Tropic Thunder review

Stiller, Downey Jr and Jack Black head to war

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According to business bible Forbes, Ben Stiller made $40m last year. And while Night At The Museum must have jollied agents and the industry, it can’t have satisfied an actor/director who has often been at his best taking trips to the dark side.

There’s an edge to Stiller he too rarely exploits and the early buzz on his first directorial effort since 2001 cult classic fashion-farce Zoolander pegged it as a merciless send-up of war flick clichés and Hollywood excess; a precision-targeted comedy bomb.

Well, it hits, it misses, it leaves targets bloodied but unbowed. Tropic Thunder is a lot of fun, but not quite the Apocalypse Wow suggested by the online promo clips of acutely observed fake Making Of Rain Of Madness.

There’s a purity to that idea – glimpsing the absurd workings of the movie machine – that Tropic Thunder as a feature doesn’t share, ending up a mishmash of genre parody and Hollywood satire, suffering from skewed internal logic and no sense of the rules of its own reality.

This might seem like a grand criticism for a movie designed to make you laugh, but even modest Apatow send-up Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story knew its limits and worked within them, allowing an emotional investment in the story of John C Reilly’s idiotic, OTT rock star…

Here, there’s a host of idiots to enjoy, if not identify with: Stiller is Tugg Speedman, a fading action star whose attempt to gain Oscar-snaffling credibility tanked in Simple Jack. Jack Black is Jeff Portnoy, a critically reviled but commercially successful comedian similarly keen for some kudos to go with the vast quantities of drugs he consumes.

Then there’s Robert Downey Jr as Kirk Lazarus, an Australian Oscar-winner whose Method dedication stretches so far that he has his skin surgically dyed in order to play an African-American sergeant in Tropic Thunder - the magnum opus of British director Damien Cockburn (Steve Coogan).

With the shoot going disastrously over schedule and over budget, Cockburn drops his pack of prima donnas in the jungle, intending to terrorise them with stunt-explosions, but they’re soon confronted with a very real enemy in the form of gun-toting drug-runners Flaming Dragon.

If the set-up - fake soldiers facing real death - sounds familiar it’s because it is: this is Southern Comfort on Southern Comfort, a woozy, gag-fuelled party for everyone involved, cutting loose and having a laugh. It’s not without some near-the-knuckle ideas, the principal one being Downey Jr’s make-over/

It's daring, daft and potentially uncomfortable, but skirts any concerns - is this just a 21st century Minstrel Show? - by having ‘real’ African-American actor Alpa Chino (Brandon T Jackson) on hand to point out the gross nature of Lazarus’ Method madness.

And of course there’s Downey Jr’s performance per se - which is aware of its own outrageousness but equally so damn likeable, buttressed by some of the movie’s smartest observations, such as when he advises Speedman his Oscar attempt floundered because he went “full retard. Never go full retard”.

It’s in beats like this that Tropic Thunder is at its best, though it clearly owes a debt to Stiller’s appearance as a power-crazed director on Extras. As much as he says the script’s core conceit - mocking movie stars who act as if shooting a war film is as traumatic as the real thing - germinated when he was a bit-player on Empire Of The Sun, it can’t be a coincidence that the idea finally made it to the screen after he guested on Ricky Gervais’ insider sitcom.

Tropic Thunder may not be as merciless, but it does have another terrific turn from a friend of Stiller: a certain Mr Cruise. Heavily made up and as sweary as in Magnolia, he’s a hard-talking studio exec whose full-on telephone rant at Speedman’s eventual kidnappers is undoubtedly one of the funniest things Total Film has seen in recent years.

Go in prepared for Zoolander levels of polite stupidity – rather than the lacerating satire of The Player – and you will find that Tropic Thunder is no damp squib, even if it won’t quite go down a storm.

Apparently actors are narcissistic and Hollywood is ruthless… Stiller doesn't say anything we don't know, but stand-out turns from Downey Jr and Cruise make Tropic Thunder very funny for all its flaws.

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