Tropic Thunder, the comic gem that turned controversy into golden comedy, celebrates 15 years of success. The action comedy followed the journey of a group of unfortunate members of a film crew, who were forced to fend for themselves after getting lost while filming a war movie on location in the Vietnamese jungle. Directed by Ben Stiller, the movie is a funny peek behind the curtains that sparked a firestorm of criticism that cannot be easily forgotten.

Tropic Thunder a movie that laughs at Hollywood

Tropic Thunder Still
Brandon T. Jackson, Ben Stiller and Downey Jr. in Tropic Thunder

The 2008 dramatic action comedy is known for its humorous approach to the movie industry through a war film that makes fun of the movie-making process in addition to the action and thrills. The actors, including Ben Stiller, Jack Black, and Robert Downey Jr., played hilarious characters who pulled it off in the crazy adventure. Tropic Thunder is a unique, entertaining journey filled with sarcasm into the world of movie-making.

The unusual approach of Tropic Thunder mocks Hollywood in a way when those glamorous figures who are used to acting in comfort are made to act in a tough environment like war. This makes fun of those actors who take it so seriously that it eventually becomes awkward. It’s like a joke about how wild Hollywood can be behind the scenes.

The film revolves around the production of a war movie that faces a lot of setbacks. To make it more realistic, the director puts the actors in the real jungle, which turns out to be an actual war zone. Those Hollywood actors who were used to acting in their comfort space now have to navigate themselves to survive the zone, unaware that they are still part of the shoot.

Ben Stiller is portrayed as an actor named Tugg Speedman who is attempting to break into the industry. Kirk Lazarus,  played by Robert D. as a black character, undergoes serious controversy, which sarcastically comments on Hollywood’s method acting culture. Jeff Portnoy is played by Jack Black, who is known for his lowbrow humor and addiction issues. Tom Cruise‘s  Lee is a loud and obscene movie producer who is in charge of war films. As all are just comically exaggerated to display their dry wit.

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Tropic Thunder: When comedy turned into a controversy

At the same time, many were quick to label the blockbuster as racist and offensive due to Robert Downey Jr.‘s portrayal of Kirk Lazarus, an Australian method actor who surgically darkens the pigment of his skin to play an African-American soldier. People criticized Downey’s African American depiction as a clear attempt to perpetuate racial stereotypes. However, despite their best efforts, the gamble appeared to backfire, and Downey Jr. himself came under fire.

Robert Downey Jr as Kirk Lazarus
Robert Downey Jr as Kirk Lazarus

In 2020,  Downey Jr. responded to the blackface role during an interview on The Joe Rogan Experience. He insisted that he had no regrets about the part. Speaking about his reservations, he said:

 ‘I thought, “Yeah, I’ll do that. I’ll do that after Iron Man.” And then I started thinking. This is a terrible idea. I thought, “Hold on, dude. Get real here. Where is your heart?” My heart is: a) I get to be black for a summer in my mind, so there’s something in it for me. The other thing is that I get to hold up to nature the insane, self-involved hypocrisy of artists and what they think they’re allowed to do on occasion.’

Despite all the debate around him, he was nominated in the Supporting Actor category at the Academy Awards, Golden Globes, BAFTAs, and Screen Actors Guild Awards for his Kirk Lazarus role.

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Kirk Lazarus and Tugg Speedman from Tropic Thunder
Kirk Lazarus and Tugg Speedman

Upon its release, the movie was attacked for its portrayal of ‘Simple Jack’ by Stiller’s character. The movie follows Stiller’s Tugg Speedman as he makes an effort to revive his career after appearing in a film about a mentally challenged farm boy. A coalition of more than 20 disability advocacy groups boycotted the screening, accusing the film of repeated use of the word ‘ret***  in many parts.  Stiller defended the film, previously stating:

 ‘We screened the movie so many times, and this didn’t come up until very late. In the context of the film, I think it’s really clear that they were making fun of the actors who try to use serious subjects to win awards.’

Co-writer Etan Cohen also asserted: “Some people have taken this as making fun of handicapped people, but we’re trying to make fun of the actors who use this material as fodder for acclaim.”

In addition to blackface and ableism being the two main criticisms made of the film, there were other issues raised. Tropic Thunder came under yet more fire for its casual, anti-Semitic undertones. Critics have publicly blasted the blockbuster for comments made about the ‘Jewface’ of antagonist Les Grossman, played by Tom Cruise.

Despite all this backlash and heated debates, Tropic Thunder remains a thought-provoking film that proves its ability to remind us that comedy has the power to challenge norms. All this criticism and accusation finally served the film better, making us remember it even after 15 years.

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