Tropic Thunder

Don’t be late for ‘Tropic Thunder’, or you’ll miss the second-best bit: the spoof trailers for ‘Scorcher VI’ starring action hero Tugg Speedman, ‘The Fatties 2’ starring gross-out favourite Jeff Portnoy and ‘Satan’s Alley’ starring Oscar-laden thesp Kirk Lazarus. Speedman, Portnoy and Lazarus – played by Ben Stiller, Jack Black and Robert Downey Jr respectively – are the leads in a bombastic Vietnam epic shooting on location in the Golden Triangle. The flailing Brit director (Steve Coogan) sets them loose in the jungle, intending to film their method-fuelled progress on hidden cameras, but they end up facing genuine combat together. Cue machine-guns all round, and then hugs.

The makers of ‘Tropic Thunder’ knew they had a challenge on their hands with the character of Lazarus, who is surgically blacked up to play an African-American soldier, meaning that Downey is too. They did a good job of defusing the issue in the US – they’re parodying Hollywood narcissism, not the black experience, for heaven’s sake! – and were enormously helped by Downey’s terrific, compulsive performance. Equal parts brash, bonkers and perplexed, he’s the film’s best bit. (The mental-health lobby was less than impressed by his bravura monologue about the perils of actors going ‘full retard’ in pursuit of Oscar glory, but that’s another story.)

Certainly, the film works much better as Tinseltown parody than as action flick or character drama; on those terms, which co-writer and director Stiller seems to have taken seriously, it’s pretty ordinary stuff. But its better moments of self-referential snark, such as an ace cameo from Tom Cruise as an obnoxious studio exec, have the feel of a superior end-of-term revue.

Release details

Rated: 15
Release date: Friday August 1 2008
Duration: 107 mins

Cast and crew

Director: Ben Stiller
Screenwriter: Ben Stiller, Justin Theroux, Etan Cohen
Cast: Robert Downey Jr
Danny R. McBride
Jay Baruchel
Brandon T. Jackson
Steve Coogan
Bill Hader
Matthew McConaughey
Nick Nolte
Brandon Soo Hoo
Tom Cruise
Jack Black
Ben Stiller
Reggie Lee