Jack Black, Nick Nolte, ...
Credit: Merie Weismiller Wallace

When discussing Tropic Thunder — Ben Stiller’s movie about a group of prima donna actors making a Vietnam War film that goes epically awry — it’s best not to call it an ”action comedy” in front of its star and director co-writer. ”I hate that phrase,” Stiller laughs. ”What does that mean, action comedy? I mean, there’s definitely action in the movie. There’s real stakes and people get hurt, but it’s definitely a comedy. It’s just a combo. It’s sort of hard for me to describe.”

Let’s give costar Robert Downey Jr. a crack at it: ”What this movie really does is take some very below-the-knees machete shots at white men in the entertainment industry.” Downey is alluding to his character, Kirk Lazarus, an Oscar-winning Aussie who’s so deeply Method that he dyes his skin black to play the African-American Sergeant Osiris. But that spirit of Hollywood eye-poking infuses the entire film. Stiller plays an action star who tries to stretch himself in a film called Simple Jack, Jack Black is a drug-addled comedian best known for his flatulence, and Steve Coogan is a first-time director who unwittingly sends his actors into the territory of a heroin cartel. Then there’s Tom Cruise. The real-life action star literally stretched himself for Thunder, donning a fat suit and bald cap to play an extremely foulmouthed studio head in a performance that had a screening room of industry suits and Hollywood press convulsing with laughter earlier this month.

For his part, Black calls Thunder ”a comedy that looks like this massive war film,” which meant doing some rather challenging stunt work. ”I have to ride on the back of a yak in my underpants for a lot of the movie,” says Black. ”At one point this water buffalo went on the crazy train and just started bucking me.” Well, whaddaya know: That has action and it’s funny! (August 15)

Tropic Thunder
  • Movie
  • 107 minutes