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By Michael Phillips
Ben Stiller's big-budget comedy is about the runaway production of a Vietnam War epic. Robert Downey Jr., playing an Oscar-winning actor who undergoes a skin treatment to portray an African-American platoon sergeant, is by far the best thing in "Tropic," which has taken heat for its "retard" references, anti-Semitic stereotyping and Downey's risky impersonation of Russell Crowe doing Fred Williamson.
While the film is funny, its size and scale inform the joke half of the time and compete with it the other half.
My favorite gag in "Tropic Thunder" comes just before "Tropic Thunder" itself, in a movie trailer touting a fake movie called "Satan's Alley."
(That's an in-joke for all you "Staying Alive" freaks; "Satan's Alley" was the Broadway musical John Travolta cavorted in.) The pretend drama, a kind of "Brokeback Monk-Man," stars five-time Oscar winner Kirk Lazarus as a tormented 18th century Irish priest who has big love for a fellow Man of God. Robert Downey Jr. plays Lazarus, and the wordlessly soulful goo-goo eyes he gives fellow sinner Tobey Maguire sets a high comic bar for "Tropic Thunder" to beat.
It doesn't beat it, in fact. The first adjective that comes to mind regarding director and co-writer Ben Stiller's comedy is "massive." While the film is funny, too, its size and scale inform the joke half of the time and compete with it the other half. But its sharpest arrows take precise aim at a hornet's nest of Hollywood egos.
Stiller, Downey and Jack Black play the leading actors stuck in a quagmire of a Vietnam War film, "Tropic Thunder," based on the memoirs of "Four-Leaf" Tayback (Nick Nolte). The Vietnam veteran and the film's hapless director (Steve Coogan) decide to break loose and "go native," aided by the special-effects explosives expert (Danny McBride). For maximum realism they venture deep into the jungle. Then the local drug lords take notice of this apparent threat. The fake war movie becomes a real one, while back in Hollywood, studio chief Les Grossman (Tom Cruise, amusing in an uncredited supporting role and a good deal of artificial pudge) tries to work up some concern while openly relishing the danger, not to mention the potential box office.
Clueless, preening actors unaware of their situation: That's the idea here. The gore is played for queasy laughs, as is, dubiously, the running gag about a film Stiller's character is trying to put behind him, "Simple Jack," about a mentally challenged farmhand. (The film's "retard" references have led to a threatened boycott by various disabilities groups.)
When the film works, it's less about strident outrageousness and more about wit, and finding the right way to twist the "Platoon" and "Apocalypse Now" cliches into pretzels. My second-favorite sight gag involves Stiller's action-hero character, Tugg Speedman, rescuing what he assumes will be a grateful war orphan. But the steadiest supplier of laughs is Downey, who's playing a Serious Actor maniacally committed to his craft. How committed? He undergoes a controversial skin treatment to render him African-American in appearance so he can play the black platoon sergeant, thereby relegating the cast's actual African-American (Brandon T. Jackson) to a secondary role. I think we can agree that blackface humor is dicey humor. For it to be humor at all is an accomplishment. Fresh off "Iron Man" and looking like Fred Williamson in his "Inglorious Bastards" heyday, burying a Russell Crowe dialect deep inside the character voice he's developed for badassss Sgt. Osiris, Downey makes the conceit work because he's constantly trying to make two portrayals work, in tandem.
In the end "Tropic Thunder" is an expensive goof about an expensive goof, and the results are very impressive and fancy-looking. (John Toll shot it; he was the director of photography on "The Thin Red Line," among other epics.) Too impressive, really, to fully unleash the humor in the situations. Here's the litmus test: If you smile at the wild-eyed pose Downey strikes in the poster for "Tropic Thunder," you'll probably get your nine bucks' worth.
"Tropic Thunder" Movie Trailer
About "Tropic Thunder"
MPAA rating: R (pervasive language including sexual references, violent content and drug material).
Running time: 1:47
Starring: Ben Stiller (Tugg Speedman); Jack Black (Jeff Portnoy); Robert Downey Jr. (Kirk Lazarus); Brandon T. Jackson (Alpa Chino); Jay Baruchel (Kevin Sandusky); Tom Cruise (Les Grossman); Nick Nolte (John "Four Leaf" Tayback); Matthew McConoughey (Rick Peck); Steve Coogan (Damien Cockburn)
Directed by Ben Stiller; written by Justin Theroux, Stiller and Etan Cohen; photographed by John Toll; edited by Greg Hayden; music by Theodore Shapiro; production design by Jeff Mann; produced by Stuart Cornfeld, Stiller and Eric McLeod.
A DreamWorks Pictures release.
Ben Stiller, Jack Black and Robert Downey Jr. lead an ensemble cast in "Tropic Thunder," an action comedy about a group of self-absorbed actors who set out to make the biggest war film ever. After ballooning costs (and the out of control egos of the pampered cast) threaten to shut down the movie, the frustrated director refuses to stop shooting, leading his cast deep into the jungles of Southeast Asia for "increased realism," where they inadvertently encounter real bad guys.
DreamWorks Pictures Presents A Red Hour Production A Ben Stiller Film "Tropic Thunder" starring Ben Stiller, Jack Black, Robert Downey Jr., Steve Coogan, Jay Baruchel, Danny McBride, Brandon T. Jackson, Bill Hader and Nick Nolte. The film is directed by Ben Stiller from a screenplay by Justin Theroux & Ben Stiller and Etan Cohen. The story is by Ben Stiller & Justin Theroux. The film is produced by Stuart Cornfeld, Ben Stiller and Eric McLeod. The executive producer is Justin Theroux. The director of photography is John Toll, ASC. The production designer is Jeff Mann. The film is edited by Greg Hayden. The costume designer is Marlene Stewart. The music score is by Theodore Shapiro. The music supervisor is George Drakoulias. This film has been rated R for pervasive language including sexual references, violent content and drug material.
About the Cast "Tropic Thunder"
Tugg Speedman (Ben Stiller) is a pampered action superstar on the wane. His "Scorcher" series of post-apocalyptic action epics have played out, and after a desperate attempt for an Oscar® nod backfires, Speedman is counting on "Tropic Thunder" to put him back on top.
Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black) is the star of a popular gross-out comedy franchise called "The Fatties," and now he's looking to branch out, to show the world that there's more to him than just getting laughs from passing gas.
Aussie thespian Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr.), the quintessential "method" actor, has won five Oscars® and is always on the lookout for new challenges and ways to transform himself for his "art."
Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson) seems to have it all. But the multi-platinum hip-hop-star-turned-entrepreneur is eager to move on up to the ranks of serious actors.
And newcomer Kevin Sandusky (Jay Baruchel), well, he is just happy to have a job.
In "Tropic Thunder," this unlikely group of self-absorbed prima donnas come together to film an epic war movie and unwittingly wind up in a real battle.
"On the surface, the actors cast in this war movie appear to be very different people," says the film's producer Stuart Cornfeld. "But at their core, they're all trying to do something different with their careers, something new, and they're hoping this war movie will be the way they reach that next level. The problem is that all of them, except maybe Kevin Sandusky - who's worked really hard so that he'll do well in the film - are so caught up in themselves, that they'll never be able to achieve those goals."
After the studio head threatens to shut down production, frustrated British director Damien Cockburn (Steve Coogan) refuses to stop shooting and, instead, leads his unsuspecting cast deep into the jungles of Southeast Asia to complete principal photography "guerilla style." With no assistants, entourages, or cell phones, the cast soon encounters a very real and very dangerous band of drug lords. Mistaking the actors for American DEA agents, they resolve to capture the "American invaders."
In the movie-within-the-movie, Tugg Speedman (Stiller) plays John "Four Leaf" Tayback, the courageous real-life war hero whose memoir about his Vietnam exploits are the basis for the film.
"Speedman was the highest paid, highest grossing action star of all time," says Stiller, who also co-wrote, directed and produced the film. "He's completely pampered, completely out of touch. He is coming off of a few flops, including a blatant attempt to win an Oscar®. That movie is called 'Simple Jack,' in which he plays a mentally impaired farm hand who can talk to animals. And it totally backfires. It is one of the worst reviewed movies of all-time. Now, even his action movies aren't doing well and he is in a really bad place. So, he needs this war film to work."
Following Stiller's vision of producing a genre-bending action-comedy, the filmmakers assembled an ensemble cast with actors who could pull off the comedic elements while still being believable in the movie's more realistic moments.
For the role of Jeff Portnoy, the gross-out comedy star best known for his multiple roles in the "The Fatties" comedy franchise, the film makers had only one actor in mind: Jack Black. "Jack plays the archetypal, crazy, out-of-control comedy guy," says Stiller. "The thing I love about Jack is that he is unique. Nobody else has his persona, his comedic vibe. He's also committed. He took this character and embraced every aspect of him."
"Jeff Portnoy takes things to a whole new level. Portnoy has made a career out of fart movies," Black says. "I've done some gross-out movies myself, but Portnoy is at the next level above Jack Black in terms of dominating the world of farts."
Although Portnoy's lowbrow humor has made him an international superstar, Black explains, he now wants more respect as an actor. "Portnoy is trying to branch out and get a little more legit," Black says.
As Portnoy and the rest of the cast get stranded in the jungle, we learn something else about him - he has a major substance abuse problem.
As Stiller observes, "You get to watch Portnoy going cold turkey. Jack naturally did it in a very entertaining way, but he also made it very believable. Being able to strike that balance is tough, but Jack totally committed to it."
One of Black's memorable moments occurred at the bad guys' compound. In an attempt to rescue Tugg Speedman, Portnoy enters the compound semi-naked and hogtied, riding on the back of a water buffalo.
"I'm in my underpants strapped to the back of the water buffalo and my concern was how the water buffalo hide was going to feel against my naked belly and chest," Black says. "Is it going to be a rough surface? Would I have an allergic reaction? But actually it was very soft, like one of those fancy tiger rugs you see in front of the fireplace in some movies. But she didn't seem to be all that thrilled with me on her back. She gave me a couple of swats with her tail and looked around at me like, 'I'm gonna buck your butt off!' I could have sworn there was anger in her eyes," he laughs.
The overly committed Australian actor Kirk Lazarus goes to the most extreme measures to realistically portray every one of his characters - in this case, having his skin surgically dyed to play an African-American sergeant, Lincoln Osiris.
"Oscar-winner Kirk Lazarus is specifically drawn to the character of Lincoln Osiris, who happens to be a black man," says Cornfeld. "He seriously sees this as his next great acting challenge. Naturally, the studio doesn't grasp how absurd this is. They just jump at the opportunity to have him in the film.
When Lazarus reports for duty on set, he is Lincoln Osiris, and he refuses to drop out of character at any time throughout the entire movie."
Lazarus is committed one hundred percent to the role. "Kirk's heart is in the right place," Downey says. "The way it's portrayed is self-deprecating. He has literally gotten so into the role that he cannot get out of it, even when there's no indication they're making a movie anymore. Certain of us actors have gone that method route at times, but only up to a point. There's professionalism and dedication; and then there's total narcissism," he laughs.
Justin Theroux, executive producer and co-writer of "Tropic Thunder," observes that Robert Downey Jr. is "the man of a million characters. He's an actor who can pull off virtually anything - comedy, drama - and like Ben, he's a master of improv. Just watching them do a scene together was a joy to behold. It's sort of like watching a beautiful little tennis match, because they're both such talented and capable comedic talents."
Co-starring opposite Lazarus in the film is Alpa Chino. Portrayed by actor-comedian Brandon T. Jackson, Alpa Chino is a multi-platinum selling hip-hop star, (whose most recent hit was "I Love Tha' Pussy") with an extensive merchandise line that includes the "Booty Sweat" energy drink brand, "Bust-A-Nut" candy bars and a menswear line for the Gap called "Alpa Chinos."
Alpa has now set his sights on legitimate acting, playing a character named Motown, a badass soldier from Detroit who wears customized fatigues covered in graffiti. "My character is just this over-the-top, ridiculous guy," Jackson says. "He's so obsessed with the movie 'Scarface' that he has named himself after that film's star, Al Pacino. And he's a stickler about his name, too. People are always saying it wrong, so he's always spelling it out: A-L-P-A."
While Alpa Chino sees the war epic as a new career opportunity, he resents the fact that the role of Lincoln Osiris has been cast with Kirk Lazarus, which leads to some testy altercations. "Our characters are always getting into it," says Jackson. "Alpa is insulted that the role wasn't given to a black man. Yet, when he tries to argue this point with Kirk, it's like talking to a wall."
"Alpa Chino respects Kirk Lazarus the same way he respects Al Pacino," Downey says, "because he grew up watching Lazarus in these Oscar®-winning parts. But, clearly, Lazarus has crossed a line and when the movie starts to go south, and they're in real danger, his behavior becomes extremely irritating. Eventually, however, they develop a bond, which proves to be a really interesting twist."
Rounding out the main characters is Kevin Sandusky, an earnest young actor who gets his first big acting break playing newbie soldier Brooklyn. The role was given to up-and-coming comedy actor Jay Baruchel, who was recently seen in the summer 2007 hit "Knocked Up" and is currently filming his first comedy lead role in "She's Out of My League."
"Sandusky is the wet-behind-the-ears rookie actor, really eager and super-psyched to be there," Baruchel explains. "He's the only one of the cast who auditioned for the role, who bothered to read John 'Four Leaf' Tayback's book, attended the actors' military boot camp, and researched the role. So when things go bad for the cast, he becomes the de facto go-to man for all the answers. He's the only one that actually knows how to read a map or load a gun properly. So, naturally, they all assume that he knows how to do things like fly a helicopter, too."
Sandusky gets caught up in a power struggle between Speedman and Lazarus as both vie for his expertise to help them navigate their way out of the jungle. "That makes for an interesting turn by the climax of the film, one that I think a lot of people are going to enjoy," he smiles. "I know I did."
A host of talented actors comprise the supporting cast of "Tropic Thunder," including award-winning veteran actor Nick Nolte. In "Tropic Thunder," Nolte plays the real-life John "Four Leaf" Tayback, whose Vietnam memoir is the basis for the war film and is the basis for the character Tugg Speedman portrays.
Tayback is also on hand, serving as the movie's technical advisor, and when things start to fall apart, he becomes the catalyst for the insanity that follows.
"I'm just living on the beach while all these spoiled brat actors are in their big hotels or special trailers with their personal trainers," Nolte explains. "The young English director of this film can't control them, and when there's a major screw-up with a battle scene and the studio shuts down the film, I convince the director to get some video cameras and shoot it wild; take four or five days to go through the jungle, take the special effects guy along to blow some stuff up around them, and convince him that he'll get real emotion from these guys. He'll get real fear."
Four Leaf, however, has some secrets of his own and he inadvertently lands the actors in a real battle against members of the Flaming Dragon, a drug-manufacturing guerilla army based in the Golden Triangle.
Damien Cockburn, the war movie's frazzled director, is portrayed by British actor Steve Coogan, a major English comedy star, who is best known as the title character in BBC's "I'm Alan Partridge," and for his portrayal of Tony Wilson in Michael Winterbottom's "24 Hour Party People."
"I play this director who is drowning in this monolithic beast of a Hollywood production and the comedy springs from my misfortunes," Coogan says. "Cockburn has to deal with all these actors and their huge entourages and a budget that is spiraling out of control. It looks like everything's going to crash and burn but, ultimately, the film emerges unscathed."
He pauses and then adds, "No thanks to me."
Coogan was intrigued by how "Tropic Thunder" both pokes fun at and emulates how movies are made. "The film starts out looking like a big Hollywood war movie and then quickly becomes a high-concept comedy," Coogan says. "It laughs at itself, and Ben's sort of laughing at himself in the film as well. Although he's playing a fictitious movie star, he really is a movie star. He's mocking big movie stars who have a bunch of assistants running around, but Ben has a bunch of assistants running around him. He's taking reality and just distorting it, caricaturing and exaggerating it to make it funny. We're kind of showing the underbelly of Hollywood filmmaking and I think audiences will enjoy seeing how vulnerable everyone is in these situations."
Danny McBride, whose comic chops will also be seen this summer in the "The Foot Fist Way" plays the film's explosives expert, Cody, a trigger-happy explosions expert whose behavior is equal parts hilarious and scary. "SNL" regular Bill Hader, who has appeared in such recent hit comedies as "Knocked Up" and "Superbad," plays Rob Slolom, a meddling mid-level studio executive - the quintessential Hollywood bootlicker.
Tran, the head of the dangerous Flaming Dragons, is played by newcomer Brandon Soo Hoo. Stiller explains, "he is great in the film. He plays a 12-year-old who's got this army of guys manufacturing heroin for him. This is his first movie and he is a great young actor. Just the way he looks at you, you know he could take you down. And when he starts fighting, it's pretty amazing."
Backing up Tran is his first lieutenant, Byong, played by Reggie Lee, best known for his work in "The Fast and the Furious," "Pirates of the Caribbean" and "Prison Break."
Tropic Thunder Movie L-R: Ben Stiller, Robert Downey Jr., Jack Black
Tropic Thunder Movie Poster Robert Downey Jr.