Summer Blockbuster Friday #11: ‘Tropic Thunder (2008)’- Throwback Review

Do you happen to know what was ruling everybody in the year 2008? R-rated comedies aimed towards adults. When you take a look back at what came out that year, there’s a few that stood out by being the best at making you laugh. Did I see all of them in theaters? I saw a select few that I still like today, but one of them that wasn’t terrible in the slightest came from writer-director-producer-star Ben Stiller- directed action-comedy Tropic Thunder, where this was going to slap Hollywood at the back of the head when it comes to making movies with difficulties.

What’s the Story: While shooting this expensive war film called “Tropic Thunder,” rookie director Damien Cockburn (Steve Coogan) attempts to liven up proceedings by dropping the principle actors into the middle of a real jungle in Vietnam after claiming he will capture their performance with hidden cameras. The hapless group including washed-out action star Tugg Speedman (Ben Stiller), drug-addicted comedian Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black), and five-time Academy Award-winning Australian actor Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr.) are completely unaware when a series of unfortunate events leads them into the middle of a real war zone with a heroin cartel, the Flaming Dragons.

Robert Downey Jr., Ben Stiller, Jay Baruchel, Jack Black, and Brandon T. Jackson in Tropic Thunder (2008)

Out of the movies that came out during the summer of 2008, Tropic Thunder was the one I regretted the very most not seeing in theaters. Something was very wrong with me between the ages of 11-12 when I decided to see crap-bombs that I originally liked instead of seeing actual good movies people liked, despite hearing good things about them. For some reason, I didn’t think the trailers looked that funny when I thought it would be a spoof of the popular war movies that would be a waste of time. And though I like Ben Stiller, his track record as a director was considered spotty for three films he directed previously: Reality Bites (1994), The Cable Guy (1996), and Zoolander (2001), the latter being his funniest at that point. With Tropic Thunder, this is his best-directed comedy yet, making it the second funniest and smartest comedy of 2008 behind Forgetting Sarah Marshall.

As a director, Stiller went out of his way of making this feel like a satire of Hollywood making war films on a big scope, like The Deer Hunter, Platoon, or Apocalypse Now, that might not go the way as expected in capturing the influence of them. But this was done in a fashion that was meant to be funny instead of having the story turn into something depressing. It’s a beautiful-looking film thanks to cinematographer John Toll (Braveheart, Legends of the Fall) since a large majority takes place in the jungle, and I thought he handled the action sequences well, especially the opening battle scene where it looked like I was actually watching a real-life war movie. And this wasn’t your moderate budget for a comedy, as it cost $92 million to make. 

He, along with the script written by him, Justin Theroux, and Etan Cohen, has a narrative almost similar to Galaxy Quest or Three Amigos where these actors have no idea that everything in their surroundings is real and not to be fake, but it also happens to be a clever take of how serious celebrities are willing to go to win an Oscar with their big egos and all. This is their attempt at making fun of Hollywood without being in your face about the whole thing. This team thinks it’s all part of the act, at the beginning, especially Tugg, but then turns serious and has to get out of this mess. In order to survive, they have to become actual soldiers, not just play them. You’re never bored when you’re tagged along with these characters.

Robert Downey Jr. and Ben Stiller in Tropic Thunder (2008)

The performances are really the standouts, and that’s always an aspect of a comedy that needs to work. Stiller as the Stallone- type action star Tugg Speedman gives one of his best performances in a long time as this action star who really needs this movie to be a big hit after his recent releases hasn’t hit it big. He’s a comedic actor I don’t understand the hate for, even though he doesn’t have a huge range, but he definitely brought it when he’s in front of and behind the camera. 

But who was the funniest star who outshined everybody, you may ask? Well, that title goes to Robert Downey Jr., who was brilliant throughout. 2008 was the biggest comeback year for any actor in the world since he came swingin’ with his performance early that summer with Iron Man and followed it up with one of the best comedic roles of the decade of Kirk Lazarus/ platoon leader Sgt. Lincoln Osiris. He was a fresh face for me since I wasn’t familiar with him before, but every line of dialogue he spoke killed me. Did I believe him as “a Dude playin’ a dude, disguised as another dude?” Absolutely, he disappeared into a fictional actor who’s like Russell Crowe and Daniel Day-Lewis rolled into one who takes his roles seriously for a character to a point where I forgot I was watching an actor.

Even now, a lot of people still don’t understand the reasoning for the actor’s usage of “blackface,” and it’s proving a point that actors will go through certain lengths when it comes to method acting, and he had to remain in character for almost the entire film. That’s not to say every person who has done it should give it a pass, whether it’s on film or television because that’s a lesson everybody needs to know by now when a writer puts it in for comedic effect. It was a major risk for him to take on this part. They even mention how controversial the pigmentation-alteration procedure was for Kirk to undergo something like that to play a role while also speaking in Black English. Because of his performance, he earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor, which is so rare for a summer comedy, or any comedy nowadays.

Robert Downey Jr. and Ben Stiller in Tropic Thunder (2008)

Jack Black as the Eddie Murphy-type comedian Jeff “Fats” Portnoy was good, but I honestly consider him to be the weakest out of the main three because most of the runtime was just him needing some drugs before he loses his mind. Not as funny as I remember it here. The rest of the supporting cast was excellent in their own right too, including Nick Nolte as “Four Leaf” Tayback, the author of the book the movie was based on; Jay Baruchel as Kevin Sandusky, the aspiring actor who’s the only one who went to boot camp and read the script for the movie; Brandon T. Jackson, in the one movie I liked him in, as the rapper turned actor Alpa Chino; Danny McBride as Cody, the explosives expert who almost blinded Jamie Lee Curtis on Freaky Friday, and even Matthew McConaughey in a comedic role that was fun to watch as Speedman’s best friend/ manager Rick Peck.

But what was the biggest surprise nobody saw coming when watching this? The answer is the unrecognizable performance of the legend Tom Cruise as the bald, ill-tempered studio executive, Les Grossman. This role proves he can be outrageously funny and why we more of him in comedies. When I watched this months later when I rented it from Blockbuster (R.I.P.), I did not know he would be in this. The fact he wanted to play this character and wanted to have fat hands and dance to hip-hop, it was the only way he can succeed in playing this character. That’s why I was angry at myself for not seeing it in theaters because I wanted to be in the audience when Cruise’s name was revealed in the end credits and be like, “Holy crap!” Les Grossman is one character of Cruise I’m still waiting to see a spin-off movie from; it’s been talked about for a decade now and still nothing. We saw a glimpse during his appearance 2010 MTV Movie Awards, but that wasn’t enough.

Tom Cruise and Matthew McConaughey in Tropic Thunder (2008)

Did I mention it was hilarious? Because it was. And nearly everybody has a funny moment of their own. I didn’t know what my expectations were since I couldn’t recall if I laughed when watching the trailers back before it came out, but since I haven’t watched it in a long time, I was busting out laughing frequently due to how absurd these jokes were set up and how well they were executed. The laughs flew right out of the gate at the very beginning with those fake and absurd trailers that made it look like they were from actual movies, introducing the characters. These would be the type of movies people would go out and see without realizing how dumb they might be. It can become silly towards the end, but it didn’t matter when you’re always excited to see what happens next.

There has been some controversy attached to the film, primarily with the fake character of “Simple Jack” and how it was criticized for how it was depicting someone with a mental disability. I won’t lie. Those moments were the only times that didn’t make me laugh since I’ve never been fond of performances where they hammer that point in, or whenever a story calls to the usage of the “R-word.” I get they’re making fun of actors who take on these roles to receive any Oscar nomination, but there’s a fine line between believability or straight-up offensive. I mean, if “Simple Jack” was a real movie, it would also be labeled as one of the worst movies ever made. Other than that, the running joke with TiVo just feels dated now since I don’t know anybody who still has it.

A comedy is always the best when you didn’t expect much out of them when hearing about the premise. That was the case with this unforgettable movie that had people talking about it for the rest of the summer, and it was the last good movie around the time. The film was well-received by critics and did well at the box office as it knocked off The Dark Knight for the number one spot after its fifth weekend and stayed at the top for three weeks straight. Would this still work today if it came out? I don’t think so since there are offensive jokes that might not work with some as opposed to 12 years ago, but it depends on someone’s sense of humor.

Tropic Thunder is a great fast-paced action-comedy if you haven’t watched this before. The performances (Stiller, Downey, Jr., Cruise) were great, the action was well-handled, and it was just a solid satire on the war/action genre that doesn’t need to take itself seriously to still have a fun time with how to make a parody the right way. Out of the comedies that stumbled upon the entertainment industry a decade ago, this is certainly one of the funniest to come out in a while. This is made for those who have the adrenaline for a combination of laughs and cool explosions. A great movie that’s worth your attention.

Grade: A-

Tropic Thunder Movie Poster

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