Of the several films which Ben Stiller has directed, Tropic Thunder has to be by far the most ambitious and entertaining. A rambunctious satire which spectacularly pokes fun at the Hollywood system, method acting, the war genre (notably Platoon, Apocalypse Now, and Rambo: First Blood Pt II), and several high profile actors, Tropic Thunder successfully manages to merge crude comedy with biting sarcasm to the backdrop of faux gunfire and deafening explosions.
The film tells the story of three popular yet vastly different actors whose Prima-Dona antics on the set of their new war movie “Tropic Thunder” has caused production to go over budget and over schedule. Ben Stiller stars as Tugg Speedman, a dwindling action hero whose failing “Scorcher” franchise and poorly received dramatic performance as a mentally disabled farmhand in “Simple Jack” has left him at a career crossroads; Jack Black plays Jeff “Fats” Portnoy, a commercially successful yet deeply troubled comedic actor who is addicted to heroin; and in a scandalous turn, comeback kid Robert Downey Jr. is Kirk Lazarus, a steely blue eyed Australian actor and 5 time Academy Award winner who – in his method madness – undergoes a medical procedure in order to portray an African American soldier.
The director of the film is Damien (Steve Coogan), a British filmmaker under pressure from ruthless studio executive Lee Grossman (Tom Cruise) to either take control of production or face career suicide.
In a desperate move, Damien takes on the advice of former Vietnam veteran and author of the films source material Four Leaf Tayback (Nick Nolte) to take his egotistical actors and throw them in the explosives charged jungles of ‘Nam - rigged by their pyrotechnics chief Cody (Danny McBride) – in order to experience what a real war would be like.
Unfortunately for all, war is exactly what they get when a group of heroin harvesters in neighbouring Burma mistake the actors for U.S. military.
The script by Stiller, fellow actor Justin Theroux and Etan Cohen contains some rather astute musings on the nature of Hollywood. A conversation between Stiller and Downey Jr. about the Academies insistence on rewarding actors who depict those who are mentally challenged is a highlight, as are the scenes depicting what goes on behind the scenes in the upper echelons of Hollywood.
Stiller - who delivers a truly funny performance while making fun of Sylvester Stallone and his never ending sequel driven franchises - takes full advantage in his ability to draw big name actors to his productions. Jack Black is at his crass and manic best whilst sending up Eddie Murphy and his multiple role comedies; and Robert Downey Jr. continues his successful run of exemplarily performances with a truly hilarious and miraculous turn, always teetering on the side of offensive parody as he heightens his voice and mannerisms in order to imitate blaxploitation action man Fred Williamson (with a little bit of Danny Glover thrown in for good measure) while also making fun of Russell Crowe’s at times pretentious posturing about his craft.
On top of the star studded trio of Black / Downey Jr. / Stiller, the film also boasts appearances by an in form Nick Nolte who successfully mocks his performance from The Thin Red Line; Matthew McConaughey as a rambunctious agent who would go to the end of the Earth to fulfil his clients wishes; and a barely recognisable Tom Cruise who plays a fat, bald, hip hop loving Jewish film mogul to delirious results.
Lesser known actors such as Brandon T. Jackson – who plays hip hop king and Booty Sweat energy drink spokesman turned actor Alpa Chino (no doubt a jab at Al Pacino’s legendary status in the hip-hop community) - and rising Canadian thespian Jay Baruchel more than hold their own amongst their star studded cast mates, while young Brandon Soo Hoo is surprisingly effective as the head of a Burmese heroin cartel.
However it is not smooth sailing all the way through. While there are laughs to be had in its dark comedy, un-PC humour and sharp satire, scenes of extremely gross nature bring about more winces than laughs, such as Stiller licking the entrails of a decapitated head which he assumes is a fake. Yet such flaws are part in parcel with a comedy of this nature, which delivers hard laughs and even harder satire.