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After the standard theater ads and coming attraction trailers, the lights dim and Tropic Thunder opens with ... ads and coming attraction trailers that introduce us to the "actors" we'll be spending the next two hours with. Who's on the A-list? Jeff "Fats" Portnoy, famous for his Eddie Murphy-style, multiple-role comedies featuring a fat, farting family. Also hip-hop mogul Alpa Chino, who's made his fortune pimping an energy drink called Booty Sweat and a Busta-Nut Bar. Fading action star Tugg Speedman is part of the cast, too, as is the well-respected method actor Kirk Lazarus—whose recent film about gay monks had the critics buzzing.
They've all been recruited to create the war movie of all war movies—a Vietnam epic that will make Apocalypse Now look like it was crafted by grade schoolers and shot with instamatic cameras. Everyone is hoping that this "serious" action/drama will revive careers and make the Academy sit up and take notice.
But the movie is reportedly running a month behind schedule, and they're only five days into the shoot. When the pampered actors can't be corralled and an overzealous crew member squanders a $4 million explosion, producer Les Grossman threatens to pull the plug. Panicked, the director plants cameras and explosives in the jungle, sets the actors loose in the East Asian wild and shoots the rest of the flick guerilla-style.
What could possibly go wrong with a great idea like that?
Uh, drug runners who aren't exactly into fake guns?
Everybody is backstabbing everybody else through most of this film. It's an environment that's used to show how good it is when the actors eventually draw together and put their lives on the line for one another. In one such rescue, Speedman says to Lazarus, "I know who you are. You're my friend."
It takes a while for Speedman's agent to decide whether to save his client and friend or take a bunch of money. But in the end he makes the right decision.
Lazarus' previous film, Satan's Alley, carries the tagline, "One man dared to question his God." While giving a rambling speech intended to inspire his actors, the director spouts, "The chopper is God and I am Jesus Christ his Son." A guy is called "God's mistake."
In a newsreel, Lazarus stands naked on a hotel balcony. (His crotch and obscene gesture are both pixelated.) During a break in shooting, the crew gathers poolside with dozens of bikini-clad Vietnamese women. Several flight attendants wear low-cut dresses.
Portnoy is tied to a tree in nothing but his briefs. He's half-crazy, dying for a drug fix, and during the throes of his delirium, he begs the others to set him free and graphically details the oral sex he will perform for that favor. Later, he enters a shootout dressed in those same briefs—and gropes around in them for a hidden gun. Grossman looks at a porn magazine (we see the cover) and later cups his crotch and dances with hip-thrusting movements.
Speedman's agent is nicknamed "the pecker." Chino has a reputation as a "playa" but accidentally admits to his homosexual desires. And one of the other actors expresses his disappointment over the disintegrating film project with, "I was really hoping to get laid when this movie came out."
Over-the-top, gruesome-just-to-be-gruesome violence is peppered throughout and is intended to be humorous. For example, while in the jungle a man steps on a land mine and is literally blown to smithereens. Blood, chunks of flesh and ruined organs rain down on the others around him. Some of the actors, however, believe it to be all special effects. Attempting to prove this theory, Speedman picks up the man's severed head, tastes the blood and sticks his hand up the ragged neck to empty its contents with garishly grotesque results.
In a war-film-within-a-film segment, a bayoneted soldier's intestines spill onto his lap in a gory mass. Men are cut down and dismembered with intensely blazing rocket fire. A soldier is shot in the back of the head and a stream of blood sprays out with the force of a lawn hose.
(For the record, that's only a small sample of the blood-spurting, gut-spilling, bullet-riddled, limb-obliterating violence that is brought to the fore in the film.)
Of less note but still significant are scenes of pratfalling smash-and-bash. Speedman runs across a bridge from a gang of gun-toting attackers. A little boy has jumped up on his back and is stabbing him repeatedly with a small knife. So Speedman takes the child by the head and hurls him off the side of the bridge and into the water below.
Grossman tells a large key grip to punch the director in the face for all his mess-ups. The big man does his job and the director is left with a bloodied nose. When a drugged bat falls out of the sky, Portnoy eats it.
Punching, smacking, crotch-kicking and rifle stock-butting all get screen time. Speedman is tortured by being slapped, kicked, dragged and then dunked in a muddy river by a gang of thugs. The teenage leader of the drug runners stubs out his cigar on Speedman's chest.
Crude or Profane Language
Profanity flows deeper and wider than the Mekong River. Not even counting the profanity-laced soundtrack, there are upwards of 100 f-words and 50 s-words leading the foul language pack. There are more than 50 combined uses of "a--," "h---," "d--n," "b--tard" and "b--ch." Scores of references are made to male and female genitalia. And God's and Jesus' names are frequently abused. (God's name is combined with "d--n" on at least a dozen occasions.) The n-word is spit out several times.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Portnoy has a drug problem. (We see him obviously stoned in a news clip.) When he and the other actors are sent off in the jungle, he takes occasional side trips to "eat some jelly beans." But when he loses his candy bag full of drugs (an unnamed powdery substance) he spends the rest of the film twisting in torturous withdrawals. Near the end, Portnoy discovers a table piled high with heroin. He lusts after the substance, but before he can dive in he's accosted by guards and he shoves handfuls of the narcotic into their faces.
The film's frenzied director drinks alcohol straight from the bottle. A grizzled Vietnam vet and a teen drug runner both smoke cigars.
Other Negative Elements
Speedman, in an attempt to prove his acting chops, plays a mentally handicapped man. (We see clips from his highly ridiculed film and a live reenactment.) His acting is so (intentionally) poor that the characterization appears to be mocking. Later, he and Lazarus discuss the disadvantage of acting "fully retard."
"If you look at the sequences that use the word retard, if you substituted the n-word, none of them would have made it," Timothy Shriver, chairman of the Special Olympics, told NPR. "Humor is great, but it's not funny when people are subjected to hate crimes, when people are institutionalized, when people are unemployed, when people are made fun of in school. Bullying is not funny. Intolerance is not funny. Misunderstanding and fear of difference is not funny. So, humor is great, but when it crosses the line and runs the risk of producing hate and exclusion and loneliness and real human suffering, it crosses the line. This one went too far."
That doesn't mean, of course, that the movie goes easy on racially charged jokes. Lazarus is such a serious method actor that he goes through a dangerous skin pigmenting process to "become" black. From this arises a number of racially tinged comments and black-stereotype gags. It also means that actor Robert Downey Jr. appears in blackface, an "old showbiz convention" that, according to Reuters, was used extensively in Hollywood until the 1950s, but has since been studiously avoided.
Offensive, vulgar, coarse, profane, obscene ...
At what point did these kinds of adjectives become so acceptably mundane when discussing a mainstream comedy? I'm not sure, but Ben Stiller has certainly been a big part of making it happen, from There's Something About Mary a decade ago, to The Heartbreak Kid last year and now Tropic Thunder, which he wrote, directed and stars in.
Here he takes satirical aim at the Hollywood dream-machine—skewering narcissistic actors, pompous directors and tyrannical producers. He starts with a creative idea, adds in a number of unexpected cameos and actually generates a few laughs with some of his quirky humor.
Gross, smutty, churlish, low-minded ...
But those moments are sucked into a whirlpool of thick profanity, lewd dialogue, offensive gags (that sometimes revolve around racial issues and the mentally handicapped) and totally repugnant blood-and-guts imagery. The result is a protracted Monty Python-meets-Quentin Tarantino skit so pumped up with Hollywood-formula steroids that it can't help but explode in an apoplectic jumble.
Base, disgusting, nasty, ribald, raunchy ...
In a collider.com interview, Stiller was asked about all that volatile spewing. "It's a very slippery slope," he responded. "There's no clear guidelines. I guess if you have two [f-words] in a movie it's an R, but there aren't any real clear guidelines on what they say you can and can't do. It's all up to interpretation."
Too bad and too true. Because that means all too often writers and producers and directors use their personal interpretations to push out more mainstream movie fare like Tropic Thunder.
Ugly, vile, rude, raw ...
For which we must laboriously lengthen an already very long list of negatively descriptive adjectives.
Other Belief Systems
Readability Age Range
Ben Stiller as Tugg Speedman; Robert Downey Jr. as Kirk Lazarus; Jack Black as Jeff 'Fats' Portnoy; Brandon T. Jackson as Alpa Chino; Nick Nolte as Fourleaf Tayback; Tom Cruise as Les Grossman