Tropic Thunder is half showbiz satire, half action movie, half broad comedy, and all Tom Cruise.
You thought this was a Ben Stiller movie?
It is, unfortunately. Stiller directed and plays a vainglorious action movie star (not at all like Cruise) who, after playing a retarded guy in an I Am Sam-like flop, needs a hit. So he goes to the jungles of Vietnam to shoot a war yarn.
His costars include a junkie (Jack Black) whose specialty is making fart-based comedies while wearing fat suits and an Aussie Method actor (Robert Downey Jr.) who has his skin dyed black to play a sergeant and talks in a Redd Foxx rasp, even when the cameras aren’t rolling. The things that are rolling, constantly, are the eyeballs of another black actor, a rapper named Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson) who can’t stand the Downey character’s Jolson of the Jungle routine. Meanwhile, the Vietnam vet (Nick Nolte) who wrote the book on which the script was based tells everyone they’re a bunch of wussies who are cocking up everything.
The film they’re shooting on location in southeast Asia, Tropic Thunder, is a disaster.
In an effort to pump some reality into things the Brit director (Steve Coogan) takes the actors deep into the jungle and makes them improvise, promising that hidden cameras will catch their every move. Naturally everyone runs afoul of the well-armed local opium dealers, who mistake the actors for real DEA agents coming to take down their ring.
Stiller, thanks to poor advice from his director, Ben Stiller, spends a lot of time pulling faces and generally acting idiotic, and the laughs are pretty sparse whenever he is on camera – and some of those laughs have famously angered groups representing the disabled.
Black is marginally funnier and Downey has a great time playing the pretentious Australian, but despite the film’s many signals that it is willing to go anywhere for a laugh — a gag involving Coogan is shocking, although not particularly funny — the interplay between the fake black guy and the real one never gets nasty and political. The Aussie winds up being no more offensive than Michael Scott is on The Office.
An R-rated comedy has to go farther than TV.
And this one does, but Downey has little to do with it. Tom Cruise’s part, which was rumored to be an unbilled cameo, turns out to be much more than that. He’s in a bunch of scenes and he owns every one of them. It might ruin the joke for you to learn too much about what he does, so read no farther if you’d rather be surprised by his appearance, which is so startlingly funny it might just reverse the course of the last three years of bad publicity he’s earned himself.
Cruise plays the producer of the movie within the movie, a guy so pudgily enraged, so hairy and yet so bald, that he is going to owe royalties to Scott Rudin for theft of personality. On a conference call from Hollywood to the set of the film, he blasts away with an R-rated tirade and later, when he has to deal with actual murderous criminals, he’s so nasty that they’re the ones who get scared. Cruise’s portions of the film (which also feature a lackluster Matthew McConaughey as the Stiller character’s agent) carry some nicely creepy undertones about the viciousness of showbiz. At the midpoint things seem about to tip from gross-out comedy into Network territory. This is the funniest Cruise has ever been, unless you count the couch jumping (and you probably should).
Satisfying though it may be, satire doesn’t sell enough tickets to pay the bills on a blockbuster. So we keep cutting back to more mugging by Stiller on the way to a final act that delivers not a parody of an action movie but a real action comedy like something out of the late 80s, complete with explosions and flamethrowers and guys emptying the clips of M-16s with both hands while yelling, “Aaaugggh!”
Stiller stages the action scenes pretty well, at least as well as in the most recent Rambo movie, and the transition works better than you’d guess.
But Stiller knows where his moneymaker is, so he brings us back to Cruise in the end. Cruise may have made Lions for Lambs but he doesn’t fail us this time. He does a hip-hop I-love-me dance, with his gold dollar-sign pendant bouncing around his furry chest, that Will Ferrell could not have improved upon.
Tom Cruise, comedian? And you thought only his religion was hilarious.
Directed by Ben Stiller
Starring: Ben Stiller, Jack Black, Robert Downey Jr.
2.5 stars/ 4
106 minutes/Rated R