Ben Stiller, director-producer-star of Tropic Thunder, makes the intentions of the film clear. A biting satire that pokes fun at how seriously Hollywood takes itself, this is almost a reprisal of his work on 2001’s Zoolander.
A cast of self-absorbed actors playing soldiers in the Vietnam War are thrown on an island in Southeast Asia to film the movie “guerrilla style”. However, reel life starts to clash with real life when they wind up making enemies with a ring of heroin producers who mistake them for real soldiers. But Stiller does not rely on the plot to milk his laughs. Each character represents a different type of celebrity.
Stiller is Tugg Speedman, a dim-witted, brawny action star whose A-list status is on the rocks. Jack Black is relegated to a rather forgettable role as drug-addled comic, Jeff Portnoy and Robert Downey Jr, whom you will remember from this year’s Iron Man, proves he can still surprise, with his turn as a serious method actor who goes to the extent of skin pigmentation surgery to take on his role as a black sergeant.
Tropic Thunder is politically incorrect and subversive in humour, and its gore is comedic. But the running gags go slightly stale halfway through the movie, and two of the three top-billed stars, Stiller and Black, give passable performances at best.
Enter Tropic Thunder‘s greatest strength: its supporting characters. Matthew McConaughey shines as Speedman’s fast-talking agent, Jay Baruchel is the new, enthusiastic actor on the block and seems to be the only one to have read the script. Tom Cruise does a fantastic cameo, barely recognizable as tyrannical studio executive Les Grossman, complete with balding head, paunch and a mouthful of obscenities.
Tropic Thunder is in essence, a big-budget action flick making fun of big-budget action flicks. It voices out common but generally unspoken opinions about Tinseltown (look out for a scene where Downey Jr delivers a hilarious monologue on actors playing mentally disabled characters for a shot at an Oscar) and is peppered with in-jokes and pop culture references. Even if you do not get all of them, that’s what Stiller’s brand of potshot humour does: It entertains you anyway.