Lightning-fast humor saves "Thunder"

Aug. 18, 2008, midnight | By Rose Wynn | 12 years, 2 months ago

Comedy fires explosive action and sporadic jokes

Imagine a rapidly fading movie star still brimming with celebrity ego, an Australian actor turned black, an obscene and rap-enthused star selling the energy drink Booty Sweat, a cocaine-addicted actor known for his farting abilities on screen and a slightly dorky young star collaborating on an honorable film commemorating courageous Vietnam War veterans. The image is looking slightly incongruous...and completely ridiculous.

But this nonsensicality is not out of place in a movie during which a big money producer (Tom Cruise) is seen privately dancing to rapper Flo Rida's "Low," Robert Downey Jr. appears as a black man and Ben Stiller is an overconfident actor, a Panda-worshipping native and a pure, paternal figure in less than two hours of movie time.

The absurdity commences when the film's director blows up due to an explosive on set, and actors Tugg Speedman (Ben Stiller), Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr.), Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black), Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson) and Kevin Sandusky (Jay Baruchel) must navigate their way through the Vietnamese jungle, past hidden cameras and unpredictably placed explosives in order to complete their war film sans director. But the voyage becomes treacherous as soon as the unprepared crew realizes that their seemingly camera-cluttered and inviolate haven is punctured by Flaming Dragon, a local army of ruthless Vietnamese poppy growers. When Speedman's leadership alienates him from the rugged group and leads him into these warriors' clutches, his friends must unite against Flaming Dragon to save Speedman and salvage their failed movie careers.

Despite sounding slightly outlandish, this film is full of flaming effects and funny tidbits. Incorporation of classic Vietnam period melodies such as "Sympathy for the Devil" adds a sensible note to the films general gritty violence. Sandusky's quiet and practical persona is a hilarious contrast to Alpa Chino's rapper-like personality. Portnoy's pathetic concealment of his cocaine as "jellybeans" along with Lazarus' constant insistence upon speaking as a black man, even off set, create laughable relationships between the characters.

All actors, especially Stiller portraying Speedman's asinine leadership personality, flawlessly express the unconventionality of their characters, and Stiller's skilled direction paves the way for a creative comedy. Downey not only sounds authentically black, but his character's dedicated composure amidst the foolish action is notable. Baruchel, a more undistinguished actor, is not lacking in his compelling character portrayal. Stiller, as director, producer, screen writer and actor, deserves praise. His experience in the field of ludicrous humor (think "Dodgeball" and "Meet the Fockers") certainly assists him in the production of this film. McConaughey's appearance as Speedman's agent, Rick Peck, also adds to the film's list of notable actors.

But some aspects are not as compelling. Disgust is guaranteed in certain bluntly gruesome moments, such as when Stiller tastes the blood from the director's decapitated head to prove it is a ruse. When Flaming Dragon has Speedman in captivity, the incessant torture seems an unsuccessful attempt at further humor. Many jokes are fraught with profanities, which more often impede amusement than facilitate it. Peck's constant belief that Speedman's troubles result from his lack of TiVo also fails as comic relief.

As to be expected for a comedy as raucous and uncouth as this one, "Tropic Thunder" carries more than its share of offensive discriminatory jokes. In one casual conversation about mental retardation between Stiller and Downey, Downey's input is to "never go full retard" when acting as someone with a mental disability. This insensitive piece of advice was one tactless comment too many; several groups in California pushed for a boycott of the film because of its indifference for those with intellectual disabilities. In general, the occasionally rude sense of humor does not overly impede the film's entertaining aspects.

The explosive action is intense. The actors are distinguished. The plot is creative and occasionally clever, if somewhat lacking in substance. But the humor is loud and rude, occasionally insensitive and yet surprisingly comical most of the time. What initially seemed to be another comedy struggling to grasp at humor through a plethora of profanities and myopic blunders turned out to be slightly better: a surprisingly captivating movie, if gritty and insensitive, with some chuckle-worthy absurdity.

"Tropic Thunder" (106 minutes) is rated R for pervasive language including sexual references, violent content and drug material. Now playing everywhere.

Rose Wynn. I love piña coladas, getting caught in the rain and the ladies of the Blair Pom Squad. More »

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