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Tropic Thunder Skewers Hollywood Cliches

  • Christian Hamaker Contributing Writer
  • Updated Jun 22, 2010
<i>Tropic Thunder</i> Skewers Hollywood Cliches

DVD Release Date:  November 18, 2008
Theatrical Release Date:  August 13, 2008
Rating:  R (for pervasive language, including sexual references, violent content and drug material)
Genre:  Comedy
Run Time:  107 min.
Director:  Ben Stiller
Actors:  Ben Stiller, Robert Downey Jr., Jack Black, Jay Baruchel, Brandon T. Jackson, Nick Nolte, Steve Coogan, Danny McBride, Matthew McConaughey, Brandon Soo Hoo

Tropic Thunder, a new comedy from director and star Ben Stiller, is profane, crude and politically incorrect. It's also uproariously funny—the year's best comedy—and has a winning performance from Robert Downey Jr.

Will Christians enjoy it? The movie is full of foul language and uses the Lord's name irreverently. But its target is not God, or Christians. Instead, Tropic Thunder targets Hollywood pomposity, pampered actors and over-the-top movie clichés, scoring several direct hits. Because those are all things that culturally conservative Christians find laughable, many will laugh along—some guiltily, some content that laughter is good for the soul. Others will find the movie's excesses needlessly offensive.

The film tricks viewers with a pre-credits opening consisting of one ad and a few movie previews, all featuring the actors we'll soon meet in Tropic Thunder. Loud and obnoxious, the advertisement is a music-video style product endorsement set to extremely explicit lyrics by rapper/actor Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson). For viewers unaware that the ad is actually part of Tropic Thunder, it's a bit of a shock to the system.

Three faux movie previews quickly allow viewers to get in on the joke. The first is for the latest film from action movie star Tugg Speedman (Ben Stiller), star of a never-ending series of films about a brute named Scorcher. Also previewed:  A multi-character comedy powered by the flatulence of star Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black) and a homosexual drama set in the Middle Ages and starring Australian hunk Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr.)—a mixture of Priest and The Da Vinci Code, with longing gazes and forbidden touches.

The feature proper begins as the story of an adaptation gone bad. A film crew adapting a story by wounded war veteran Four Leaf Tayback (Nick Nolte) is beset with problems. The director (Steve Coogan) has no control over his actors, who include Speedman, Lazarus, Chino, Portnoy and Kevin Sandusky (Jay Baruchel).

When a technician (Danny McBride) arranges an elaborate explosion that the cameras fail to capture, the wasted costs bring down the wrath of movie executive Les Grossman (a terrific performance from a surprising actor, the name of whom the studio is trying—and failing—to keep quiet). He's a profane, overbearing tycoon whose bottom-line concerns trump everything else, including the well-being of his Speedman's agent (Matthew McConaughey).

In response to Grossman's tirade, Tayback convinces the film's director to send his actors into real danger in Southeast Asia and, through guerilla filmmaking techniques, capture more honest performances. The gamble goes horribly awry, stranding the actors, who believe that real-life drug-runners are film extras whose guns, like the actors', pose no real threat. After Speedman gets into serious trouble, his fellow actors must use their chops to save him from danger.

The particulars of the plot are secondary to the real meat of the movie:  the insecurities and desperation of movie actors. Speedman hasn't recovered from an ill-advised portrayal of a mentally slow farmhand named Simple Jack—a bid for serious stature that backfired badly. Lazarus, a white man who has gone too deep into "method" acting, has chemically altered his skin tone to play an African American. (He refuses to break character until after recording the DVD commentary.) Portnoy carries a secret stash of drugs, and Chino pines for a soul mate when he isn't challenging Lazarus' stereotypical ideas of what it means to be a black man.

Writer/director Stiller, along with co-writers Justin Theroux and Etan Cohen, exhibit a great batting average for their digs at Hollywood self-importance. Robert Downey Jr., who already has the year's biggest comeback story with Iron Man, steals the movie as the dedicated Lazarus, who, in one memorable scene, tells Speedman his theory on just how far an Oscar performance should go without tipping into disrespectful territory. Viewers will have to make their own assessment of Downey's performance, although criticism of its potentially offensive elements might be muted due to Alpa Chino's withering assessment of Lazarus' affectations.

Tropic Thunder is full of laughs, but its language is very "R"-rated. While Stiller is fine in the lead role, Jack Black's character wears thin quickly, and Baruchel has difficulty breaking through. Those weaker performances are far outweighed, however, by Downey's superb turn. How interesting it will be if this performance earns Downey an Oscar nomination, which would very likely pit him against Heath Ledger—The Joker in the latest Batman film. Academy members would then have to weigh a strong performance from an actor who died tragically from a drug overdose against a major comeback performance from an actor who has conquered his drug addiction and returned stronger than ever before.


  • Language/Profanity:  Lord's name taken in vain; lots of foul language; a man extends a middle finger; mentally challenged character is referred to as a "retard."
  • Drugs/Alcohol:  A drug-obsessed actor goes through withdrawal and is tempted with drugs late in the film; a group of drug-runners holds one of the actors for ransom.
  • Sex/Nudity:  A movie spoof about gay monks; plenty of bawdy talk; actors pretend to urinate and break wind; discussion of pornography business; music video for "Booty Sweat" spoofs sexual rap videos; reference to a "Skinemax" movie in which one of the actors appeared; an actor says everyone is gay "once in a while"; an offer of oral sex.
  • Violence/Disturbing Imagery:  Movie-within-movie helicopter attack and images of severely wounded soldiers; comical appearance of a man with no hands; a grenade-related death; an actor treats a severed head cavalierly, as if it were a prop; lots of gunfire; bayoneting; a prisoner is whipped, burned with a cigar and stabbed.