When is a bone-headed rumble-in-the-jungle more than just a dumb action movie? When it's also a pretty sharp, knowingly excessive satire of the industry that churns them out.
"Tropic Thunder" -- ImagiCorp studio's adaptation of 'Nam hero John "Four Leaf" Tayback's (Nick Nolte) POW memoir that's currently being shot on location in Vietnam -- is already way over-budget and a month behind schedule, even though the film has only been in production for five days. The film's rookie director, Brit Damien Cockburn (Steve Coogan), blames his ensemble of ego-clashing, out-of-control stars and their inability to take direction for the sinking of the whole project. Damien's star is Tugg Speedman (Ben Stiller, who also cowrote and directed), an actor of obviously limited talent whose once-popular, now ludicrous "Scorcher" action franchise has clearly run out of gas. Tugg's previous foray into drama, the embarrassingly bad "Simple Jack," in which he played an intellectually challenged man who can talk to animals, has recently been voted worst movie. Ever. Speedman's costar is Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr.), the Australian actor whose commitment to his craft has lead him to take on such "risky," Oscar-grabbing roles as a gay monk in Fox Searchlight's bold "Satan's Alley," as well as undergo a number of startling physical transformations: For "Tropic Thunder," Kirk has gone through a controversial "pigmentation alteration" procedure that has essentially transformed his face into that of an African-American man, albeit one who talks and acts like Carl Weathers in FORCE 10 FROM NAVARONE. And making their debut as "serious" actors are two personalities not known for their acting chops: Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black), a drug-addicted, gross-out comedian who single-handedly played an entire overweight, flatulent family in the popular comedy "Fatties" ("Fatties: Fart 2" is already in the can, so to speak), and rapper Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson) who, in addition to movies, is also branching out into the beverage market with his Booty Sweat energy drink. After he is chewed a brand-new rear orifice by ImagiCorp's Scott Rudin-esque chief Les Grossman (Tom Cruise, virtually unrecognizable in makeup and padding), Damien takes a note from "Four Leaf" himself: Cockburn air-lifts himself, his four leads -- plus newcomer Kevin Sandusky (Jay Baruchel) -- into a remote valley where they'll have no choice but to follow his direction. There he'll shoot the rest of the movie guerilla style, having already rigged the thick jungle with small cameras and remote-controlled explosives courtesy of pyromaniacal special-effects whiz Cody (Danny McBride). What Damian doesn't realize until it's too late is that the location he's chosen is dangerously close to the notorious Golden Triangle where heroin producing poppies are farmed -- and fiercely protected -- by heavily armed guard who assume these costumed actors are U.S. DEA agents. Within moments of landing war breaks out, and the cast of "Tropic Thunder" finds itself in the middle of a very real firefight with some very real bullets.
Written by Stiller, Justin Theroux and Mike Judge cohort Etan Cohen, the film opens with a brilliant conceit: The three main actors are introduced via a hilarious series of fake trailers for their latest movies, while Alpa Chino appears in an ad for Booty Sweat. The movie is funniest when it sticks closest to Hollywood satire, skewering back-lot sized egos and the movie cliches that it also delivers, only with tongue obviously in cheek. The set-up is a little incoherent and like the movies spoofed it all gets to be a bit too much. But a lot of the film looks great and is pretty funny. Downey is particularly good as a serious actor who refuses to break character until he does the DVD commentary, and Cruise is downright scary. It's the creepiest -- and most entertaining -- performance since his unforgettable appearance in that Scientology video.
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