The makers of ‘Tropic Thunder’ knew they had a challenge on their hands with the character of Lazarus, who is surgically blacked up to play an African-American soldier, meaning that Downey is too. They did a good job of defusing the issue in the US – they’re parodying Hollywood narcissism, not the black experience, for heaven’s sake! – and were enormously helped by Downey’s terrific, compulsive performance. Equal parts brash, bonkers and perplexed, he’s the film’s best bit. (The mental-health lobby was less than impressed by his bravura monologue about the perils of actors going ‘full retard’ in pursuit of Oscar glory, but that’s another story.)
Certainly, the film works much better as Tinseltown parody than as action flick or character drama; on those terms, which co-writer and director Stiller seems to have taken seriously, it’s pretty ordinary stuff. But its better moments of self-referential snark, such as an ace cameo from Tom Cruise as an obnoxious studio exec, have the feel of a superior end-of-term revue.