Sunday, 4 March 2012

Tropic Thunder (2008)

Tropic Thunder is a 2008 American action satire comedy film written, produced, and directed by Ben Stiller, and starring Stiller, Robert Downey, Jr., and Jack Black. The main plot revolves around a group of prima donna actors who are making their fictional Vietnam War film. When their frustrated writer and director decide to drop them in the middle of a jungle, they are forced to rely on their acting skills in order to survive the real action and danger. Also written by Justin Theroux and Etan Cohen, the film was produced by Red Hour Films and distributed by DreamWorks Pictures through Paramount Pictures.

Stiller's idea for the film originated while playing a minor role in Empire of the Sun, and he later enlisted Theroux and Cohen to help complete the script. After the film was green-lighted in 2006, filming took place in 2007 on the Hawaiian island of Kauai over thirteen weeks and was later deemed the largest film production in the island's history. The film had an extensive marketing promotion, including faux websites for the three main characters and their fictional films, airing a fictional television special, and selling the energy drink advertised in the film, "Booty Sweat". Prior to the film's release, it was met with criticism from disability advocacy groups for its portrayal of mental retardation.

The film received generally favorable reviews with critics approving of the film's characters, story, and faux trailers while criticizing its offensive content. The film's soundtrack and score debuted on August 5, 2008, before the film's theatrical release. In its North American opening weekend, the film earned US$26 million and retained the number one position for the first three weekends of release. The film and its cast were nominated for several awards by various groups including the Screen Actors Guild, Broadcast Film Critics Association, and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The film grossed $180 million in theaters before its release on home video on November 18, 2008.

The Plot

Hook-handed Vietnam veteran John "Four Leaf" Tayback's (Nick Nolte) memoir, Tropic Thunder, is being made into a film. With the exception of newcomer supporting actor Kevin Sandusky (Jay Baruchel), the cast—fading action hero Tugg Speedman (Stiller), five-time Academy Award-winning Australian method actor Kirk Lazarus (Downey, Jr.), rapper Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson), and drug-addicted comedian Jeff Portnoy (Black)—behave unreasonably. Rookie director Damien Cockburn (Steve Coogan) is unable to control the actors during the filming of a large war scene and just five days into shooting the production is reported to be one month behind schedule. Cockburn is ordered by studio executive Les Grossman (Tom Cruise) to get filming back on track, or risk the cancellation of production.

Acting on Tayback's advice, Cockburn drops the actors into the middle of the jungle, where he has installed hidden cameras and rigged special effects explosions to film "guerrilla-style". The actors have guns that fire blanks, along with a map and scene listing that will guide them to a helicopter waiting at the end of the jungle route. Unbeknownst to the actors and the production, the group have been dropped in the middle of the Golden Triangle, the home of the heroin-producing Flaming Dragon gang. Shortly after the group set off, the five actors are stunned to see Cockburn blown up by an old land mine. Speedman, believing Cockburn faked his death, persuades Chino, Portnoy, and Sandusky that Cockburn is alive and that they are still shooting the film. Lazarus is unconvinced, but joins the other actors in their trek through the jungle.

When Tayback and pyrotechnics operator Cody Underwood (Danny McBride) attempt to locate the dead director, they are captured by Flaming Dragon, at which point Tayback reveals that he fabricated his memoir and that he has hands. As the actors continue to forge through the jungle, Lazarus and Sandusky discover that Speedman is leading them in the wrong direction. The four actors, tired of walking through the jungle and hoping to be rescued, leave Speedman, who goes off by himself and is captured by Flaming Dragon and taken to their heroin factory. Believing it is a POW camp from the script, he continues to think he is being filmed. The gang discovers that he is the star of their favorite film, the box office bomb Simple Jack, and force him to reenact it several times a day. Meanwhile, in Los Angeles, Speedman's agent Rick Peck (Matthew McConaughey) is trying to negotiate with an uninterested Grossman an unfulfilled term in Speedman's contract that entitles him to a TiVo. Flaming Dragon calls the two and demands a ransom for Speedman, but Grossman instead berates the gang. Despite the threats he made to the Flaming Dragon, Grossman expresses no interest in rescuing Speedman and attempts to convince Rick about the benefits of allowing Speedman to die and collecting the insurance. Grossman also offers Rick a Gulfstream V and money in return for Rick's cooperation.

Lazarus, Chino, Portnoy, and Sandusky discover Flaming Dragon's heroin factory. After seeing Speedman being tortured, they plan a rescue attempt based on the film's script. Lazarus impersonates a farmer towing a captured Portnoy on the back of a water buffalo, distracting the armed guards so Chino and Sandusky can locate where the captives are held. After the gang notices inconsistencies in Lazarus' story, the actors open fire on the gang, temporarily subduing them. When the gang realizes that they are being guarded by actors, they gather their guns and begin firing.

The four actors locate Speedman, Tayback, and Underwood, and cross a bridge rigged to explode to get to their helicopter. Speedman asks to remain behind with the gang which he considers his family, but quickly returns with Flaming Dragon in pursuit. Tayback detonates the bridge, allowing Speedman to reach safety, but as the helicopter takes off, the gang fires an RPG at the machine. Rick unexpectedly stumbles out of the jungle carrying a TiVo box and throws it in the path of the RPG, saving them all. The actors and crew return to Hollywood, where footage from the hidden cameras is compiled into a feature film, Tropic Blunder, which becomes a major critical and box office hit. The film wins Speedman his first Academy Award, which Lazarus presents to him at the ceremony.


The film received mostly positive reviews by critics. The review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes reported that 83% of critics gave the film a positive review based on a sample of 221 reviews, with an average score of 7.1/10. Metacritic, which assigns a weighted average score out of 100 from reviews by mainstream critics, gave a film rating of 71/100 based on 39 reviews.

After attending an industry screening in April 2008 Michael Cieply from The New York Times stated that the film was "... shaping up as one of DreamWorks's best prospects for the summer." Claudia Puig of USA Today gave the film a positive review, writing "There are some wildly funny scenes, a few leaden ones and others that are scattershot, with humorous satire undercut by over-the-top grisliness. Still, when it's funny, it's really funny." A review in Variety by Todd McCarthy was critical: "Apart from startling, out-there comic turns by Robert Downey Jr. and Tom Cruise, however, the antics here are pretty thin, redundant and one-note." Rick Groen of The Globe and Mail gave the film a negative review, calling it "... an assault in the guise of a comedy—watching it is like getting mugged by a clown." J.R. Jones of Chicago Reader stated "The rest of the movie never lives up to the hilarity of the opening, partly because the large-scale production smothers the gags but mostly because those gags are so easy to smother."

The faux trailers before the film also received mixed reviews. David Ansen of Newsweek approved of the trailers, writing "Tropic Thunder is the funniest movie of the summer—so funny, in fact, that you start laughing before the film itself has begun." Christy Lemire, writing for the Associated Press, called the trailers "... the best part of the trip." Robert Wilonsky of The Village Voice was critical, saying that the trailers' comedy "... resides in the land of the obvious, easy chuckle."

The cast received mixed critical reception. Downey was praised by many critics, claiming that he "stole the show", was "... off-the-charts hilarious ...", and would bring viewers "... the fondest memories of his work." Scott Feinberg, of the Los Angeles Times, criticized the concept of Downey's portrayal of an African-American, writing "... I just can't imagine any circumstance under which a blackface performance would be acceptable, any more than than I can imagine any circumstance under which the use of the N-word would be acceptable." Sara Vilkomerson said Cruise did "... an astonishingly funny and surprising supporting performance." Logan Hill of New York argued against Cruise's cameo saying that it "... just makes him look a little lost and almost pathetic—shucking and jiving, trying to appeal to the younger moviegoers who are abandoning him."

Several critics commented on the controversy over lines in the film talking about the mentally disabled. Duane Dudek of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel wrote that the film "... is just sophomoric enough to offend. And while it is also funny, it is without the empathy or compassion to cause us to wonder why we are laughing." Christian Toto of The Washington Times argued against the opposition, "Tropic Thunder is drawing fire from special interest groups for its frequent use of the word 'retard', but discerning audiences will know where the humor is targeted. And they'll be laughing too hard to take offense." Kurt Loder of MTV contrasted the opposition to the lines with Downey character portrayal of an African American, "The scene in which the derisive Alpa Chino nails Lazarus' recitation of black-uplift homilies as nothing more than the lyrics to the Jeffersons theme is funny; but the one in which Lazarus quietly explains to Speedman that his Simple Jack character failed because he made the mistake of going 'full retard'—rather than softening his character with cuteness in the manner of Forrest Gump—is so on-the-nose accurate, it takes your breath away."

The Cast

Ben Stiller as Tugg Speedman
Robert Downey, Jr. as Kirk Lazarus
Jack Black as Jeff Portnoy
Brandon T. Jackson as Alpa Chino
Jay Baruchel as Kevin Sandusky
Nick Nolte as John "Four Leaf" Tayback
Steve Coogan as Damien Cockburn
Danny McBride as Cody Underwood
Matthew McConaughey as Rick "Pecker" Peck
Bill Hader as Rob Slolom
Brandon Soo Hoo as Tran
Reggie Lee as Byong
Tom Cruise as Les Grossman

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