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"Tropic Thunder"

Directed by Ben Stiller.
Written by Ben Stiller, Justin Theroux and Etan Cohen.
Starring Ben Stiller, Jack Black, Robert Downey Jr. and Tom Cruise.
Release Year:  2008

Review Date:  8/14/08


It's not as great as its trailer--Lord knows it almost wasn't possible to be that funny for two hours--but "Tropic Thunder" still gets big laughs and ends on a high that leaves you feeling that the film was even better than it really was.

My buddy Rob and I left the theater this evening and Rob said it best--"Tropic Thunder" is funny thanks to a half-dozen huge laughs and a couple of strong comedic performances from Robert Downey Jr. and Tom Cruise.  But, Rob admitted that he wouldn't pay to see the film again; we thought it was funny, but not THAT funny.

That's because the film gets its mileage from an idea that initially sounds great...until the movie starts:  "Tropic Thunder" is the name of the movie within "Tropic Thunder", which details a 1969 Vietnam war drama that--five days into production--is a month behind schedule and millions overbudget.  The film's director (Steve Coogan) has a hard time trying to contain the egos of its three big-money stars:  action icon Tugg Speedman (writer/director Ben Stiller), comedy star Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black), and five-time Oscar winner Kirk Lazarus (Downey Jr.), who has decided that he wants to play an African-American character in this film so he had his skin genetically darkened to match the look.  So, to whip the crew into shape, the director and the film's Vietnam consultant, "Four Leaf" Tayback (Nick Nolte), decide to drop the three heavies plus a couple of the film's other stars into a real-life war zone in Laos, where the film spends the remainder of its time.

After the film sets itself up (maybe 20 minutes or so), we watch as the fearless five leads get dropped into the war zone...and, save for periodic so-so laughs, this section of the film nearly kills its early momentum.  Sure, we get cutbacks to the Cruise character--playing a no-bullshit movie executive, one openly wonders why Cruise doesn't do more comedy, because he is so great in "Tropic Thunder"--but the Stiller/Black/Downey team doesn't do much to work wonders, even as the Downey character made me chuckle nearly every time he appears because Downey is so great in this part.  Also, the toilet humor is out of control in "Tropic Thunder"; for some reason, I don't mind doses of farting/pissing/potty mouthing, but for long stretches of "here's the joke--someone's going to fart and say 'Fuck!!'", I usually tune out.

Now, if you can make yourself get through this middle portion of the movie, the last 30-40 minutes are great, sometimes superior, comedy.  Black's only funny moments come late in "Tropic Thunder" (and, his down-and-dirty delivery while strapped to a tree is clearly his best in this film), the Cruise character gets two absolutely hilarious bits late, Downey delivers a speech or two before helping the team infiltrate a heroin camp, and after being left alone for most of the film, we get some of the Nolte character as well as Danny McBride, who plays Red in "Pineapple Express."  There's an action sequence, funny end credits, randomly unnecessary johnson jokes, and the film's only true "I fell out of my seat" moment featuring Stiller and a small Vietnamese child (think the dog-on-the-bridge scene from "Anchorman", and you get the idea).  Make no mistake: while "Tropic Thunder" may be trying to find its way for about an hour, it rights itself just in time to make you remember why you were so excited to see the damned thing in the first place.

With that in mind, I will probably watch "Tropic Thunder" again when it arrives on HBO late next summer...but, I'll probably just stick to watching the final third.  Good stuff, but certainly not perfect.

Rating:  $9.50 Show


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Bellview Rating System:

"Opening Weekend":  This is the highest rating a movie can receive.  Reserved for movies that exhibit the highest level of acting, plot, character development, setting...or Salma Hayek.  Not necessarily in that order. 

"$X.XX Show":  This price changes each year due to the inflation of movie prices; currently, it is the $9.50 Show.  While not technically perfect, this is a movie that will still entertain you at a very high level.  "Undercover Brother" falls into this category; it's no "Casablanca", but you'll have a great time watching.  The $9.50 Show won't win any Oscars, but you'll be quoting lines from the thing for ages (see "Office Space"). 

"Matinee":  An average movie that merits no more than a $6.50 viewing at your local theater.  Seeing it for less than $9.50 will make you feel a lot better about yourself.  A movie like "Blue Crush" fits this category; you leave the theater saying "That wasn't too, did you see that Lakers game last night?" 

"Rental":  This rating indicates a movie that you see in the previews and say to your friend, "I'll be sure to miss that one."  Mostly forgettable, you couldn't lose too much by going to Hollywood Video and paying $3 to watch it with your sig other, but you would only do that if the video store was out of copies of "Ronin."  If you can, see this movie for free.  This is what your TV Guide would give "one and a half stars." 

"Hard Vice":  This rating is the bottom of the barrel.  A movie that only six other human beings have witnessed, this is the worst movie I have ever seen.  A Shannon Tweed "thriller," it is so bad as to be funny during almost every one of its 84 minutes, and includes the worst ending ever put into a movie.  Marginally worse than "Cabin Boy", "The Avengers" or "Leonard, Part 6", this rating means that you should avoid this movie at all costs, or no costs, EVEN IF YOU CAN SEE IT FOR FREE!  (Warning:  strong profanity will be used in all reviews of "Hard Vice"-rated movies.)

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The "fine print":
All material by Justin Elliot Bell for SMR/Bellview/ except where noted
1999-2009 Justin Elliot Bell This site was last updated 01/08/09