Movie Review Tropic Thunder - Reviewed by Bill Gallagher
Ben Stiller's movie that makes fun of movies, is a crude assault on the
genre of war films. But fans of classic combat epics aren't the ones complaining.
No, indignation flows from people who make it their mission to protect
the sensibilities of the mentally challenged.
You see, “Tropic Thunder” exposes the belief among many people
in the movie business that the surest way to get nominated for an Academy
Award is to play a character with mental challenges. Dustin Hoffman in
“Rain Man,” Tom Hanks in “Forrest Gump,” and Russell
Crowe in “A Beautiful Mind” are exhibit A, B and C when it
comes to proof. That may not seem like a very big deal, but it's a running
gag throughout “Tropic Thunder” and prompts exchanges like
this one between Tugg Speedman (Stiller) and Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey
Speedman: There were times while I was playing Jack where I felt …
retarded. Like really retarded.
Lazarus: An imbecile?
What's funny about that? Well, for one thing, Lazarus is a tough-talking,
cigar-chomping cheerleader of a soldier who happens to be black. Robert
Downey Jr. gives a brilliant performance in blackface. That's right, a
white actor playing a black character. Or, as Lazarus says, "I'm
just a dude playing a dude pretending to be another dude."
Lazarus, an Australian who has won four Oscars, speaks with some clout
when he says Speedman blew his Oscar shot by playing a "full retard"
in a move called “Simple Jack” when what was called for was
a more subtle disability.
Speedman is an action movie star whose firepower is fading. He's recycled
one character through four sequels, has played that retarded rube in an
Oscar-bid-of-a-movie called “Simple Jack,” and is now leading
a band of brothers in a Vietnam epic. But things aren't going well on
the set, and what's worse is that the studio head (Tom Cruise) hates the
footage he's seeing. It's decided that it needs more reality. So Speedman,
along with a squad that includes Lazarus and Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black),
gets choppered deep into the jungle and lands right in the middle of a
massive drug operation protected by a well-armed militia. This is no movie;
this is war!
In a movie like “Tropic Thunder,” it helps if you get some
of the references to current movie business practices. And many of you
will. Some of today's young stars have no problem with gnawing on the
hand that feeds them. Movies are a business. As long as we keep paying
to laugh at the latest in-jokes, the studios will take the abuse to the
Once you get past the "retard" controversy, the riffing on
war movie clichés, and the plethora of inside show business jokes,
you'll find that “Tropic Thunder” is a lot of fun for one
movie. The plot never gets in the way of that fun because getting bogged
down is not what this is about. If Stiller's got a style, it is to mimic
the startling spontaneity of combat. He keeps things clipping along by
putting his actors to great use. Downey Jr. as Lazarus commands the screen
the way Samuel Jackson can when he's in a take-charge, kick ass frame
of mind. (In fact, I'd love to see Downey Jr. as a black character appearing
alongside Jackson in some future project. I'm sure Downey Jr. could more
than hold his own.) Steve Coogan plays Damien, the director who's British
and pretty clueless. This guy's a British comic who brings a nice diversity
to the very American band of brothers. Nick Nolte plays the weary, seasoned
Vietnam vet brought in as a consultant because he was there — and
he'll never be the same again. Cruise is a kick as the nutso studio boss
whose moves are choreographed like a ballet of abuse toward the many who
work for him. Matthew McConaughey plays the smarmy agent who will tell
his client (Speedman) anything he wants to hear. With a cast like that,
success is not guaranteed, but there's sure to be some fun. Everyone's
firing off lines throughout, so it hardly matters how the movie crew manages
to defeat the drug troops.
Have you ever spotted an actor in a movie and just kind of recognized
him or her but couldn't put a name to the face? You know you've seen the
actor somewhere else, but you can't nail down where. Such was the case
in “Tropic Thunder” with one of the soldiers. He's a tall,
skinny kid whose has not got good looks but is a presence nonetheless.
I had to look him up. He's Jay Baruchel, and he played Danger Barch in
Clint Eastwood's wonderful film “Million Dollar Baby.” Danger
was the kid in the gym who wore long johns to work out and whose self
opinion far exceeded his skills in the ring. I knew there was a reason
I remembered him.
“Tropic Thunder” isn't a great movie. It’s more of
a series of satirical character sketches performed by some very funny
men. (I can't recall a female character of any significance in “Tropic
Thunder.” But is there ever a woman who matters in a real war movie?)
It easily falls into the sub-genre of gross-out movies with some action
and dialogue that's raunchy enough to shock us in ways we still haven't
been shocked. I guess movies stop being fun when we're not even a little
shocked at what they'll say and do.
Written by Bill Gallagher - the news director of KPAM 860.