A Black Man’s Review of “Tropic Thunder”


Movie Biases:

Downey Jr. as a black man?!? Pre-sold!

Major Players:

Actor/director Ben Stiller, Robert Downey Jr., Jack Black, Tom Cruise.


A squad of narcissistic actors (Stiller, Downey Jr., Black, Jay Baruchel, and Brandon T. Jackson) filming a Vietnam war movie is dropped into the middle of a Southeast Asian jungle to scare up some verisimilitude for their wildly overbudget film, only to discover slowly that they have stepped into the crosshairs of a trigger-happy gang of drug-runners.

The Deal:

Opening with a hilarious entree to our stars’ acting repertoire, “Thunder” lives up to its name early with satirically over-the-top send-ups of archetypal Hollywood personas; every one as skeweringly spot-on as they are ridiculous. Corpulent, flatulent primadonna Jeff Portnoy with a coke habit? Thy name is Jack Black. Rapper turned actor but essentially a semi-socially conscious promotion machine called Alpa Chino (re: Fiddy) who hawks a beverage by the name of Booty Sweat? Brandon T. Jackson (Envy), at your service.

The most talked about, faux-controversial character, that being Australian, blue-eyed, Method actor (”I don’t drop character until the DVD commentary”), Oscar whore Kirk Lazarus who, in a move that even Stanislavsky would have said is nuts, undergoes a skin-DARKENING procedure in order to play African-American soldier Lincoln Osiris? Why, it’s played by none other than a Hollywood Lazarus himself, “Iron” (Man)-hot Robert Downey, Jr., an Academy Award-nominated actor with prodigious enough acting talent (and checkered past) to have the whole town’s nose open wider than a rehabbing Portnoy’s for anything he’s in these days. Leading the self-absorbed charge is one Tugg Speedman (Stiller), a fading action star in dire need of a hit in the Tom Cruise vein who, so desperate that he is for acting cred, once went “full retard” in a movie about a developmentally disabled man called “Simple Jack”.

All the elements are there for a really good time, from Downey’s inspired caricature of a “serious” actor who isn’t so much racially ignorant as he is socially self-serving to an amusingly profane, abusive, heavily disguised Tom Cruise as a Harvey Weinstein-like terror of a movie studio chief. As with most of this movie, Cruise’s portrayal is garish and explosively funny, with a visually irregular dance number sure to get him invited to Diddy’s next party. The lesser known Brandon T. Jackson is quite good as the voice of black reason in the face of Lazarus’ escalating lunacy (”I know who I am! I’m the dude playing the dude disguised as another dude!” Rrrrrrriiiiight…). Even Jack Black reins it in a tad to effectively goose the funny out of his Portnoy’s unintentional coke withdrawal.

The weak link has to be Stiller then, and, for a change, not as an actor. Never a Ben Stiller aficionado, I find Stiller ruins good performances rather than gives them; that or he’s just “around.” You know those people who are just “around.” “Ohhhhh, Ben Stiller was in the movie with Streisand, Hoffman, and DeNiro!” He’s the guy whose acting is either so unmentionable or unmemorable that you forgot he was even in the picture. Save the uproarious “Zoolander,” I’m hard-pressed to find a Ben Stiller movie where his comic performance made the movie for me. Although that trend reverses slightly here in “Tropic,” in the hands of Stiller’s direction, the movie suffers still in a very hit-or-miss third act that crams way too much action and dartboard comedy into a juxtaposition that neither theme seems to like. Much like the earlier “Pineapple Express,” I rather enjoy the concept of forcing those two genres to fit, just to see if something hysterically interesting happens.

While most of the movie is two Portnoys of fun, the last third is a slight letdown from the promise of its concept and “trained actors, baby!” (Lazarus as Osiris, of course). While most cameo-rich movies like this one (Tobey Maguire, Matthew McConaughey) tend to dress up a pig, “Tropic” brings heat but delays the