Tropic Thunder is a 2008 American action comedy film co-written, co-produced, directed by, and co-starring Ben Stiller. The film also co-stars Robert Downey, Jr. and Jack Black. The main plot revolves around a group of prima donna actors who are making a fictional Vietnam War film. When their frustrated director decides to drop them in the middle of a jungle, they are forced to rely on their acting skills in order to survive the real action and danger. Written by Justin Theroux and Etan Cohen, the film was produced by Red Hour Films and distributed by DreamWorks Pictures through Paramount Pictures.
Stiller's idea for the film originated while playing a minor role in Empire of the Sun, and he later enlisted Theroux and Cohen to help complete the script. After the film was green-lit in 2006, filming took place in 2007 on the Hawaiian island of Kauai over thirteen weeks and was later deemed the largest film production in the island's history. The film had an extensive marketing promotion, including faux websites for the three main characters and their fictional films, airing a fictional television special, and selling the energy drink advertised in the film, "Booty Sweat".
The film received generally favorable reviews with critics approving of the film's characters, story, and faux trailers. However, it did receive criticism for content that some deemed offensive. The film's soundtrack and score debuted on August 5, 2008, before the film's theatrical release. In its North American opening weekend, the film earned US$26 million and retained the number one position for the first three weekends of release. The film and its cast were nominated for several awards by various groups including the Screen Actors Guild, Broadcast Film Critics Association, and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The film grossed $180 million in theaters before its release on home video on November 18, 2008.
Hook-handed Vietnam veteran John "Four Leaf" Tayback's (Nick Nolte) memoir, Tropic Thunder, is being made into a film. With the exception of newcomer supporting actor Kevin Sandusky (Jay Baruchel), the cast—fading action hero Tugg Speedman (Ben Stiller), five-time Academy Award-winning Australian method actor Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey, Jr.), rapper Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson), and drug-addicted comedian Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black)—behave unreasonably. Rookie director Damien Cockburn (Steve Coogan) cannot control them during filming of a large war scene, and production is reported to be one month behind schedule. Studio executive Les Grossman (Tom Cruise) orders Damien to get filming back on track, or risk its cancellation.
Acting on Four Leaf's advice, Damien drops the actors into the middle of the jungle, with hidden cameras and rigged special effects explosions to film "guerrilla-style". The actors have guns that fire blanks, along with a map and scene listing that will lead to a helicopter waiting at the end of the route. Unbeknownst to the actors and production, the group have been dropped in the middle of the Golden Triangle, the home of the heroin-producing Flaming Dragon gang. Just as the group are about to set off, Damien inadvertently steps on an old landmine and is blown up, stunning the actors. Tugg, believing Damien faked his death, persuades the others that Damien is alive and that they are still shooting the film. Kirk is unconvinced but joins them in their trek through the jungle.
When Four Leaf and pyrotechnics operator Cody Underwood (Danny McBride) try to locate the dead director, they are captured by Flaming Dragon, at which point Four Leaf reveals that he fabricated his memoir and that he has hands. As the actors continue through the jungle, Kirk and Kevin discover that Tugg is leading them in the wrong direction. The four actors, tired of walking and hoping to be rescued, leave Tugg, who goes off by himself and is captured by Flaming Dragon. Taken to their heroin factory, Tugg believes it is a POW camp from the script. The gang discovers he is the star of their favorite film, the box office bomb Simple Jack, and force him to reenact it several times a day. Meanwhile in Los Angeles, Tugg's agent Rick Peck (Matthew McConaughey) is trying to negotiate with Les an unfulfilled term in Tugg's contract that entitles him to a TiVo. Flaming Dragon calls the two and demands a ransom for Tugg, but Les instead berates the gang. Despite the threats, Les expresses no interest in rescuing Speedman and tries to convince Rick about the benefits of allowing Tugg to die and collecting the insurance. Les also offers Rick a Gulfstream V and money in return for his cooperation.
Kirk, Alpa, Jeff, and Kevin discover Flaming Dragon's heroin factory. After seeing Tugg being tortured, they plan a rescue attempt based on the film's script. Kirk impersonates a farmer towing a captured Jeff on the back of a water buffalo, distracting the armed guards so Alpa and Kevin can locate the captives. After the gang notices inconsistencies in Kirk's story, the actors open fire, temporarily subduing them. When the gang realize they are being guarded by actors, they gather their guns and begin firing. The four actors locate Tugg, Four Leaf, and Cody, and they cross a bridge rigged to explode to get to their helicopter. Tugg asks to remain behind with the gang which he considers his family but quickly returns when Flaming Dragon fires in pursuit. Four Leaf detonates the bridge allowing Tugg to reach safety, but as the helicopter takes off, the gang fires an RPG at the helicopter. Rick unexpectedly stumbles out of the jungle carrying a TiVo box and throws it in the path of the RPG, saving them. The crew return to Hollywood, where footage from the hidden cameras is compiled into a feature film, Tropic Blunder, which becomes a major critical and box office hit. The film wins Tugg his first Academy Award, which Kirk presents to him at the ceremony.
- Ben Stiller as Tugg Speedman: compared to a young Sylvester Stallone, he was the highest-paid, highest-grossing action film star ever due to his Scorcher franchise. His career has stalled, and he now has a reputation for appearing in nothing but box office bombs. After a failed attempt at portraying a serious role in Simple Jack, he takes the role of Four Leaf Tayback in an attempt to save his career. The first faux trailer at the film's start is a preview for Scorcher VI: Global Meltdown, the latest in his series.
- Robert Downey, Jr. as Kirk Lazarus: compared to Russell Crowe, an immensely talented Australian method actor, Lazarus had a controversial "pigmentation alteration" surgery to darken his skin for his portrayal of the black character Sergeant Lincoln Osiris. Lazarus refuses to break character while filming and only speaks in his character's Black English. Lazarus's faux trailer, Satan's Alley, is about two gay monks in a 12th-century Irish monastery, parodying films such as Brokeback Mountain and Downey's own scenes with Tobey Maguire (who in a cameo portrays the other monk) in Wonder Boys.
- Jack Black as Jeff Portnoy: compared to Chris Farley, he is a drug-addicted comedian-actor well known for portraying multiple parts in films that rely on toilet humor, particularly jokes about flatulence. In the film-within-a-film, he plays a raspy-voiced soldier named Fats. Portnoy's faux trailer for The Fatties: Fart 2, about a family (with each member played by Portnoy) which enjoys passing gas, spoofs Eddie Murphy's portrayal of multiple characters in films such as Nutty Professor II: The Klumps.
- Brandon T. Jackson as Alpa Chino: a rapper who is attempting to cross over into acting, portraying a soldier named Motown, while promoting his "Bust-A-Nut" candy bar and energy drink, "Booty Sweat". His name is a play on Al Pacino. Before the faux trailers, a faux commercial for "Booty Sweat" and "Bust-A-Nut" appears, accompanied by the song "I Love Tha Pussy".
- Jay Baruchel as Kevin Sandusky: a respectful novice actor, he is the only cast member to have read the script and book and attended the assigned boot camp before the film. Sandusky plays a young soldier named Brooklyn in the film-within-a-film. Brooklyn and Sandusky each occupy the position of straight man in character in the film-within-a-film and its cast, being the only actor without an internal conflict or deep-seated insecurity.
- Nick Nolte as John "Four Leaf" Tayback: the author of Tropic Thunder, a fake memoir of his war experiences on which the film-within-a-film is based. He suggests the idea of dropping the actors in the middle of the jungle to get them looking and feeling like soldiers lost in a foreign land.
- Steve Coogan as Damien Cockburn: the inexperienced British film director who is unable to control the actors in the film.
- Danny McBride as Cody Underwood: the film's explosives expert and helicopter pilot. He is a pyromaniac.
- Matthew McConaughey as Rick "Pecker" Peck: Tugg Speedman's extremely devoted agent and best friend.
- Bill Hader as Rob Slolom: assistant and right-hand man to Les Grossman.
- Brandon Soo Hoo as Tran: the young leader of the Flaming Dragon gang and the film's main antagonist. The character was compared to Karen National Union guerrilla leaders Johnny and Luther Htoo.
- Reggie Lee as Byong: the second-in-command of the Flaming Dragon gang.
- Tom Cruise as Les Grossman: the foul-mouthed, hot-headed studio executive producing Tropic Thunder.
Various actors and celebrities portray themselves, including Tobey Maguire, Tyra Banks, Maria Menounos, Martin Lawrence, The Mooney Suzuki, Jason Bateman, Lance Bass, Jennifer Love Hewitt, Alicia Silverstone, and Jon Voight. Christine Taylor, Mini Anden, Anthony Ruivivar, Rachel Avery, and Yvette Nicole Brown have roles as minor characters in the film. Justin Theroux, the writer of the film, appears in two brief roles as a UH-1 Huey gunner and the disc jockey from Zoolander (shown in a deleted scene).