‘Tropic Thunder’ review

Courtesy Paramount Pictures
Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson), Tugg Speedman (Ben Stiller) and Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr.) prepare to shoot in “Tropic Thunder.”

From the opening trailers to the end credits, you won’t be prepared for “Tropic Thunder,” the film that’s finally taken down April’s “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” as the funniest comedy of the year. [2012 Flash Forward: Interesting call as I’ve watched “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” about seven times to the three additional viewings so far of “Tropic Thunder.]

Action star Tugg Speedman (Ben Stiller, “The Heartbreak Kid”), comedy hit maker Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black, “Be Kind Rewind”), Oscar winner Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr., “Iron Man”), aspiring actor Kevin Sandusky (Jay Baruchel, “She’s Out of My League”) and rapper Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson) [2012 Flash Forward: Alpa Chino’s name perfectly satirizes the creative, yet unimaginative rapper handles, which has only gotten worse since 2008. Now, Alpa’s name would be A-drizzy] join forces to star in a Vietnam movie based on a true story.

But when the cameras aren’t rolling, the high maintenance foursome prove increasingly more difficult for the director Damien Cockburn (not exactly the most subtle of names, no?) played by Steve Coogan (“Hot Fuzz”).

Courtesy Paramount Pictures
Tugg Speedman (Ben Stiller) leads Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr.) and Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black) in the jungle.

Hoping to turn his spoiled stars into real action heroes, Cockburn takes the advice of film consultant Four Leaf Tayback (Nick Nolte, “Over the Hedge”) and sends them to a remote jungle where he hopes to capture their real emotions without any of the comforts of home. But Cockburn and Tayback don’t take into account that they’ve led their stars to a genuinely hostile environment – one in which will cost them their lives – if they don’t realize that this time the action is for real.

It’s amazing that no one thought of the concept before. Not in a parody spoof fashion such as “Hot Shots,” but slightly smarter, playing up on America’s fascination with its celebrities and action movies. [2012 Flash Forward: And most especially reality shows that take you “behind the scenes” for a real glimpse of life]. For a comedy, it strikes the perfect balance of keeping you laughing while providing a smart social commentary on what we consider entertainment.

Stiller, and fellow co-writers Justin Theroux and Etan Cohen not only get you engaged with the principal actors – Tugg wants to be a serious actor, Portnoy has to deal with his drug habit and Kirk is losing his own identities  in his characters – but also work in some hilarious cameos from some of Hollywood’s brightest and best.

With the possible exception of Heath Ledger’s career defining performance in “The Dark Knight,” no actor has had a hotter 2008 than Downey Jr. [2012 Flash Forward: It’s amazing to remember it was just six years ago when Downey was considered on the downside of his career and appearing as a regular on “Ally McBeal.”]

Courtesy Paramount Pictures
Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr.) tends to a wounded Tugg Speedman (Ben Stiller).

Starring in a $300 million plus grossing summer film like “Iron Man” would be the sole highlight for many an actor, but if possible, Downey gives an even more entertaining performance in “Thunder.” [2012 Flash Forward: The Academy Awards thought so too as he was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor for this performance. I’m curious how he would have fared in any other year that didn’t have Ledger’s awesome turn as the Joker.]

Downey was a great choice for the role because, like his character, he is a chameleon actor – able to blend into whatever persona his movie calls for and delivers exactly what is necessary.

Kirk’s decision to make his character a black man complete with dark makeup would have been more than a tad controversial if not for  Chino continually calling Kirk out for trying to act “black.”Tropic Thunder cast - Robert Downey Jr., Ben Stiller, Jack Black, Jay Barachuel

While Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson won’t be leading “Thunder” boycotts, the film has garnered a significant backlash from mental disability advocates over its portrayal of mental retardation. It’s a totally valid complaint. One of the more memorable scenes occurs when Kirk advises Tugg never to go “full retard” in acting. It’s oh-so un-PC but you’ll likely be too busy laughing to care. [2012 Flash Forward: Now the PC police attack movies because of an off-hand line about an evil stepbrother being adopted…]

Tom Cruise provides the other standout performance as Les Grossman, a balding movie company head with Popeye arms, hairy chest and a penchant for dancing to hip hop songs. The sight of Cruise getting down to Ludacris is totally worth the price of admission all by itself. [2012 Flash Forward: Still the first thing that comes to mind when thinking of this movie.]Tom Cruise as Les Grossman with Matthew McCoughnahey in Tropic Thunder

“Tropic Thunder” perfectly parodies the “kill everything in sight and then blow it up for good measure” summer movie mentality. It’s a hilarious laugh riot that will have you cracking up thinking about it days afterward – the mark of a great comedy. [2012 Flash Forward: And it’s still just as funny now as it was then.]

“Tropic Thunder” is currently available on DVD and Blu-Ray.

Rating: 8 out of 10

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