Tropic Thunder (2008) *

Rated: R
Runtime: 1hr 47min
Director: Ben Stiller
Stars: Ben Stiller, Jack Black, Robert Downey Jr.
Genre: Comedy
Language: English

A Reality Show on Steroids

In a Nutshell


Straight as an Arrow

Sound Quality

Easy to Hear

Who's That?

Few Main Characters

Naughty Words


Naked people




Tropic Thunder is a highly touted movie-within-a-movie about the Vietnam War. On location in the Southeast Asian jungle, unable to wrest credible performances from his mediocre cast, the desperate director (Steve Coogan) hatches a scheme with a gnarly old vet (Nick Nolte) to abandon the actors in an area infested with drug smugglers and film the resulting “reality show”.   Death and chaos ensue, but not high comedy.

Tugg Speedman (Ben Stiller), a self-proclaimed method film star with a pious and puerile approach to his craft, badly needs a hit movie.  His last flick will surely be bypassed for the gold statue, as fellow-actor Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr.) warns between takes for Tropic Thunder.  Kirk says Tugg’s portrayal of a mentally challenged youth in a psychological tearjerker was not P.C. Not that he demeaned the disabled; unlike Oscar-winner Tom Hanks who endowed Forrest Gump with a magical twist of genius, Tugg drooled too much, went too method, too far.

“You can’t go full retard.“  Kirk bestows a professionally condescending smile.

Kirk is right.  Tropic Thunder is full retard.

Stiller, Justin Theroux and Etan Cohen, who teamed up to write an insider’s spoof of the industry, reach for their audience with unrelenting cheap tricks, and lose at least some of us.   It is difficult to imagine a more mind-numbing display of tasteless excess in the service of so few genuinely funny moments.  This criticism is not prompted by prudishness.  Mel Brooks can fling racial and ethnic slurs to the western blue skies, parade frivolous fascism, and wring hilarity from geriatric predation without going out of bounds.   You squirm as you laugh, but don’t hate yourself for it because Brooks never loses a core of intelligence and humanity.  Even his well-endowed Frankenstein evokes more empathy than the one-joke, one-dimensional characters of Tropic Thunder.

Not that they are badly performed.  Much has been made of Downey’s sleight of personality:  an American playing an Australian playing an African-American (in blackface).   Pretty stunning, especially in the “big reveal” when he strips off the wig, the mask, and the contact lenses to emerge like a moth from a cocoon.  This truly interesting and comic moment happens so fast, however, it is lost in the sea of blood and guts, firepower and flatulence that overpowers Tropic Thunder.

Much has been made of Tom Cruise as the archetypical studio exec, Les Grossman.  What fun he has!  He toys sadistically with his flunky (also well-played by Bill Hader), nails anyone who disagrees with him to the wall, and gratifies himself by undulating to rap music — all the right moves in the wrong body.   It’s not Cruise’s body, or hands, or face, or bald pate.  But, once you figure that out and quit wondering what happened to the bold chin of a patriot born on the 4th of July, the joke’s over and has no place to go.   Tropic Thunder is, of course, meant to satirize great war epics and the Hollywood machine that grinds them out.  The makers of this movie (it does not qualify as “film”) have the target well in sight, but they don’t comprehend the weaponry required to take it out.  Shock and awe.  That’s the strategy here, and Tropic Thunder offers ample demonstration it doesn’t work.

Whatever happened to subtlety, to real slapstick?  How has the delicious fun of destruction modeled by Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Peter Sellers, even Harrison Ford degenerated into a conflagration of blood-squirting heads and flowing intestines that require the efforts of half a dozen visual effects companies and cost as much as $150 million to produce?   How did the humble whoopee cushion morph into a nearly two-hour celebration of the fart?  Jack Black, as Jeff Portnoy, bears a terrible burden here.  There has always been low humor, bathroom humor, gross-out comedy — and there always will be an audience for it.  Art it’s not, and Tropic Thunder is not much fun either.

Lynn McCann's checkered professional life began with dance and has included singing and acting, writing and journalism, teaching and tutoring. A long career as a computer programmer is mercifully behind her and she looks forward to publishing a memoir, a biography, and a popular history of automation technology. She continues to perform as a singer, and leads New York City tours for Elderhostel.


Sam said on August 22, 2008


This is the only review I have read so far of Tropic Thunder but I suspected that it was not a good movie and won’t see it. Thank you for saving me the admission price.

Mike said on October 15, 2008


Sam, if you believe this reviewer you are truly missing a good one. This movie had my son and I rolling in laughter. Once you realize it is Tom Cruise in the movie, it makes it even funnier. Lynn McCann should stay in the past and review old movies. This one apparently was too over-the-top for her, but it was truly one of the funniest movies I’ve seen all year, and one that I will definitely purchase on DVD.

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