Brandon T. Jackson, Ben Stiller, and Robert Downey, Jr. in the hilarious Tropic Thunder
In the car last night on the way to the movie theater to see Tropic Thunder, I heard a segment on National Public Radio’s All Things Considered with a spokesman for the Special Olympics. The man called for a boycott of the film, which opens nationwide today, because, he said, it demeans people with “intellectual disabilities.”
Sure enough, there is a scene in which Ben Stiller (who co-write, directed, and stars in this hilarious, slapstick, cartoony send up of the Hollywood glitz machine), playing a self-important, third-rate action film star, brags about his role as a mentally disabled guy in an awful movie he starred in to try to get people to take him seriously—and get an Oscar nomination. The Stiller character (Tugg Speedman) gets into a pseudo-intellectual discussion of that with Robert Downey, Jr., who plays Kirk Lazarus, an egomaniacal Australian actor who has his skin dyed to play an African American in the movie within the movie. And they use the word “retard” or “retarded” repeatedly.
There also was a smattering of talk before the film opened about Downey’s role, which some people interpreted as being in “black face,” and all the racial stereotyping that entailed. And there was worry from some quarters (including from yours truly) that the lone Vietnam veteran in the film—good old Nick Nolte as Sgt. Four Leaf Tayback—was a one-dimensional “Nam vet” Hollywood stereotype; that is, a mentally and physically scarred, walking-time bomb head case whose severely skewed view of life was shaped by his exposure to combat in the Vietnam War.
So my antennae were way up as the movie began. Within seconds, however, I was laughing my rear end off. And I wound up laughing throughout this farcical, way, way over-the-top parody that makes fun of arrogant, greedy, self-aggrandizing Hollywood types.
It was hard for me to believe that anyone could be offended by the Stiller-Downey dialogue, which was about their half-baked ideas of acting, not about making fun of the mentally challenged. The Downey character himself has some of the funniest lines (although he does mumble a lot), and they are at the expense of his dopey idea of playing a black man. Plus, the real black guy in the squad (Brandon T. Jackson, as rap star Alpa Chino), gets off tons of zingers at the Downey character’s expense.
And then there’s Nolte, who looks like the screwed-up Vietnam veteran from hell, a grizzled cammie-wearing gray beard who lost both hands in the war and whose book on the topic is the subject of the movie. I started to bristle when I saw that his cammies had unit patches from the First Cav and the 82nd Airborne, and cringed at lines such as “beds give me nightmares,” when he was asked why he liked to sleep outdoors. Not to spoil the plot, but let’s just say those concerns of mine vanished about half-way through the movie.
The whole thing is played for laughs. A few times it appeared as though things were getting serious. But luckily, no character got off more than one or two straight lines before something weird—and often weirdly funny—happened. That included Tom Cruise emoting like crazy as the studio exec from hell.
There is a ton of violence in the movie, accompanied by some graphic blood spattering that would not be out of place in a Rambo movie. That aside, Tropic Thunder (I wonder how many people realize that it is a play on the real nickname of the 25th Infantry Division, “Tropic Lightning,” and, more than likely the Vietnam War bombing mission known as Rolling Thunder) is good, clean fun. Well, not all clean. There is an abundance of fart jokes, for example, committed by the always hilarious Jack Black. I laughed at every one of them.
We’ll have a more in-depth review of Tropic Thunder in the Arts of War column in the November-December issue of The VVA Veteran.