Wednesday, 17 July 2024

Hollywood hit by the comic fury of 'Tropic Thunder'

TROPIC THUNDER (Rated R)


In a full-blown assault on the narcissistic world of Hollywood filmmaking, it’s fitting that “Tropic Thunder” takes no prisoners. Possessed of a fertile comic mind and talent, Ben Stiller, the director, co-star and co-writer, is the kind of guy who can get away with pricking the outsize ego of the industry. He’s joined in this effort by some of the biggest names in the business, a few of them content to deliver fantastic cameos despite their superstar status. “Tropic Thunder” unites a diverse pool of talent into arguably the best, and probably most daring, comedy of the summer.


The film opens brilliantly with a series of fake trailers that precede the main event of an epic action picture set during the Vietnam War era, something in the vein of “Apocalypse Now.” Considering that “Tropic Thunder” is a movie-within-a-movie, the trailers offer a glimpse at the stars of the main event.


Ben Stiller’s preening Tugg Speedman is a pampered action superstar on the wane. His “Scorcher” series of post-apocalyptic action epics have played out. Jack Black’s Jeff Portnoy needs a new outlet beyond his gross-out comedy franchise “The Fatties,” where comedy is derived from nonstop flatulence.


An intense method actor, Australian Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr.) seeks for new challenges and ways to transform his artistic endeavors. Platinum hip-hop star Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson) wants to be a serious actor, but he’s consumed by merchandising products like the “Booty Sweat” energy drink.


The self-absorbed prima donnas come together to film an epic war movie in Southeast Asia and unwittingly wind up in a real battle. Things are going so badly on the set that frazzled British director Damien Cockburn (Steve Coogan) faces being shut down by his studio bosses.


In one of several hilarious cameo scenes, a nearly unrecognizable Tom Cruise appears as the fat, balding, foul-mouthed producer Les Grossman, who manages to terrorize everyone within reach of his cell phone. Several scenes have Grossman exploding in hilarious rage, spewing venomous profanity at anyone crossing his path. We’ve never seen Tom Cruise this funny before, even when he was jumping on sofas.


Threatened with the loss of his picture, director Cockburn leads his unsuspecting cast deep into the jungle, where cameras are hidden in the trees, and turns them loose for guerilla-style filmmaking. With no entourage of fawning assistants to shield them, the cast soon encounters a very real and dangerous band of drug runners who mistake the actors for American DEA agents.


Tugg Speedman’s role of John “Four Leaf” Tayback is based on the memoirs of a courageous real-life war hero whose memoirs form the basis for this Vietnam picture. When faced with real danger, Tugg doesn’t know what to do, and he can’t get any creature comforts delivered by his agent (Matthew McConaughey, delivering a funny cameo) back in Los Angeles.


Meanwhile, Kirk Lazarus is going so deep in his character that he had his skin surgically altered so that he could become African American sergeant Lincoln Osiris. This, of course, offends his fellow cast member Alpa Chino who is increasingly annoyed by Lazarus’ refusal to drop out of character even when the cameras aren’t rolling. Being stuck out in the middle of the jungle is also a bad time to find out that Jeff Portnoy has a serious substance abuse problem, particularly when the enemy is manufacturing heroin in its hidden camp.


Rounding out the cast of main characters is Jay Baruchel’s Kevin Sandusky, an earnest young actor getting his first big break playing newbie soldier Brooklyn. As the rookie actor, Kevin is really eager and psyched to be working with an elite group of thespians. Yet he’s the only one who bothered to read the book written by John “Four Leaf” Tayback (Nick Nolte, serving as the film’s technical advisor). When things start to go bad for the cast, Kevin, who also attended a military boot camp, becomes the group’s main hope to extricate itself from a harrowing situation.


Another interesting character is the pint-sized leader of the Flaming Dragons drug ring, 12-year-old Tran (Brandon Soo Hoo), a brutal, cigar-chomping thug who captures Tugg Speedman. For some strange reason, the rebels recognize the actor for his biggest flop, “Simple Jack,” in which he played a mentally retarded farmhand, and they insist that he recreate his character for their amusement. This particular characterization has generated some heat, but there are plenty of politically incorrect moments in this over-the-top film.


Flawed at times in its execution, “Tropic Thunder” is still a high energy film with some comic brilliance. A film that pokes fun at pampered, self-absorbed actors who are out of control is obviously good for generating plenty of laughs.


DVD RELEASE UPDATE


With the summer Olympics in full swing, this is probably good timing for the release of “Her Best Move,” a family entertainment about a teenage star athlete overcoming life’s challenges.


The press notes have a quote from Brandi Chastain, Olympic and Women’s National Soccer Team star, calling it the “most realistic soccer film ever made.”


Soccer prodigy Sara Davis (Leah Pipes) is on her way to becoming the youngest player selected for the U.S. National Team, but her biggest challenge is balancing the demands of high school, a new boyfriend and her overbearing, sports-obsessed father (Scott Patterson).


“Her Best Move” became a major hit on the film festival circuit, scoring plenty of awards.


Tim Riley writes film and television reviews for Lake County News.


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