Starring: Ben Stiller, Jack Black, Robert Downey  Jr.
Directed by: Ben Stiller (“Reality Bites”)
Written by: Ben Stiller (“Zoolander”), Justin Theroux (debut), and Etan Cohen (TV’s “King of the Hill”)

If you know who director/screenwriter Aaron Seltzer is, then you probably know that his contributions to movie spoofs in the past 12 years have been some of the lamest attempts in the comedy genre. From the superfluous “Scary Movie” sequels to bombs like “Date Movie” and “Epic Movie,” Seltzer has in someway been involved in a major portion of Hollywood’s parody awfulness.

So, when a movie like “Tropic Thunder” comes along and proves that satirical jokes can have a bit more snarky bite behind them, you have to scoop it up and consider it a nice surprise at the end of the summer movie season.

As a director, actor Ben Stiller doesn’t have much proof that he can carry a film like this. Although “Zoolander” had its moments, his only other outings as a filmmaker were with 1996’s “The Cable Guy” and 1994’s “Reality Bites.” Those films, however, didn’t have what Stiller is working with here, namely Robert Downey Jr. Yes, Downey Jr., like he does in his summer blockbuster “Iron Man,” steals the show.

In “Tropic Thunder,” Downey Jr. plays Kirk Lazarus, a multi-Academy Award-winning actor, who undergoes a controversial procedure to darken his skin for a role in a Vietnam War movie. The movie within the movie, “Tropic Thunder,” is having major production problems starting with its novice and frustrated director Damien Cockburn (Steve Coogan) and its pre-Madonna cast.

Along with Kirk, the role players on the set are Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black), a drugged-out comedian who relies on his half-wit humor in Hollywood to earn him a paycheck (hope you’re watching Eddie Murphy), and Tugg Speedman (Stiller), an action movie star whose latest role as a mentally retarded man earns him career-damaging criticism.

When Damien is confronted by Four Leaf Tayback (Nick Nolte), the real life war hero portrayed in his film, he decides that the only way he is going to get true performances out of his cast is if he shoots the movie deep in the jungles of southeast Asia, which are overflowing with dangerous drug lords. He’s also getting pressure from film producer Les Grossman (Tom Cruise, who shows his critics that he doesn’t always have to be stone-cold serious; remember “Goldmember?”), who’s demanding the crew finish the big-budget war epic without bankrupting the studio.

When Downey Jr., who is downright entertaining, is on screen, is when “Tropic Thunder” is its best. As a mixed bag of exaggerated comedy and action, I’d recommend “Pineapple Express” before this. Still, everyone involved in “Tropic Thunder” is never afraid to poke fun at all things taboo in Hollywood, and sometimes being that ballsy goes a long way.

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