked technical adviser (Nick Nolte) and an enthusiastic explosives expert (Danny McBride) deep into the jungle. The director proceeds to step on an old land mine, which leaves the troupe without direction -- but no one here has ever paid much attention to a director anyway.

This setup provides a broad comic canvas for stunts; explosions; battles between actors firing blanks and a drug gang that doesn't; wars back home between the film's financier and Tugg's agent (Matthew McConaughey); and a drug lord played by 12-year-old newcomer Brandon Soo Hoo.

The film almost gets hijacked by Downey, an Australian actor and now a black man who no longer recognizes his own identity. It's a great comic performance and reaches its satiric zenith when, as the two stroll blithely unaware through a dangerous jungle, Kirk critiques Tugg's performance as Simple Jack. Kirk points out that actors who have won Oscars playing the mentally challenged "never go full retard," a hysterically funny and uncannily accurate piece of film criticism. (Kudos to the writers as well.)

But Stiller manages his movie nicely so that all actors get their share of the comic spotlight. Seldom does an ensemble comedy not contain a single weak character or performance as does this one. Oh, by the way, Tom Cruise has a role, too. He is in such a good disguise, though, that few are going to recognize him until the final credits.
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