NEW AT THE MOVIES: 'Thunder' is heavy handed - The Explorer: El Sol

NEW AT THE MOVIES: 'Thunder' is heavy handed

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Posted: Tuesday, August 19, 2008 11:00 pm | Updated: 8:03 am, Thu Mar 24, 2011.

Rated R for pervasive language including sexual references, violent content and drug material. 106 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.

“Tropic Thunder,” Ben Stiller’s extravaganza of a Hollywood satire, couldn’t be any more “inside-baseball” if it contained references to the infield fly rule and Rule 5 draft picks.

This movie-within-a-movie is certainly his most ambitious production as a director and it contains some of the biggest belly laughs of his career. But while it blends comedy and action sequences far more skillfully and seamlessly than this summer’s “Pineapple Express,” which shifted from one genre to the other, the endeavor winds up feeling overwrought and repetitive.

Stiller produced, co-wrote the script and stars as Tugg Speedman, an increasingly irrelevant action hero who now leads the ensemble cast of the Vietnam War epic “Tropic Thunder.”

When Tugg and his equally pampered cast mates turn out to be too distracted to commit to the production, and costs start spiraling out of control, the overwhelmed first-time director leads them into the jungle to bond and fend for themselves. But what they think is a carefully crafted exercise in make-believe turns out to be all too real when they run into a heroin manufacturing operation led by a cigar-chomping, preadolescent drug lord.

Jack Black is typically manic and a bit one-note as Jeff Portnoy, the drug-addicted comic star of the flatulent “Fatties” franchise.

But it’s Robert Downey Jr. who takes the humor to a daring, inspired level with his hilarious turn as Kirk Lazarus, an Academy Award-winning Australian actor who’s so method-y, he undergoes skin-pigmentation surgery to play a black soldier.

While this probably sounds tasteless and potentially offensive, a couple of factors make it work.

First, of course, there’s Downey himself, who’s intelligent enough to bring nuanced bravado and even some surprising sympathy to the role.

Second, there’s Brandon T. Jackson as rapper-turned-actor Alpa Chino (say the name out loud to yourself), who is black and who calls Kirk out for the ridiculousness of co-opting his culture.

Nick Nolte is a perfect casting choice to play the grizzled vet whose rescue memoir is the basis for “Tropic Thunder,” with Danny McBride getting some goofy laughs as the film’s mulleted explosives expert.

Meanwhile, back in Los Angeles, studio chief Lee Grossman (Tom Cruise) barks orders and gets off on the power he wields even in this time of crisis. Cruise’s supporting performance has its wondrously freaky moments, but it’s not nearly as hysterical (or career-altering) as the early hype would suggest. Hollywood insiders will scream in recognition at this portly, profane volcano of a man, but mainstream audiences will probably just chuckle here and there — and that’s true of many of the gags in “Tropic Thunder.”

Star Wars: The Clone Wars

PG for sci-fi action violence throughout, brief language and momentary smoking. 98 min. Two and a half stars out of four.

While anything remotely “Star Wars” is potentially a welcome trek for hard-core fans, this will be a mixed thrill given that the saga returns to the big screen as a cartoon.

George Lucas’ prequel trilogy was so overloaded with computer-generated imagery that the digital animation of “Clone Wars” isn’t that big of a leap.

The somber tone of those three movies — chronicling the downfall of Anakin Skywalker from snotty teen to black-hearted Darth Vader — is gone, replaced with a variation of the campy humor and camaraderie that characterized the original trilogy.

Still, a “Star Wars” movie should be an event. Whether because of its cartoony format or its relatively lightweight story, “Clone Wars” definitely is not an event. It’s a fairly fun if forgettable little adventure that hurls Anakin, his new young apprentice, Obi-Wan Kenobi, and the rest of the gang into a kidnapping conspiracy and rescue amid a galactic civil war between clone soldiers and android troops.

The movie is a glorified introduction to the “Clone Wars” animated series debuting this fall on TV — almost certainly a more appropriate home for a cartoon version of “Star Wars.”

© 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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