Yo, muthafuckas, Robert Downey Jr. gets deep into his character.
TROPIC THUNDER directed by Ben Stiller, written by Stiller, Justin Theroux and Etan Cohen, with Stiller, Jack Black, Robert Downey Jr., Steve Coogan, Jay Baruchel, Brandon T. Jackson, Nick Nolte. A Paramount Pictures release. 107 mins. For venues and times, see Movies. Rating: NNN
In an amazing turn, comeback kid Robert Downey Jr. steals everyone's Thunder
Tropic Thunder is best viewed as a generic delivery vehicle for a staggeringly great performance by Robert Downey Jr. As an Australian method actor who's decided to disappear into the role of a black GI in a Vietnam action movie, Downey is so on the money that you'd happily pay to watch all of his unused scenes, cutting-room trims and outtakes.
Which is good, because the movie around him is... well, it's never quite as great as Downey.
Tropic Thunder is pretty much what you'd expect from an action-movie satire directed by Ben Stiller: the idea is good but not great; the showbiz jokes are sharp but not cutting; the action is calculated to let Stiller play a heroic idiot who ends up more hero than idiot. And there are jokes about farts.
The concept is a straight fusion of the Bill Murray comedy The Man Who Knew Too Little and Galaxy Quest. A quintet of actors - action star Tugg Speedman (Stiller), five-time Oscar winner Kirk Lazarus (Downey), comedian Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black), rapper Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson) and new guy Kevin Sandusky (Jay Baruchel) - are dropped into the middle of nowhere by frazzled director Damien Cockburn (Steve Coogan), who tells them he's going to shoot their Vietnam action epic guerrilla style, with hidden cameras and remotely triggered explosions.
Thing is, they've set down in the middle of an actual war zone, so once Cockburn leaves the picture, his stars are left to slog cluelessly through a real battlefield. (Fortunately, the heavily armed opium traders think Speedman and his crew are a fearless DEA hit squad.)
Things go more or less as you'd expect from there. Stiller leads his "platoon" into ever greater danger with the heedless confidence of his trademarked American-idiot character. Imagine Derek Zoolander if he'd really, really applied himself to those acting lessons. Meanwhile, the project's technical adviser (Nick Nolte) and demolition-effects chief (Danny McBride) slowly suss out what's going on.
Oh, and there's some stuff back in Hollywood with Tugg's agent (Matthew McConaughey) trying to get the movie's douchebag producer (Tom Cruise, underneath just enough makeup to make him look silly but not enough so that you can't tell he's Tom Cruise), to cough up the Tivo Tugg's contract demands.
Ultimately, none of that stuff matters. It's just the white noise we have to endure before we can spend more time with Downey. And Downey is so good - so delighted to be playing this part, to do the things he does in the corner of the frame - that all the flawed logic and underwhelming comic calculations of Tropic Thunder just sort of fall away around him.
I try not to care about the Oscars, but if he doesn't win at least two for this movie - one for performance, another for makeup, and maybe a third for best visual effect - then Hollywood has lost its way.