TROPIC THUNDER is the kind of film that feels like a revelation on the first viewing. It’s so different and unique, and that makes the humor feel all the more edgy. But even though the premise and humor still hold up well, it loses a lot of its magic when revisited. The flaws are more readily apparent, and the cracks really start to show. TROPIC THUNDER is certainly a fun, and funny, film – with an all-star cast, too – but it’s far from perfect.
TROPIC THUNDER tells the story of a group of egotistical actors making a Vietnam War film. Already behind schedule and over budget, the director decides that the best way to get filming back on track is to drop the actors off in the middle of the jungle to film the rest of the movie “guerrilla-style”. However, the actors and crew are unaware that they have been dropped into the territory of the Flaming Dragon gang, which is notorious for its heroin production.
The film establishes all of its major characters at the very start of the film, with a series of fake commercials and film trailers. It’s a remarkably simple way to introduce the characters. Tugg Speedman (Ben Stiller) is the action star struggling with his dwindling popularity, Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr.) is the serious method actor who alters his skin pigmentation to play an African-American, Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black) is the drug-addicted actor that stars in toilet humor films, Kevin Sandusky (Jay Baruchel) is the newbie actor, and Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson) is the closeted gay rapper that is trying to become an actor. In supporting roles, the film has a group of talented actors that include Danny McBride, Nick Nolte, Matthew McConaughey, and Tom Cruise.
The film has quite an eclectic cast, and it’s unfortunate that TROPIC THUNDER is so stuffed that most of these characters never get much of a chance to shine. The film primarily focuses on the relationship between Tugg Speedman and Kirk Lazarus. While that’s an understandable choice, it also means that the other main characters are shafted with less interesting subplots. Jack Black is wasted as Jeff Portnoy, who spends the film suffering through his drug addiction – and while this leads to a few laugh-out-loud moments early in the film, it ultimately fizzles out and feels like a wasted plot point. Similarly, Alpa Chino suffers from a total lack of screen time – despite being one of the most interesting characters in the film. As the only actual African-American actor in the film, his interactions with Kirk Lazarus (a white man playing a black man) come very late in the film. In addition, Alpa Chino is revealed to be a closeted homosexual – which deeply clashes with his rapper persona. But the film doesn’t dive any deeper into that, instead using it to payoff a sight gag later in the film. Jay Baruchel plays Kevin Sandusky, the straight man of the group, with as much charisma as a piece of plywood.
The most memorable moments of TROPIC THUNDER involve Tom Cruise’s portrayal of foul-mouthed studio head Les Grossman. Cruise is at his most intense in these scenes, screaming torrents of obscenities that are undeniably funny. In a film where most actors struggle to give their characters enough nuance and character, Tom Cruise exudes a complex and fully realized character in Les Grossman’s very first appearance.
Ben Stiller directed TROPIC THUNDER, and he clearly has a good eye for action. When the film lets loose with explosions and gunfire, it works in the confines of the film. The film trades its jokes for action sequences in the final act of the film (which is a common occurrence in action comedies), but the action is never bad. Sure, it may defy belief at some points – but this is a comedy. The laughs, thankfully, are considered more important than adherence to realism.
There’s a manic charm to TROPIC THUNDER. It’s a film that garnered an Academy Award nomination for Robert Downey Jr. (Best Supporting Actor nomination, 2009), and it’s also a film that tries to push the boundaries of humor. There’s a real edginess to the humor, but that edge is tempered by a wide variety of jokes and the earnest delivery of the actors. TROPIC THUNDER does suffer from tonal issues and a cast that is too large to fully utilize. The film’s biggest flaw is that it tries to appeal to a wide variety of audience members. It’s an ambitious film with flaws, and it’s a fun experience.