Hollywood satire meets “Apocalypse Now” in Ben Stiller’s “Tropic Thunder.” Surely no movie-industry comedy has ever had a bigger napalm budget, more strafing helicopters or explosions on a par with this lunatic war-movie satire.
Stiller, Robert Downey Jr. and Jack Black play movie stars who don’t realize that they’ve wandered off the set of their Southeast Asia war flick and into a dangerous nest of drug runners. The prima donnas overwhelm jittery director Damien Cockburn (English comedian Steve Coogan), putting the project a month behind schedule in just five days of shooting. Cockburn’s solution: Drop the stars deep in the jungle, film them with hidden cameras and create a guerrilla-style masterpiece. Their make-believe shootouts become battles of blanks and bravado vs. live bullets when they anger the local drug lord.
Stiller, who co-wrote and directed, is generous to his co-stars, allowing Downey to scamper off with the acting honors. His performance as a guy playing a guy playing a guy is a layer cake of clever observation, politically incorrect daring and self-mockery. Black chews up the screen as a Chris Farley/John Belushi type on a drug-fueled rampage. Jay Baruchel plays a bright, nebbishy rookie actor, and Brandon T. Jackson is a rapper named Alpa Chino (say it out loud) who’s anxious to cross over into movies. Jackson’s testy debates with Downey over the authenticity of his performance are among the movie’s comic treasures.
The film veers between action comedy and industry in-jokes at a manic pace. The pampered, neurotic actors fret about their performances while real machine-gun fire whizzes around their ears. Back in Hollywood, two-faced agents and vulgar studio heads get a vigorous send-up by two top stars whose identities, out of respect for the spoiler-sensitive, shall remain secret.
“Tropic Thunder” works double duty. It’s both a sharp satire of filmland’s bigger-is-better mind-set and a prime example of the heavyhanded era it stands in.