A smart-alecky sendup of Hollywood in general and action films in particular, “Tropic Thunder” undeniably provokes quite a few laughs, but of the most hollow kind. Ben Stiller’s star-laden farce makes every effort to be outrageous as it pokes knowing fun at a troupe of spoiled, self-centered actors who get more than they bargained for making a “Rambo”-like rescue drama in Southeast Asia. Apart from startling, out-there comic turns by Robert Downey Jr. and Tom Cruise, however, the antics here are pretty thin, redundant and one-note. But that note will strike a chord with a substantial, comic heat-seeking audience, particularly of the fanboy and combat-ready stripes, making for hefty late-summer biz.
Seven years after his most recent directorial effort, “Zoolander,” Stiller, who penned the script with Justin Theroux and Etan Cohen, is working on a bigger canvas this time, but to similar effect as in his fashion-world satire; once again, he goofs on a familiar creative milieu in intermittently inspired but obvious ways while himself playing a one-time superstar whose career is on the wane.
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Nutty tone is instantly set by four faux trailers that intro the stars of the forthcoming Vietnam epic. Along with Stiller’s Tugg Speedman, whose “Scorcher” action franchise has run its course, there are fart-comedy king Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black), serious-aspiring hip-hop star Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson) and Downey’s Kirk Lazarus, an Oscar-enshrined Australian actor. The mock teaser for Lazarus’ latest, a tale of illicit gay love between two Middle Ages priests (the other cameoed by Tobey Maguire), is hilariously marked by meaningful stares and exaggerated foreboding.
Once in the field, the film-within-the-film “Tropic Thunder” doesn’t go well. After getting reamed by industry uber-tycoon Lee Grossman (Cruise) for not having the cameras rolling on a multimillion-dollar explosion, the film’s crazed Brit director (Steve Coogan, in predictably manic form) decides the only thing to do is to take the leads — who also include bespectacled newcomer Kevin Sandusky (Jay Baruchel) — deep into the jungle without crew, assistants or cell phones and make them endure a trial by fire in the cause of heightened cinematic realism.
The surprise, which isn’t much of one, is that the hunters become the hunted after being attacked by drug-dealing guerrillas who use real ammo.
Not unlike the pampered, out-of-touch celebrities at the center of the action, the film itself suffers from a lack of grounding. Wacked-out comedy with nutjob characters can certainly operate with artificial logic of its own, but “Tropic Thunder,” which is rooted to recognizable, real-world points of reference, is undermined by innumerable small details that don’t feel right. Would a film like this have a middle-aged first-time director? Can anyone buy that surveillance cameras positioned around the jungle will yield a showable movie? Five Oscars already for fortyish Lazarus?
It’s actually the larger absurdities that yield real comic dividends. First and foremost, Lazarus is a white actor so devoted to his art that he undergoes a pigment dye job to play a black soldier. This potentially risible stunt is put in relief by having the humorously named Alpa Chino, played by an actual black thesp, Jackson, ride Lazarus mercilessly about having usurped a role that should have gone to another brother. Whatever political spin people will want to put on it, the audacity of Downey’s performance reps the best reason to see the film. Always a brilliant mimic and quicksilver vocalist, Downey dons matted hair, beard, ghetto-spiked rasp and nearly Olivier-as-Othello makeup to play a grandly self-confident thesp who will take no crap from anyone about his impersonation.
Although nowhere near as sustained or inflected, Cruise’s extended cameo as a Hollywood Satan is the other highlight. Looking uglier than one could ever have imagined possible, Cruise has been transformed into a bald-pated, hirsute, porcine, sulfur-mouthed terrorizer who rules the roost from a high-tech bunker. At any greater length, the characterization would have to be deepened or it would become tiresome, but Cruise gives it an unexpected spin that makes this a wonderful match with his ferocious supporting turn in “Magnolia.”
Beyond these, the performances aren’t anything to write home about. As in “Zoolander,” Stiller, under his own direction, is mostly about facial and bodily posing, the blond-tressed Black’s hyperventilating act as a drug-crazed comic wears out its welcome almost before it begins, Jackson is just OK as the rapper looking for a new career dimension, and Baruchel recedes into the background as things grind on. Nick Nolte is perfect casting for the grizzled, truculent author of the autobiographical book that inspires the film, although how this character evolves proves unsatisfying. Matthew McConaughey aces the supporting role of Speedman’s slick but besieged agent.
One of the film’s other casting coups is Brandon Soo Hoo, a diminutive 12-year-old who portrays the fierce, cigar-chomping commander of the heroin-producing Flaming Dragon rebels. Probably the most politically incorrect detail of the film is that Speedman is renowned among these remote natives, not for his action pics, but for “Simple Jack,” an embarrassing bid for Oscar glory in which he played a retarded man. Thesp’s captors force him to re-enact the role as live-evening entertainment, and Lazarus’ learned recitation of famous actors who played “retards” reps a comic high point.
Although gussied up visually to the fullest extent of ace lenser John Toll’s ability, Stiller’s direction remains prosaic. Action is sparked by no end of gunfire, explosions, violent action, verbal eruptions and visual grossouts, which keep the film bouncing along even as the characters and story become no more dimensional than they were at the outset. Tech credits are fine, although some musical choices are overly familiar.