First, a few words about the Robert Downey Jr. minstrel-show "controversy." Downey is not acting in blackface (except in the literal sense); he's playing a character who is acting in blackface. Anyone who fails to grasp this distinction should probably also conclude that playing Archie Bunker made Carroll O'Connor a racist. Could the Downey blackface routine have been handled in an offensive manner? Sure. But Tropic Thunder star/director/co-writer Ben Stiller takes pains to make his intentions clear, even providing a (genuinely) black character (played by Brandon T. Jackson) to serve as Downey's comic foil. So, enough.
Downey is, incidentally, terrific as Kirk Lazarus, a five-time Oscar-winning, method-acting Aussie who has his skin surgically tinted in order to play a black sergeant in a big-budget Vietnam movie. Rather than go broad with the character, Downey hews close to the line between earnest and satirical, making the portrayal simultaneously edgier and more sympathetic. It's his second great role of the summer.
When the Vietnam movie-within-a-movie he's starring in runs into trouble--we're told that it's a month behind schedule just five days into shooting--the director (Steve Coogan) pulls Downey and his co-stars (played by Stiller, Jackson, Jack Black, and Jay Baruchel) off the set and dumps them into the real jungle, where they unexpectedly find themselves in the real shit, courtesy of a local band of heroin smugglers. The rest could more or less write itself--and, on a few occasions, it feels as though it did.
The first two-thirds of Tropic Thunder are crass, crude and, more often than not, hilarious. And while the comic returns diminish over time--the movie loses much of its bite as it evolves from a Hollywood parody to a war parody and, like Pineapple Express before it, it badly overdoes the action climax--the early momentum carries it through.
Stiller is funnier than he has been in some time (I don't believe this is saying terribly much), and Black is fine, but the supporting performances are an unanticipated pleasure. Nick Nolte offers a knowing self-parody as the surly, handless Vietnam vet on whose book the movie is based (asked about his weapon at one point he growls, "I don't know what it's called. I just know the sound it makes when it takes a man's life") and Matthew McConaughey offers a self-parody that may or may not be knowing as an over-enthusiastic Hollywood agent.
Which brings us to Tom Cruise. Though his performance as tyrannical studio boss Les Grossman may not rise to some of the superlatives being tossed its way, it is eye-opening. Cruise is one of the more humor-phobic actors of his generation--his last major role in a straight comedy was in Risky Business, 25 years ago--but his profane, bullying Grossman is a delight. For years now, onscreen and off, Cruise has seemed like a bottle of barely contained crazy; now we know what happens when the cork comes out.