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Tropic Thunder

Review Written by: Estefan Ellison
Film: B+

Directed by: Ben Stiller
Written by: Ben Stiller, Justin Theroux and Etan Cohen
Produced by: Ben Stiller, Stuart Cornfeld and Eric McLeod
Starring: Ben Stiller, Robert Downey Jr, Jack Black, Jay Baruchel, Brandon T Jackson, Nick Nolte, Danny McBride, Steve Coogan
Studio: DreamWorks Pictures

Ben Stiller is a funny actor who manages to create likeable characters, even when playing mousy, irritable types. This reviewer's reaction to Stiller's directing efforts, however, have been less than positive. The Cable Guy was an un-even film that, despite a couple of interesting moments, started to get much too ridiculous and creepy in the third act. Meanwhile, I found his 2001 "comedy" Zoolander, a riff on the male model industry, to be a complete disaster failing to release a signal laugh from me. With Tropic Thunder, he finally succeeds in making a film that is smart and gives talented actors some worthy material. While Tropic Thunder is nothing more than a fun summer diversion, there is still plenty to like about it, despite its occasional flaws. Unlike Zoolander, it does not take itself too seriously or nor does it spend more time on its visual style rather than its humour. Stiller intelligently relies on more than just a one-joke premise and actually manages to make the audience care for a bunch of whiny actors. As long as he doesn't butcher this rare success with a poor sequel, Stiller the director remains on my good graces.

Tugg Speedman (Ben Stiller) is a popular action star whose attempt at dramatic acting becomes such a massive failure, he decides to star in Vietnam war epic Tropic Thunder to get back on top again. Award-winning Australian method actor Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr) is also hired to star in the film, but as a black character, leading him to have plastic surgery to make himself be the character even when the cameras aren't rolling. They are joined by Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black), a flatulence obsessed comedian with a strong heroin addiction, rapper-turned-actor Alpa Chino (Brandon T Jackson) and aspiring young actor Kevin Sandusky (Jay Baruchel). After a disastrous day on set that infuriates the film's maverick producer Les Grossman (Tom Cruise), director Damien Cockburn (Steve Coogan) decides to shoot the whole film guerilla style in the real Vietnamese jungle. Not surprisingly, however, chaos ensures as the actors are mistaken for real soldiers and they finally have to put their wits to the test.

Due to his high-standing status in Hollywood, Ben Stiller has managed to procure some major actors for the film and except for one occasion, he does not rely on stunt casting as each actor does well in each part. Stiller himself is fine in the lead role, playing his usual self while still managing to poke fun at the typical action star. Jack Black manages to be his funniest here, not necessarily when parodying the obvious Eddie Murphy influence in Portnoy, but more in his random rants as a result of the lack of heroin. Brandon T Jackson and Jay Baruchel round out the troop by playing more the straight men in the house of wackos and intelligently not going too over-the-top. The stand-out in the cast is Robert Downey Jr, who parodies both the problems of extreme method acting and ethnic stereotyping that one might see in a film. Downey Jr does so well in the part of Lazarus, that once the character reverts back to his normal self, it comes as such as a shock due to how well he portrayed the African American soldier in the previous ninety minutes. Other actors would have completely gone wild with the character, yet Downey Jr is subtle enough that we start to forget that he was Tony Stark earlier this summer or Charlie Chaplin back in the early 1990's. Like his character, he truly disappears into the role.

Steve Coogan is a delight as the director trying to keep himself under his control and the funniest moment in Tropic Thunder involves him in a dark, but wonderfully comical way. Matthew McConaughey is also enjoyable to watch as Speedman's incredibly loyal agent. After a slump in poorly written roles, his work here becomes his funniest role since the aging hipster in Richard Linklater's Dazed and Confused. If there is a disappointment in the cast, it's Tom Cruise as Grossman. Tom Cruise is a very talented actor, but Stiller gives him material that is designed more to be funny simply because it's Tom Cruise as a balding, fat wanna-be hip-hop dancer. What could have been an interesting take on the typical studio executive mogul is wasted away on stunt casting and lousy writing. The watch-ability of his scenes are elevated thankfully because of the presence of McConaughey and Bill Hader. While watching those scenes, I wanted the film to just get back to the jungle-deserted actors. The more action-oriented scenes also lack much humour, but the performances from the actors are enough to make up for it, particularly in one moment when Lazarus has a truly worthy revelation.

Yet, despite the lack of humour in the aforementioned scenes, there are enough funny scenes to make for it. The fake trailers that start before the film has even started are all well-handled and truly hilarious parodies of the previews of major action sequels and serious dramatic fare vying for awards gold. The way in which Iron Man and Spider-Man are put together is a pure comedic delight. Yet, the fake previews also work well in establishing who the characters are. Celebrity scandals, perfectly placed product placements, the questionability of the "true story" label and actors playing handicapped roles are also skewered with intelligent vigor and done in funny ways. Overall, Tropic Thunder is nothing more than a funny action comedy aimed at making people laugh and it certainly succeeds in that regard.

Ben Stiller and Robert Downey Jr playing actors playing war heroes in the summer comedy Tropic Thunder.
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