Tropic Thunder – comedian Ben Stiller’s movie-within-a-movie farce about a group of Hollywood actors shooting a Vietnam war epic deep inside the jungles of Southeast Asia – is no Dr. Strangelove.
That’s a shame because there are moments in this overly ambitious production where you get the feeling that you might actually be watching something special unfold.
Robert Downey Jr. gives another inspired performance as Aussie acting god Kirk Lazarus – a man so committed to his role as an African-American soldier that he never once drops out of character and even undergoes a controversial skin pigmentation procedure to turn his pale skin ebony.
“I’m the dude playing the dude disguised as another dude,” Lazarus spits when his ‘platoon’ buddies challenge his oddball behavior.
Robert Downey Jr. does for Tropic Thunder just what he did for Iron Man – take a largely ho-hum script and infuse it with enough wit and vitality to elevate it into a higher realm.
But there are a lot of oddball characters in Tropic Thunder – including a host of comedic cameos by A-list Hollywood actors. The most compelling of these comes from none other than Top Gun Tom Cruise, who manages to reestablish his acting credentials once more by playing a guy who behaves even weirder than the celebrated Scientologist himself.
What prevents Tropic Thunder from rising to another level, however, is Stiller himself. Just when it appears the chaotic spectacle of miscreants and malcontents parading across the screen is in the process of brewing up something exceptional, we get standard Stiller stuff reminiscent of “Zoolander” and the “Heartbreak Kid.”
What we get is too much Stiller and not enough of the anarchy hinted at the outset when Steve Coogan’s dizzy director character steps on a land mine and is blown to bits.
Still, the individual performances are so good that if Tropic Thunder fails to repeat its first weekend success at the box office, it could very well be on its way to cult status.
Tropic Thunder. Starring Ben Stiller, Robert Downey Jr. and Jack Black. Runtime 1 hour, 43 minutes. Rated R.