Before saying anything else about Tropic Thunder, it’s imperative that we establish, in no uncertain terms, that it is satirical. Therefore, the film’s many problematic moments (there’s a lot) should all be taken with a pinch of salt.
Tropic Thunder is the story of a group of (fictional) actors attempting to make a movie (within the movie) that tells the (fictional) story of a (fictional) soldier’s experience of the (real) Vietnam War.
The film opens with a handful of fake ads and trailers, which introduce us to our protagonists; Tugg Speedman (Ben Stiller), a fading action star, Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson), a stereotypical rapper flogging his new brand of energy drinks and snacks, Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr.), an acclaimed method actor, and Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black), a drug-addicted comedian known for his excessive on-screen flatulence.
As though those four names didn’t carry enough weight, Tropic Thunder‘s casting department also secured Nick Nolte, Jay Baruchel, Danny McBride, Steve Coogan, Bill Hader, Matthew McConaughey and Tom Cruise. There’s also a huge amount of celebrity cameos, with Tobey Maguire, Tyra Banks, Martin Lawrence, Jason Bateman, Jennifer Love Hewitt and Jon Voight (among others) making appearances.
While its cast reads like a who’s who of late ’00s Hollywood, Tropic Thunder also happens to heavily feature more than its fair share of poorly aged jokes. These include, but are not limited to; extensive use of blackface by Downey Jr.’s character, some lightly homophobic humour, some vaguely offensive Asian stereotypes, the extensive use of ableist slurs and characters (badly) pretending to be intellectually disabled.
That worryingly long list might seem like a reason not to watch Tropic Thunder, and for those with a more delicate sense of humour, that might be best. However, many of these “topics” are handled in an obviously satirical way. In fact, the use of blackface itself is done with an unexpected (if not acceptable) level of tact, with White Australian method actor Kirk Lazarus repeatedly called out for his offensive stereotyping and problematic casting as an African-American character. Again, Tropic Thunder attempts to poke fun at Hollywood’s attitude towards films about the intellectually disabled, although it fails to do so with any conviction, instead coming off as taking cheap shots for a few even cheaper laughs.
With all that said, however, Tropic Thunder is still an entertaining action-comedy, with several genuinely funny scenes. Its extensive casting of Hollywood’s A-list lends its story a little added authenticity, and the satirical nature of the “movie” being shot serves as something of a highlight, as well as the movie’s main source of inoffensive comedic value.
When all’s said and done, and Tom Cruise is dancing in a fatsuit to Ludacris’ “Get Back” as the credits roll, Tropic Thunder still has the power to entertain. Unfortunately, it also has the power to offend pretty heavily, and it certainly hasn’t aged particularly well.
Summary: Despite an incredible cast and genuine comedic promise, Tropic Thunder consistently picks at the lowest hanging fruit, delivering a relatively low-brow action-comedy. There are moments when its potential shines through, but most of its audience will likely find themselves alienated by its uncomfortable humour.