In Tropic Thunder, Ben Stiller does some of the best work of his career. And for once, the movie doesn't look sitcom-dowdy (hiring Cleveland native John Toll, the Oscar-winning cinematographer of Braveheart and Legends of the Fall, was a smart move). Fortunately, Thunder has a lot more going for it than just good looks. If most studio comedies these days err on the side of timidity, Tropic Thunder gleefully throws caution to the wind. Besides the race-baiting value of having Robert Downey Jr.'s character (five-time-Oscar-winning Aussie Method actor Kirk Lazarus) undergo a pigment dye job to play an African American soldier, there's a hilarious running gag in which an entire Southeast Asian village idolizes action star Tugg Speedman (Stiller) for his mortifying role as a retarded man in a piece of cheese called Simple Jack. Not since Borat has a comedy been so eager to make you cringe - and chuckle - at the same time.
A quartet of faux coming-attractions trailers introduces us to the principal cast. Besides Speedman and Lazarus, there's roly-poly, smack-addicted comedy superstar Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black) and hip-hop phenom/ aspiring actor Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson). While shooting on location in the jungles of Vietnam, the cast and crew of a Rambo-style adventure movie are attacked by the Flaming Dragons, a band of real-life guerrilla rebels/heroin dealers. Twelve-year-old Dragon leader Tran (Brandon Soo Hoo) is as badass and legitimately hard-core as the pampered Hollywood millionaires are girlish and soft. The remainder of the film consists of an extended cat-and-mouse game between the feral Dragons and the clueless, out-of-their-depth actors.
At its best, Tropic Thunder achieves the kind of madcap, taboo-rattling spirit of early '70s Robert Altman films (with a big shout-out to M*A*S*H). Certainly, the mix of gruesome bloodshed and nose-thumbing comic bravado owes a huge debt to the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital cutups from Altman's counterculture classic. Stiller's gift for bringing out the best in actors hasn't deserted him either. While Downey's preternaturally focused performance is his second tour de force in a row after May megahit Iron Man, an extended cameo by a prosthetics-laden Tom Cruise as a studio boss equivalent to Austin Powers' Fat Bastard also strikes comic gold. As the movie-within-a-movie's addled British director and pyromaniacal explosives expert respectively, Steve Coogan and Danny McBride (currently stealing scenes in Pineapple Express) both earn beaucoup laughs. Even the normally unctuous Matthew McConaughey gets into the spirit of things by delivering one of his better turns to date as - what else? - an unctuous Hollywood agent.
Not everything works here. Occasionally, the gargantuan scale of the physical production (this is nearly as extravagant and expensive a Vietnam fantasia as Apocalypse Now) comes perilously close to crushing the satire. Furthermore, Stiller's song choices (including the Stones' "Sympathy for the Devil," Buffalo Springfield's "For What It's Worth" and Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Run Through the Jungle") feel unimaginative and borderline hokey. If that was part of the joke - what self-respecting 'nam epic hasn't plundered the CCR songbook? - it still falls a little flat. Yet, despite those cavils, there's still enough snarky mirth to keep you laughing your ass off for what's left of the summer.
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