Tropic Thunder (R) **½

 

Some sparks, but no fire.

Tropic Thunder
Ben Stiller and Robert Downey Jr. are shown in a scene from, "Tropic Thunder." Photo: Merie Weismiller Wallace.
 

By Rene Rodriguez, The Miami Herald

The frustratingly uneven comedy Tropic Thunder has moments of full-on, bust-a-gut hilarity, along with long stretches where you can hear the crickets chirping in the theater.

Ben Stiller, who co-wrote, directed and stars in the movie, thinks in skits instead of full-length films. There are dullish scenes of exposition when you can imagine Stiller and co-writers Justin Theroux and Etan Cohen sitting around, trying to think of something to give their actors to do that would advance the story. A comedy stops being funny the moment you can feel it straining to while away the minutes.

But there is a lot to like about Tropic Thunder, too. The film -- in which a group of pampered, overpaid actors filming a Vietnam war drama in the jungle run afoul of trigger-happy heroin smugglers -- cleverly introduces its characters via a series of fake movie trailers that tells us all we need to know about action he-man Tugg Speedman (Stiller), the five-time Oscar-winning Australian thespian Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr.), fart-comedy king Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black) and hip-hop superstar Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson).

All four have been cast in a giant war picture -- the most expensive movie ever made -- that is going nowhere due to on-set bickering and ego clashes. To toughen up his cast, a belligerent studio chief (Tom Cruise, almost unrecognizable in a bald cap, fat suit and giant hairy hands) agrees to plop them deep inside the jungle for a purported boot camp session and secretly film them via hidden cameras. The actors are so self-obsessed that it takes a serious length of time to realize those drug runners shooting guns at them are using live ammo.

Downey, whose performance in Iron Man elevated the movie from another comic-book superhero picture into a pop culture phenomenon, does a similar thing here. His performance as the imperious Lazarus, who underwent a ''pigmentation alteration'' procedure so he could play an African-American character, is a thing of genius. Lazarus is a Method actor who doesn't believe in getting out of character until he's recorded the DVD commentary, and he has patterned his performance as a black soldier after 1970s blaxploitation pictures but is completely unaware of how offensive that is.

Downey avoids the great potential for racist insensitivity by keeping the focus on Lazarus' raging actorly ego, continually brushing off complaints by his black rapper co-star. He's a marvel to watch, and so is an unusually loose and energetic Cruise as the volcanic studio head, oozing greed and all-around loathsomeness, and inexplicably wont to breaking out into dance routines reminiscent of In Living Color's Fly Girls.

Part of the reason both actors fare so well is that they have been given actual characters to play. The same cannot be said of Stiller, whose muscle-bound movie tough-guy is a generic riff on a Hollywood dunderhead, or Black, whose only character trait is heroin withdrawal that has him biting rabid bats and running around in his underwear but rarely generating any actual laughs.

Tropic Thunder is unusually crowded with characters: Matthew McConaughey is a slick agent whose only mission in life is keeping his clients happy, Nick Nolte is a grizzled war veteran whose memoirs served as the inspiration for the movie-within-a-movie, Steve Coogan is the film's beleaguered director and Danny McBride (Pineapple Express) is the on-set explosions coordinator. It's a sign of how slack the script for Tropic Thunder is that none of them get a single memorable scene, and when the story calls for large-scale shoot-outs and explosions, director Stiller proves he can make them as slick and generic as the worst of hacks. But Cruise and particularly Downey are something to behold: They give this Thunder its lightning.

Cast: Ben Stiller, Robert Downey Jr., Jack Black, Jay Baruchel, Brandon T. Jackson, Nick Nolte, Danny McBride, Matthew McConaughey, Steve Coogan, Tom Cruise.

Director: Ben Stiller.

Screenwriters: Justin Theroux, Ben Stiller, Etan Cohen.

Producers: Stuart Cornfeld, Ben Stiller, Eric McLeod.

A DreamWorks Pictures release. Running time: 106 minutes. Vulgar language, violence, gore, adult themes. Opens Wednesday at area theaters.

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