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Originally published August 12, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified August 12, 2008 at 11:35 AM

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Movie review

"Tropic Thunder": too much promise, not enough delivery

Robert Downey Jr., Jack Black and Ben Stiller star in the uneven but often funny comedy "Tropic Thunder," about a band of egotistical actors making a war movie.

Seattle Times movie critic

Movie review 2.5 stars

"Tropic Thunder," with Ben Stiller, Jack Black, Robert Downey Jr., Steve Coogan, Jay Baruchel, Danny McBride, Brandon T. Jackson, Bill Hader, Nick Nolte. Directed by Stiller, from a screenplay by Justin Theroux, Stiller and Etan Cohen. 107 minutes. Rated R for pervasive language including sexual references, violent content and drug material. Several theaters.

It's mid-August, the summer movie season is waning, and audiences numbed by their 10th viewing of "The Dark Knight" are ready to laugh. So the sporadically funny "Tropic Thunder," directed by and starring Ben Stiller, may well get a boost it doesn't entirely earn. (I can see the quotes on the ads now: "Not At All The Worst Comedy To Come Out This Summer!")

The film is a movie-within-a-movie comedy about a group of spoiled actors making a wildly over-budget war movie — five days into shooting, they're a month behind schedule. Sent into the jungles of Southeast Asia to find some motivation, they become unintentionally entangled in real-life peril at the hands of drug lords.

Because these actors are played by Stiller, Jack Black and Robert Downey Jr., along with talented new faces Jay Baruchel and Brandon T. Jackson, expectations are high. Downey, in particular, is the sort of off-the-wall actor who never gives the same performance twice, and whose presence lifts any movie into more rarefied territory. (Watch how he stole "Lucky You" last year with a two-minute cameo.) It's fun to watch these guys bounce off each other, and fascinating to watch Downey's commitment to a role that few would take on: Kirk Lazarus, an Australian actor so egotistic he undergoes surgery to have his skin darkened so that he can play a black Vietnam War hero.

Lazarus (we see him, briefly and hilariously, in his former skin blathering earnestly about acting on an "Inside the Actor's Studio"-ish show) never lets his character go, and even after it's long clear that the cameras aren't rolling, he's still bellowing out his performance to the skies. "I don't drop character until the DVD commentary's done," he says. Jackson's Alpa Chino (he's a big fan of "Scarface") becomes increasingly irritated with Lazarus' racial posturings, and their spats are the movie's best moments; making it less a story of blackface than of an actor blinded by the vapor of his own perceived brilliance. Luckily, Chino finds that Lazarus has a weak spot: He can't stand anyone making fun of "Crocodile Dundee."

This is funny stuff, as is Tom Cruise's extended (and almost unrecognizable) cameo as a barking, dancing Hollywood studio head. But Stiller, who also co-wrote the film with two other writers, can't keep the wit consistent. A long riff on actors playing developmentally disabled characters has the grain of a good idea in it — the extent to which actors will go with a "Rain Man"/"Forrest Gump" Oscar-bait role — but gets dragged out too long and becomes unnecessarily uncomfortable. Likewise, the movie itself wears out long before its final scenes. Cruise's gleeful booty-shaking over the end credits goes a long way toward mitigating disappointment, but "Tropic Thunder" is too much promise and not enough delivery.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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