Movie satire is tricky enough, but when a film skewers its own industry the results usually are disastrous.
The movies tend to be too insider - written by Hollywood for Hollywood.
Thankfully, Tropic Thunder avoids that pitfall.
It's a clever and funny comedy, and its characters are so broadly written in terms of Hollywood stereotypes there's an instant familiarity: from Tugg Speedman, the action movie hero whose star is fading (Ben Stiller), and Kirk Lazarus, the over-the-top method actor (Robert Downey, Jr.), to Jeff Portnoy, the comic actor pining for serious roles (Jack Black), and the crazed greedy studio head, Les Grossman (Tom Cruise).
Everyone knows these archetypes, and will probably place real faces into these roles when they first meet the characters.
But that approach works.
And it works really well.
Much of that success can be attributed to Stiller, who, in addition to co-starring in Tropic Thunder, also co-wrote and directed the movie. The comedy marks a welcome return for Stiller to the wickedly clever spoofs that gained him popularity on the short-lived Ben Stiller Show in the early '90s.
The opening of Tropic Thunder, in fact, is reminiscent of that show's skits, with a montage of faux movie trailers featuring Tugg, Jeff, and Kirk.
The movie then jumps to a Vietnamese field, where Tugg, Jeff, and Kirk, a white Australian who has been surgically altered to play the black U.S. soldier Lincoln Osiris, along with rapper-turned actor Alpa Chino (Brandon Jackson) and just-happy-to-have-an-acting-job Kevin Sandusky (Jay Baruchel) are filming a Vietnam War battle sequence, complete with Tugg's Platoon-style death run with arms thrust skyward in slow-mo as he's pelted by enemy gunfire.
The movie they are making is Tropic Thunder, based on the memoir of the same name by Vietnam vet John "Four Leaf" Tayback (Nick Nolte). But the film's director, Damien Cockburn (Steve Coogan), is having problems with his three stars, and he's feeling considerable heat from the studio head to complete the project.
In desperation, the director agrees to Four Leaf's suggestion to remove the actors from the set and drop them in a remote Southeast Asian jungle to complete the filming guerilla-style. As the actors try to stay on script and finish the movie, they encounter dangerous drug lords who mistake them for DEA agents and resolve to capture them.
Matthew McConaughey also pops up as Tugg's eager-to-please agent who is determined to get his client everything written into his studio contract.
Tropic Thunder occasionally meanders into sitcom-y territory from there, with outlandish situations that strain credibility.
Tugg has been kidnapped by the drug lords and is being held for ransom, and the remaining actors resolve to rescue him despite the fact their weapons shoot only blanks.
Complicating matters, Jeff is going through heroin withdrawal, while Alpa Chino takes issue with Kirk's often stereotypical portrayal of a black man.
Meanwhile, Tugg is forced to re-enact a previous film role - a retarded man, in an obvious parody of films such as I Am Sam and Forrest Gump - onstage for the drug lords because it just happens to be their favorite film.
But the comedic payoffs are high enough to overcome any plot contrivances.
The cast is especially sharp, too, with each actor enjoying big laughs at the expense of the stereotype he plays.
Having the most fun, though, seems to be Cruise. Most often the butt of jokes, the actor relishes the opportunity to reverse the role. It's nice to see the put-upon actor can take it, and dish it out as well.
Contact Kirk Baird at firstname.lastname@example.org