Reviewer's grade: A
"Tropic Thunder" is a movie within a movie and follows a group of actors cast as leads in an epic war movie under production in the jungles of Vietnam. Production is being led by an inexperienced, sniveling director who can't corral his pampered acting leads"roles played by Ben Stiller, Jack Black and Robert Downey Jr. The director decides the best way to coax realistic performances out of the group is to rig the jungle with hidden cameras and high explosives, and dump the actors out of a helicopter, forcing the gang to work their scenes without distraction. Though the role of a balding, puffy, hairy, hyperaggressive studio head named Les Grossman (performed by an uncredited Tom Cruise) steals some of the best scenes, Downey's role as Australian Method actor Kirk Lazarus makes the movie.
Lazarus undergoes a controversial surgery to alter his skin color, allowing him to perform more authentically as the film's black Sgt. Osiris. The real "Thunder" is Downey, who dials in an Oscar-worthy comedy performance that exceeds the film's hype. Delivering what is essentially a modern blackface act, he pulls off a hilarious performance that is over-the-top and edgy, but executed with a delicate deftness that keeps it from being horribly offensive. It's been said, but bears repeating: Only Downey could pull it off. R