TROPIC THUNDER revolves around a group of actors who are in the midst of shooting the most expensive Vietnam War film ever attempted. Stiller is Tugg Speedman, a has-been action star whose last film completely flopped at the box office. Robert Downey Jr. is Kirk Lazarus, an Australian method actor with four Best Actor Oscars and a massive ego: in order to play the film's black platoon commander, Lazarus undergoes irreversible skin pigmentation surgery. And not only does he change the color of his skin and adopt a grizzled, jive-influenced way of speech, he hilariously states that he won't drop character until he "completes the DVD audio commentary." Jack Black is a drug-addled comedian named Jeff Portnoy who has made a mint dressing up in fat suits and appearing in NUTTY PROFESSOR-type comedies. Younger actors Jay Baruchel (KNOCKED UP), as a nerdy up-and-comer, and Brandon T. Jackson, as a rapper-turned actor named Alpa Chino, round out the squad of soldiers. Nick Nolte is the weary Vietnam vet, Tayback, who wrote the book that's serving as TROPIC THUNDER's inspiration; he's also around as technical advisor. The film's director, Damien Cockburn (the wild-eyed British comic Steve Coogan), watches nervously as his magnum opus spins out of control. Tayback suggests they take the pansy-ass actors out of their comfort zone of catered food and trailer-lodgings and drop them off in the middle of the jungle without any connection to the outside world. They will rig up the jungle with explosions and hidden cameras and shoot the film guerilla style. What they don't know is that the jungle is also home to a vicious group of Asian drug smugglers who don't take kindly to Americans dressed up as soldiers. The actors, being the numb-nuts that they all are, never realize that they're in mortal danger; to them, it's all a part of making the film.
This is Stiller's largest film to date, and he's aided hugely by the phenomenal camera talents of master cinematographer John Toll (THE THIN RED LINE, BRAVEHEART), who shoots the film as he would one of his normal, big-budget epics, which helps make the movie-within-a-movie feel all the more real and substantial. A few cameo appearances are thrown in for excellent measure, with Matthey McConaguhey as a slippery yet good-hearted agent, and a bearded, fat-suit wearing Tom Cruise as a repellent studio chief. All of the stars, Downey Jr. in particular, ace their roles. Black hasn’t been this funny in years, and while Stiller’s Speedman character is more or less brothers with Derek Zoolander, Stiller doesn’t go completely over-the-top, which was nice. The graphic war-movie violence is both shocking and funny at the same time, and the core ideas that TROPIC THUNDER shares about the rigors of filmmaking and the inflated self-seriousness of A-list actors is refreshing and biting. One of the film's more controversial running jokes is that Speedman tried courting Oscar by playing a handicapped simpleton in a major box office bomb called SIMPLE JACK. In one of the film's many laugh-out-loud scenes, Lazarus explains to Speedman that you "never win when you go full retard." A list of real life performances are rattled off by Lazraus that either won or lost the Oscar based on how handicapped the actor was in the role. This is as politically incorrect as a $100 million action-comedy is going to get these days. Four letter words run rampant, racial stereotyping is constant, homoerotic jokes are the norm, and drugs are discussed and desired. But the biggest surprise to me was how caustic and nasty the film was when it came to depicting the inner workings of Hollywood. Cruise, who it must be said, steals the entire film whenever he's on screen, playing an over-bearing, mean-spirited studio honcho with such vulgar gusto that I can only imagine what the suits at Dreamworks/Paramount thought when they saw the rough cut. But, all that matters at the end of the day in Tinsletown is whether or not studio product makes a profit. The joke's not only on the audience, but on the filmmakers, critics, and actors who all subscribe to the vagaries of Hollywood culture.