Written by General Jabbo
The idea of a movie about actors whose life ends up imitating their art is not new — Three Amigos comes to mind as one of the more famous ones. Tropic Thunder is the latest in such a line of films and it delivers on all levels.
The movie tells the story of a group of actors filming a Vietnam War movie based on the book Tropic Thunder, written by war hero Four Leaf Tayback (Nick Nolte). The actors include Tugg Speedman (Ben Stiller), a washed-up action-movie star; Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr.), an Oscar-winning actor whose character studies go so deep he underwent skin pigmentation to play the African-American Sgt. Osiris in the movie inside the movie; Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black), the overweight, heroin-addled star of The Fatties movie franchise where, in an obvious nod to Eddie Murphy, he plays all the characters; Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson), a multimedia star of movies and music who spends much of his time promoting his Booty Sweat drink and Bust-A Nut candy bars; and Kevin Sandusky (Jay Baruchel), a young actor who idolizes the others, especially Lazarus, and is the only one of the group to have actually gone to boot camp.
Speedman’s career is in rapid decline at this point, after the giant failure of his movie, Simple Jack, in which he plays the mentally retarded title character in such an over-the-top manner that Lazarus tells him he went “full retard,” and that you should never do that as you’ll walk away empty-handed on Oscar night. Speedman’s agent, Rick Peck (Matthew McConaughey) is distraught over his client’s career and the fact that he has sunken so low he doesn’t even have TiVo on location. The TiVo reference is one of many in-jokes about product placement made in the movie that pokes fun at the entire Hollywood system.
Meanwhile, while on location, director Damien Cockburn (Steve Coogan) gets a message via satellite from studio head, Les Grossman (Tom Cruise) who is furious that the movie is a month behind schedule just five days into the shooting. When Cockburn tries to shift the blame on the prima donna actors, Grossman instructs a man in the room to punch him in the mouth. Soon after, Cockburn meets with Tayback who tells him that to get anything out of these actors, he has to drop them into a real war zone so they know real fear and film them using hidden cameras. Cockburn loves the idea and proceeds to do just that, giving the actors only a map and a scene listing to go by in the jungle. Almost immediately after dropping them off however, Cockburn steps on an old landmine and explodes. Speedman believes it to be a special-effects trick, even scooping blood out of the bottom of his severed head. Lazarus realizes they have been duped though and that they are now in the middle of a real war zone, even if Speedman doesn’t believe him.
From there, we watch as the actors try to make their way out of the jungle, running into the Flaming Dragon heroin outfit along the way. Flaming Dragon believes the actors to be DEA agents and tries to take them out. Along the way, we learn that Alpa Chino resents Lazarus staying in character the whole time, as he is not actually black. We also learn that Portnoy has been hiding heroin in candy wrappers so the other actors are not aware of his addiction.
When Flaming Dragon captures Speedman, they recognize him as the actor from Simple Jack, a movie they love, as it is the only entertainment they have there. They make Speedman perform the movie live and phone Peck with ransom demands for his release. Grossman gets on the phone, says he doesn’t negotiate with terrorists and hangs up, fully prepared to let Speedman die. He tries to convince Peck this is in his best interests too, promising him a large sum of money and a jet if he complies.
Ridiculous? Sure. But Tropic Thunder succeeds in poking fun at virtually every element of Hollywood from prima donna actors, to materialistic agents, to ruthless studio heads. The film is one giant in-joke, but if you get the joke, it’s well worth watching.
The DVD comes with a number of bonus features: filmmaker and cast commentaries (with Downey in character the entire time), deleted and extended scenes, an alternate ending, documentaries and more. The bonus features are often as entertaining as the movie and make this a must-own DVD.