Written by Stiller with Justin Theroux and Etan Cohen (not to be confused with Coen Brother Ethan), Tropic Thunder is the story of the making of a Vietnam War flick in the tradition of The Deer Hunter, Apocalypse Now and Platoon, each of which receives a visual nod. The film's beginning is a hoot. Coming straight out of real trailers for forthcoming movies, Tropic Thunder delivers a series of faux trailers promoting faux films " so be alert. What you get is not what you are going to get.
Once the film proper is underway, we are launched into the travails of making a movie on location with a cast of incompatible players. Tugg Speedman (Stiller) is an action star who has made some of the industry's most profitable motion pictures, including six installments with the same character. Think Sylvester Stallone, a reference that Stiller has enhanced by showing up with impressively bulging biceps. Speedman hasn't had any luck with other roles, however, and his star is fading. Opposite him is five-time Oscar winner Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr. in a terrifically executed comic performance), an Australian who is notorious for his preparation and in-character focus. Think Russell Crowe without the snarl. The supporting players include drug-afflicted, fart-comedy specialist Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black). Think Martin Lawrence or for that matter, Jack Black. The rookie director, Damien Cockburn (Steve Coogan), is a blithering idiot who is in completely over his head. Think countless film school graduates. And producer Les Grossman is a raging tyrant played by an almost unrecognizable Tom Cruise. Think Jeffrey Katzenberg.
The story the film sets out to tell is an ostensibly true account of a daring rescue raid on a North Vietnamese POW camp. It is based on a book by 'Four Leaf" Tayback (Nick Nolte), one of the POW escapees who lost both hands in the gun battle. Tayback is gruff and grizzled, and he convinces Cockburn that the film can only achieve proper authenticity if the actors are taken into the bush and made to act like real soldiers. Think Oliver Stone cross-fertilized with John Milius.
The twist in Tropic Thunder arrives when Speedman, Lazarus, Portnoy and crew stumble into the midst of a huge heroin production operation conducted by AK-47-toting Asians who make the Viet Cong look like members of the Kiwanis Club. For a long stretch the actors are dodging live ammunition and fighting back with blanks while presuming that Cockburn is just being edgy with his special effects. Think they have another think coming.
Reminiscent of Francis Ford Coppola's excesses in the Philippine jungle while filming Apocalypse Now, Cockburn miscommunicates with his pyrotechnician and manages to blow up $4 million worth of banana plants without turning on a camera to capture the blaze. This is relatively funny. Better are a couple of exchanges on acting technique that Lazarus has with Speedman. Better yet is Lazarus' sparky relationship with fellow grunt Alpha Cino (Brandon T. Jackson). Cino really is African-American; Lazarus is only playing one. But because Lazarus acts the way he acts " he's had his skin dyed " he can't even admit that he's not actually black. Funniest of all are Grossman's lewd and venomous rants. Cruise's no-holds-barred performance suggests that Hollywood moneymen are evil incarnate, and his Satanic tirades provide the film its only really hilarious moments.
In sum, Tropic Thunder is a mixed bag, even a tad disappointing. It's too much of a collection of inside references. It has none of the giddy sweetness of Bowfinger and none of the genuine seriousness of The Player. It also is so needlessly gross that I left the theater wondering if Stiller possesses surveys showing that you have to be truly offensive to attract certain demographics. In the end, I'm not sorry to have seen the film, but I hardly deem it essential viewing.