'Tropic Thunder' rolls with laughter
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Ben Stiller and Robert Downey Jr. are movie actors in a war film.
Paramount Pictures
Ben Stiller and Robert Downey Jr. are movie actors in a war film.
Tom Cruise seems to have regained his cool in Tropic Thunder (* * * out of four).

Cruise's paunchy studio exec is easily the funniest role of his fairly straight-faced career. Whether barking outlandish orders or gyrating ridiculously, Cruise's bald-pated, hairy-knuckled movie mogul is outrageously amusing. His boyishly eager businessman from Risky Business has grown into a cynical jerk of a studio chief — but he has updated his dance moves. Though it can't be an easy feat to go up against such comedic powerhouses as Robert Downey Jr., Jack Black or Ben Stiller, Cruise proves a formidable co-conspirator in this send-up of Hollywood egos.

This action film parody is surely going to divide people. Not only is it unabashedly politically incorrect, but it is almost a textbook definition of an uneven comedy. There are some wildly funny scenes, a few leaden ones and others that are scattershot, with humorous satire undercut by over-the-top grisliness. Still, when it's funny, it's really funny.

Stiller flexes his muscles as action star Tugg Speedman, who routinely saves the world as the star of the Scorcher series. Black plays Jeff Portnoy, who is tired of being celebrated for his girth and prodigious flatulence and wants to try something serious. But serious drama is all Kirk Lazarus, the five-time Oscar winner from Australia, has ever known. Downey plays the blond, blue-eyed Lazarus as a black man for most of the movie.

These men come together in Southeast Asia to film a Vietnam War movie under the direction of a first-time filmmaker (Steve Coogan), a trigger-happy explosions expert (Danny McBride) and an enigmatic military consultant (Nick Nolte). But things go horribly wrong.

Back in Hollywood, Cruise, as studio chief Les Grossman, threatens to pull the plug on the runaway production, and Speedman's agent (Matthew McConaughey) wheedles to keep his client happy.

Downey is absurdly funny, and Stiller, who directed and co-wrote the film, has some good farcical moments. The entire cast effectively lampoons cinematic clichés. An exchange between Downey and Stiller about playing disabled characters has spawned real-life protests. Though perhaps insensitive, neither the dialogue nor the plot is truly mean-spirited.

The only target Tropic Thunder seems intent on ridiculing — bitingly and with abandon — is the movie industry. (Rated R for pervasive language, sexual references, violent content and drug material. Running time: 1 hour, 47 minutes. Opens today nationwide.)

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