Wednesday, Aug. 20, 2008

‘Tropic Thunder' ignites end-of-summer scene

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Merie Weismiller/Paramount Pictures
Alpa (Brandon T. Jackson), Tugg (Ben Stiller) and Kirk (Robert Downey Jr.) are actors shooting a war film in the action comedy "Tropic Thunder."

nTropic Thunder

Rated R. 111 minutes.


Cast: Ben Stiller, Robert Downey Jr., Jack Black, Brandon T. Jackson, Nick Nolte, Matthew McConaughey, Steve Coogan, Tom Cruise.

Director: Ben Stiller.

From the opening trailers to the end credits, you won't be prepared for "Tropic Thunder," the film that has taken down April's "Forgetting Sarah Marshall" as the year's funniest comedy.

Action star Tugg Speedman (Ben Stiller), comedy hit-maker Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black), Oscar winner Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr.) and rapper Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson) join forces to star in a Vietnam movie based on a true story.

But when the cameras aren't rolling, the high-maintenance foursome proves increasingly more difficult for director Damien Cockburn (Steve Coogan).

Hoping to turn his spoiled stars into real action heroes, Cockburn takes the advice of film consultant Four Leaf Tayback (Nick Nolte) and sends them to a remote jungle, where he hopes to capture their real emotions without any of the comforts of home.

Cockburn and Tayback don't take into account that they've led their stars to a genuinely hostile environment, which could cost them their lives if they don't realize that this time the action is for real.

Stiller and fellow co-writers Justin Theroux and Etan Cohen make the characters believable. Tugg wants to be a serious actor, Portnoy is dealing with his drug habit and Kirk is losing his own identities in his characters. Throughout the movie, Hollywood stars make hilarious cameos.

The character and performance would have been more than a tad controversial if not for Jackson's Chino continually calling Kirk out for trying to act "black." While the Reverends Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson Sr. won't be leading "Thunder" boycotts, the film has garnered a significant backlash from mental disability advocates for its portrayal of mental retardation.

It's a valid complaint. One of the more memorable scenes occurs when Kirk advises Tugg never to go "full retard" when acting. It's oh-so un-PC, but you'll likely be too busy laughing to notice. Tom Cruise offers a standout performance as Les Grossman, a balding movie company head with Popeye arms, a hairy chest and a penchant for dancing to hip-hop songs. The sight of Cruise getting down to Ludacris is worth the price of admission.

"Tropic Thunder" makes fun of the kill-everything-in-sight-and-then-blow-it-up-for-good-measure summer movie mentality. It's a laugh riot that will have you thinking about it for days afterward, the mark of a great comedy.