There is a long tradition of Hollywood movies that bite the hand that feeds them - Robert Altman's The Player and Singin' in the Rain are two examples. Ben Stiller ventures into this genre with a tastelessly entertaining comedy, which begins with hilarious trailers for films starring the four leads.
Stiller's fading action superstar Scott Speedman is seen in his failed Oscar-bid movie playing mentally-challenged Simple Jack; The Fatties: Part II showcases the gross-out comedy star Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black); while Method-driven Australian actor Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr - "I don't read the script, the script reads me") makes moody eyes at gay fellow priest Tobey Maguire in a Middle Ages melodrama.
Co-writer-director Stiller's inventive screenplay pitches the egotistical leads into the film-within-a-film Tropic Thunder. Billed as "the most expensive war movie ever made", it is an Apocalypse Now-style Vietnam War epic directed by unstable Englishman Damien Cockburn (Steve Coogan), whose inability to cope with his
actors' clashing egos has taken the film far over budget and threatens its closure.
In a switch of direction, the stars are dumped in the jungle with hidden cameras following them and told to get on with the movie. Which they do, more or less, until they run into dangerous real-life drug-dealing guerrillas.
Stiller is at his best, creating an unforgettable comic character in Simple Jack. And he scores a treble, too. The screenplay cruelly but accurately mocks actors and Vietnam War movies while his direction gets the best out of Black who, as usual, goes over the top but this time in character.
In an exemplary cast, Nick Nolte, raddled and addled as the author of the book on which the film-within-a-film is based, is first rate, while (and do not read further if you want to savour a splendid surprise) an unrecognisable Tom Cruise, bald and hairy-chested, is hilarious as a foul-mouthed studio head.
This action-and-explosion-filled comedy does not just bite the hand - it chews the fingers right off in a torrent of laughter.