Tropic Thunder: Vietnamese Beef Pho

Year Released: 2008
Directed by: Ben Stiller
Starring: Ben Stiller, Jack Black, Robert Downey Jr., Nick Nolte
(R, 107 min.)

"Kings fight for empire, madmen for applause." John Dryden

This very guilty pleasure is a minefield choked with enough vulgarity and gore to incinerate most of Southeast Asia, which it almost does. But when you set out to parody films specializing in lewd humor and graphic violence, outrage is not just an outcome, it is an inevitability. And yes, I confess, I laughed in spite of myself.

Part of the fun is that Ben Stiller, who starred, directed, and helped write the screenplay, goes the limit to skewer the excesses in his own profession. He plays the action hero Tugg Speedman at the end of his sequel spiral, trying to redeem himself with a gritty Viet Nam piece. Robert Downey Jr. as Australian method actor Kirk Lazarus, undergoes skin pigmentation alteration to become an African American soldier, not dropping his feigned and rather inauthentic dialect even as it becomes quite obvious theirs is a real rather than scripted fight for survival. Jack Black joins the cast as Jeff Portnoy of the fat/flatulence syndicate, where he portrays at least four or five members of a particularly annoying dysfunctional family. Do the names Sly, Russell, and Eddie come to mind?

Lurking in the shadows with his battered face and throaty voice is John Four Leaf Tayback, the Viet Nam vet whose novel is being filmed, played to perfection by Nick Nolte who has coaxed out quite a few roles and bucks from the body wreckage that he now is. As it turns out, he has a few surprises up his sleeve, a pun you will not get until watching the film.

Of course, actually it is a film within a film, except somehow the actors on screen aren’t quite aware of it. In fact, they are so steeped in the world of illusion they can’t tell a real dead body from Hollywood’s faux ones, real Golden Triangle drug lords from paid local walk ons.

Somehow, though, the script saves them, except only one of the actors has bothered to read it through. “I don’t read the script; the script reads me,” Kirk pontificates. 

Still another saving grace is Tugg’s most recent film failure, Simple Jack, the tale of a mentally challenged young man that somehow failed to fascinated the critics but has found a home in the hearts of the drug lords. Quite a few have criticized the film’s non PC treatment of mental retardation, especially the word “retard”, the R word becoming as radioactive as the N one. Yet no one seems to have any quarrel with the especially crude sexual language, the F word peppering things just as much as the ever-present bullets. 

Especially adept at suggesting creative usages for parts of the anatomy not even acknowledged in Victorian times is an unrecognizable Tom Cruise playing the completely obnoxious studio director Lee Grossman. Bald, overweight, and routinely malicious, only the voice belies the actor who is either utterly secure or desperate to take on such an unsympathetic role, given the current fragile state of his career. 

Also part of the spoof is the pampered treatment these so called gritty actors get. At the edge of the remote jungle location 5 star accommodations await the thespians, and a fresh fruit tray more at home at the Ritz than this jungle rewards those who have just playacted a gritty death scene. Matthew McConaughey as Tugg’s loyal agent, is ready to go to war over the absence of TIVO privileges for his client.

Yet on another level, the real actors in this satire are anything but vain. Jack Black flaunts his less that buff body in almost all its naked glory as he arrives aboard a compliant water buffalo like a cut of not too prime beef. Nick Nolte exposes every etched facial wrinkle and permanently hung over eyelids to the unforgiving camera. And Tom Cruise has never looked so blandly unattractive; yet he seemed to relish his charade.

Coming on the heels of Brideshead Revisited, my head spins as I go from the sublime to the ridiculous with this late summer satire. Yes, it has plenty of laughs and even a few genuine insights, but do comedies, especially summer ones, always have to be so downright crude?

—Kathy Borich

Film-Loving Foodie

Let’s not be like our pampered actors who film in Vietnam and eat like rich Westerners. This traditional Vietnamese soup or pho is a whole dinner in itself and has rapidly become very popular here.

Maybe if Jeff “Fats” Portnoy ate a little more of this he’d look a little better in his jockey shorts. But then again, what would happen to his Fat/Flatulence franchise?

Here are some other Asian favorites:

Pot Stickers

Shanghai Chicken Wings

Szechuan Hot Chili Oil on Noodles

Chinese Sponge Cake

Japanese Cheesecake

Lotus Seed Mooncakes

Vietnamese Beef Pho

This soup is served with a plate full of fresh garnishes as well as various sauces. This allows each person to season their serving to taste. The soup is somewhat unusual, because the meat is cooked in the bowl. The beef is sliced very thin, almost thin enough to see through. You might want to have the butcher slice it for you. The boiling hot broth is poured over the noodles and raw meat. The meat is quickly cooked in the hot broth in the time it takes to garnish the soup.” Maryellen


  • 4 quarts beef broth
  • 1 large onion, sliced into rings
  • 6 slices fresh ginger root
  • 1 lemon grass
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • 1 teaspoon whole black peppercorns
  • 1 pound sirloin tip, cut into thin slices
  • 1/2 pound bean sprouts
  • 1 cup fresh basil leaves
  • 1 cup fresh mint leaves
  • 1 cup loosely packed cilantro leaves
  • 3 fresh jalapeno peppers, sliced into rings
  • 2 limes, cut into wedges
  • 2 (8 ounce) packages dried rice noodles
  • 1/2 tablespoon hoisin sauce (available at Asian groceries)
  • 1 dash hot pepper sauce
  • 3 tablespoons fish sauce

Some say this soup is missing its key ingredient, star anise. If you wish to be more authentic, include  10 whole star anise, lightly toasted in a dry pan 6 whole cloves, lightly toasted in a dry pan, which are then tied in a spice bag or cheese cloth and added to the broth the last 30 minutes, after which they are discarded. 


  1. In a large soup pot, combine broth, onion, ginger, lemon grass, cinnamon, and peppercorns. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, and cover. Simmer for 1 hour.
  2. Arrange bean sprouts, mint, basil, and cilantro on a platter with chilies and lime.
  3. Soak the noodles in hot water to cover for 15 minutes or until soft. Drain. Place equal portions of noodles into 6 large soup bowls, and place raw beef on top. Ladle hot broth over noodles and beef. Pass platter with garnishes and sauces.

Recipe Source: