Reel Society

Reviews for the latest movies in theaters and on DVD.

Tropic Thunder

Review by Patrick Hodges

Why didn’t I enjoy this movie?

One of the main characters in Pixar’s Ratatouille, a world-class chef, proffered the notion that “Anyone can cook.”  Which is certainly true, as is the notion that “anyone can write a review.”  But I’ll let you in on a little secret; the words flow a lot more freely when the film in question elicits a strong emotional response.  Love for a film is usually easy to translate, hate even more so.  But indifference and/or apathy?  That’s a different kettle of fish altogether.  Having already heard several friends extol Tropic Thunder’s incredible virtues as a satire and a comedy going in, I wasn’t sure what effect this film would have on me.  Bottom line:  it didn’t have much of one, and I’ve spent the last 24 hours trying to discern why.

Was it the genre?  That’s possible, because Tropic Thunder fits into a lot of them: comedy, drama, action movie, war movie, spoof.  It started out brilliantly: we are introduced to four of the principal “actors” through a series of commercials and trailers before the meat of the film even starts:  Tugg Speedman (Ben Stiller) as an action star who, for whatever reason, has decided to play off of an obvious mega-success with no less than FIVE pointless sequels; Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black) as a gross-out comedian who seems to have built an entire career around flatulence; Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr.), a seriously SERIOUS actor who has won five Oscars and is going for more; and Alpa Chino (no, really), a rapper plugging his latest merchandise, going way overboard trying to show how heterosexual he is, if you catch my drift.

Was it the plot?  We go from the faux trailers to the actual shooting of the film-within-the-film (also called Tropic Thunder) in southeast Asia.  The exasperated director (Steve Coogan), frustrated with the cast’s whining, the incompetent effects guy, and the fact that he’s about to have the entire project scrapped if he doesn’t get moving, decides (at the behest of screenwriter Nick Nolte, a grizzled vet who wrote the story the film is based upon) to shoot the entire film guerilla-style.  The five main actors are dropped into the middle of nowhere to finish the film on their own, and it is at this point the film loses me.  The plot contrivances that follow are just too unbelievable to be appreciated, even IF the whole film is meant to be a satirical view of Hollywood, of actors, of the Oscars, and of the industry.

Was it the acting?  I will admit that I am not the biggest fan of Ben Stiller and Jack Black, and it’s probably a bad sign when I tell you that I find Robert Downey Jr., who is by far the best actor of the top billers, is also the funniest, given that he’s the only one of the three that wouldn’t necessarily be called a “comedian”.  He was terrific as Lazarus, the Aussie actor made up to look like the platoon’s African-American guy, and Tom Cruise was absolutely brilliant (in a minor role) as the most loathsome and ruthless studio executive on the face of the planet (which is even more brilliant, because everyone already hates him anyway, so why not)?  The rest of the cast was passable, but not spectacular.

So what was it?  I guess the reason Tropic Thunder didn’t work was because it tried to be too many things at once.  Satire tends to wear thin, to lose its edge, when it’s played out over an hour forty, and trying to manufacture comedy out of scenes that screamed for actual drama just made this whole experience fall flat.  That, plus the sheer unbelievability of it all.

Or maybe it’s just me.

2 / 5 stars


Review by Paul Edwards

With astounding turns by Robert Downey Jr. and few guest-star cameos, the Hollywood satire Tropic Thunder is hands down the best comedy of the summer. You might have seen the pictures circling in the web in the early summer, or heard about the recent call for a boycott by the Special Olympics and the American Association of People with Disabilities; well, now is the time to sit back and grab a seat and watch the self- publicizing movie that has everyone talking.

The basic plot outline is this: Tugg Speedman (Ben Stiller), a high-powered action movie star, takes on his most challenging role in Tropic Thunder (which is also the title of the film-within-the-film) in order to reclaim his fledging movie career after his latest bomb, Simple Jack. The comic actor, Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black) is looking for respect, joins the cast, as well as five-time Oscar-winning “method actor” Kirk Lazarus (Downey Jr.). Also present are rapper-turned-actor Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson) and little-known Kevin Sandusky (Jay Baruchel) in their quest to make the greatest war movie ever.  The laughs start before the real story even begins, as we are greeted with faux commercials and a number of hilarious “spoof” trailers that any film buff (or novice) can appreciate. Just remember to get to the theater earlier then usual so you don’t miss it!

Anyway, Tropic Thunder is a movie within a movie, and sometimes a play within a move within a movie, but all the same the laughs don’t stop from beginning to end, and they come from all directions. The jokes range from satire to conversational, discourse to zingers, situational to the characters’ utter lack of logic, and anything else you can think of. It’s a comedian’s opus. 

There are many great things in this movie and to highlight just one would not do it justice.  Most critics are buzzing about Downey’s performance (and rightly so), but I feel that I must draw particular attention to something else, and that is that way that Stiller pays homage to his fellow actors.   From lines like “I’ve been in more effects-driven event movies than you!” to having folks pretending to pee (it’s a subtle quirk but you’ll get it when you see it), everything was about the whiny, narcissistic, ego-driven performers we all know and love.  It’s ironic that in order to do this Stiller had to become a pretty big star himself, but it works. In Tropic Thunder, Stiller gives his best comedic performance since Anchorman.  I have found some new respect for the man.

I will say it again: this is the best comedy of the summer.  They touch on virtually every type of comedy that exists, a virtual smorgasbord of laughs for audiences of all ages (over 17, of course, this film IS rated R for a reason).  Get out and watch this movie for some great laughs from before the beginning to after the end.

5 / 5 stars



Review by Matthew Starr 

In 2007, the man of the year in the film world was definitely Josh Brolin. He came out of nowhere to score the lead role in No Country for Old Men and had strong performances in Grindhouse and American Gangster. The man of the year in 2008 has also come seemingly out of nowhere, although we have long known of his immense talent.  

In Tropic Thunder, Robert Downey Jr. steals the show as Australian actor Kirk Lazarus. The character is an multi-Academy-Award winning method actor who is clearly a takeoff of someone like Daniel Day-Lewis. In the film, Lazarus takes on the role of an African-American soldier who is cast in the movie Tropic Thunder (the film within the film). Downey’s performance is definitely one of the best I have seen this year.

This movie gets started right away, with some very amusing fake trailers introducing the actors that will be starring in this war movie. There is Tugg Speedman (Ben Stiller) the action star that made one hit film and has been riding its coattails ever since. Jeff “Fats” Portnoy (Jack Black) is a drug-addicted comedian whose work seems like a mix between Eddie Murphy and Tom Green. Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson) and Kevin Sandusky (Jay Baruchel) join these three to complete the “platoon”. 

The project begins to go awry for a myriad of reasons.  Speedman can’t act up to par in scenes with co-star Lazarus, and the head of the special effects/stunt team isn’t exactly the most competent crewmember.  The director of the film, Damien Cockburn (Steve Coogan) is receiving a lot of pressure from the producer to either get his act together or have the project cancelled.  Eventually, the film’s screenplay writer, (Nick Nolte, yes, you read right) convinces Cockburn to throw the crew into the wild and film it “guerilla style”.  

Tropic Thunder is a smart, well-acted comedy. I usually don’t enjoy over-the-top comedies, but this movie rises above its genre. Besides the outstanding work by Downey Jr. and his fellow cast members, the material is sharp.  What I love most about this story is how it pokes fun at the film industry (specifically method actors), divas and the importance placed on the Academy Awards. The screenplay was co-written by Ben Stiller and Justin Theroux, the latter of whom was recently hired by Marvel to script Iron Man 2.  
Comedies take many shapes and forms, and it is often difficult to grade over-the-top action comedies like this.  Films like Juno and Little Miss Sunshine are a lot easier to grade because of their plot and dramatic elements.  I personally consider Dumb and Dumber and Billy Madison to be two of my favorite comedies of all time, so by that standard they deserve the same A+ that films like No Country for Old Men receive. I feel a movie shouldn’t be at a disadvantage because of it’s genre in terms of analyzing it, and  Tropic Thunder is as good a comedy as you will see this year. 
4/5 stars

Review by Mark Lengieza

Now this is the comedy I’ve been waiting all year for.  Tropic Thunder succeeds on every level that it aims for.  It is a hilarious parody of the entertainment industry, complete with an all-star cast, stellar cameos and brilliant performances throughout.  It is by far the best comedy of the year so far.

I didn’t find a single down moment in the film.  From the opening fake trailers to the credits at the end, I was “ROFL”ing.  When I first heard the cast of the movie, I got excited.  When I saw the trailers, I got more excited.  Now that I have seen the finished product, it was better than I ever could have thought.

I’ll start with the performance of Hollywood’s recent golden boy, Robert Downey Jr.  Fresh off his brilliant portrayal in the Marvel blockbuster Iron Man, Downey tries his hand at comedy, and does not miss.  Never breaking his character’s “character”, that of an African-American Vietnam War Sergeant, he delivers some of the most hilarious lines I have heard in a long time.  He also plays off of co-star Brandon T. Jackson’s character, rapper/actor “Alpa Chino” so well that almost every conversation they have had me in stitches.

Ben Stiller is back in the type of role that made him famous, the over-the-top type of role that he does so well.  He portrays the film’s action hero, a Stallone-type actor whose career is headed downhill… fast.  He channels some of the great character’s he has played in the past and totally gets into his character, which is what I feel has been missing from some of his last couple of outings.  Also the film’s director, Stiller pulled off a very difficult feat in making a film like this as funny as it was, without letting it get too far into the realm of “ridiculosity” where it becomes just unwatchable.  Yeah, I just coined a term.  Remember, you heard it here first.

Jack Black plays the comedian (hey, what a stretch!) and he does well as the third top-biller here.  He doesn’t have to carry the role, which is a good thing, because he rarely succeeds when he needs to.  He falls back and lets Stiller and Downy Jr. take charge and run the film.  Along with Jackson, Nick Nolte and Danny McBride, he adds just that added element that puts this comedy over the edge. 

No review of this film would be complete without mentioning Tom Cruise.  Folks, in my opinion, this is Tom Cruise’s best… role… EVER.  He is so hilarious as the foul-mouthed studio executive from hell (literally, I think), I personally didn’t know he had it in him.  I was almost on the floor during one of his scenes I was laughing so hard.  I have never been a real big fan of Mr. Cruise, but wow, I never thought he could be that funny.

Go see Tropic Thunder if you are a fan of any of the actors, a fan of comedies, or just a fan of movies in general, as this will satisfy any of the above.  It’s the best comedy on the market right now and one of the best movies of the year.  I had high expectations, and it surpassed them.  Wanna laugh? Go see it now!

5 / 5 stars

Review by Andrew Roode

To give due credit, Tropic Thunder is reaches for the stars.  It tries to satirize as much of the movie business and the Vietnam-War-film genre as it can. There are high points, such as Robert Downey Jr.'s method actor Kirk Lazarus being so wedded to the character that he can't break free -- even when it has become clearly obvious that they are no longer filming a movie -- or Matthew McConaughey's super agent Rick Peck and his obsession with TiVo. I won't mention Tom Cruise's guest role as a foul-mouthed, iron-fisted dictatorial studio head other than to wonder loudly how things are going over at United Artists.

Why then did I feel so unsatisfied with the movie?  I liked it.  I enjoyed and laughed heartily through most of the jokes. It was as if the individual jokes were all greater than the sum -- a collection of funny punch lines that are a pastiche of laughs but not a satisfyingly funny routine. Part of it is the unwieldy blending of high-concept satire and lowbrow profanity-laced rants. Swearing can be used to high effect and it plays to perfection at times in Tropic Thunder. The best example (and my favorite line from the film) is from Robert Downey Jr. who, after being asked what kind of farm he works on, mows down the bad guys with his gun and declares that "I'm a lead farmer, mother--" well, you see where I'm going. Initially, Tom Cruise's profanity-ridden rants are funny too. But then you realize that there isn't anything else to the character. His character, Les Grossman, just throws tantrums and screams profanities, a paper-thin joke that works through audacity but wears out after the first rant. After a while the swearing starts to sound like a group of little kids who've just heard their first bad words and think it is funny to yell them over and over again.

On the other hand, I loved the performances. Jack Black's focused insanity was pointed in the right direction and he got a great part that he's well-suited to. Stiller manages to play Tugg Speedman with enough vulnerability that you can buy his need for the fictional movie to be a big hit. The scenes from his critical bomb Simple Jack are priceless, as are Downey's explanation of why Speedman would never have won an Oscar for it. Nick Nolte (good to see him again) has a strong supporting part, as does Steve Coogan as the overwhelmed first-time director. The picture is Downey's, though, and wherever Redd Foxx is, I think he would be proud. Scene-stealing, scenery-chewing and utterly priceless, Downey looks like he's enjoying every minute on screen. If you see Tropic Thunder for any reason, watching Robert Downey Jr. should be it.

3 ½ / 5 stars

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