California "girlie men"? Vietnam vet John "Four Leaf" Tayback (Nick Nolte) has no tolerance for that sort.
Merie Weismiller Wallace/DreamWorks
Trapped on the set of a big-ticket Hollywood adaptation of his Vietnam War memoir, John "Four Leaf" Tayback (a snarling Nick Nolte) is not a happy man: Somehow, less than five days into production, the project is already a month behind schedule. The gnarly soldier's solution: Take the "pansy-ass actors" into the jungle and abuse them until they cough up something like a convincing film.
This is the premise of Ben Stiller's Tropic Thunder, an expensive, star-studded action spoof of the traditional expensive, star-studded action flick.
If it's not exactly original, it is loud and cocky — and that's usually enough to power a would-be box-office heavy through a summertime opening weekend.
And anyway, that premise adds up to something like a pre-emptive strike: Tropic Thunder is making fun of an industry that makes movies like ... well, like Tropic Thunder. So if you think it's too bloody, too annoying, too nonsensical, well, good for you: That's exactly what it means to be.
It's nothing if not arch, with Stiller front and center as yet another version of his patented neurotic-loser character. His Tugg Speedman is a fading, franchised action hero: "Here we go again, again," Tugg announces in a coming-attractions come-on for the sixth iteration of Scorcher — one of several smart-ass "trailers" that open Tropic Thunder with something like a bang.
Tugg has failed to jump-start his career by playing what he refers to as a buck-toothed "retard" in Simple Jack (a patently offensive venture). Now, Tugg has signed on for Tayback's grunts-in-the-jungle movie, where he's competing for screen time with much-awarded Australian star Kirk Lazarus.
Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr.) is an actor's actor, and this time he's taken his neo-Method approach an extra step, surgically altering his complexion to play African-American sergeant Lincoln Osiris. Per stereotype, Lincoln hates The Man and deploys "colorful" slang.
(To ensure that this bit of patent offensiveness has a context, the Tayback epic also features an actual black actor, a raucous rapper hawking his energy drink — "Booty Sweat" — and aspiring to movie stardom. Broad reaction shots from Alpa Chino, played by Brandon T. Jackson, regularly remind you that the movie knows Downey/Lazarus/Osiris is a joke.)
Likewise, the desperate efforts of the project's third star to score some drugs — apparently any sort will do — help reinforce his easy-target status: egomaniacal comedian Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black) is fresh off a franchise in which he plays every member of the incessantly farting "Fatties" family. Oh, the hilarity.
For one reason or another, all the guys — including the blockbuster's beleaguered director (Steve Coogan) and the earnest newbie actor (Jay Baruchel) whose name "Tugger" can never remember — agree to Tayback's scheme, heading deep into the Southeast Asian jungle, where they hope to "get into character."
Instead, they run into the sort of outrageous trouble you'd expect, including a ferocious 12-year-old druglord, Tran (Brandon Soo Hoo), who just happens to adore Simple Jack. Sans cell phones or actual weapons, armed with only a shot list and rudimentary map, the actors must learn to be men.
While they get lost, the guys in L.A. — and the movie is all about guys, even more emphatically than Stiller's flat-footed fashion-biz satire Zoolander — anticipate big returns.
Tugg's fast-talking agent (Matthew McConaughey) thinks his most pressing contract issue is the fact that his man has no TiVo — until he and fat, bald, cigar-chomping producer Les Grossman (Tom Cruise) hear from Tran, demanding a ransom the studio won't pay. Les explains his cost-benefit analysis: "They'll kill him, and we will weep. In the press."
We get that the movie industry is heinous — in Tropic Thunder, we get that early and often. We also get that actors are not real men, that agents are girlie men, and that Les (via Cruise's much-hyped, but hardly revelatory performance) is a gross man.
What we don't get is how all this adds up to a movie much different from those Tropic Thunder means to send up.