Tropic Thunder, the latest from writer-director-actor Ben Stiller, doesn’t open till August 13, but the trailer has been playing in theaters (and on laptops everywhere) for seemingly forever. The very funny—and often razor-sharp—big-budget film about the ridiculousness of big-budget films lampoons just about everything under the Hollywood sun. Per the previews, you probably know that Ben Stiller plays a fading action star; Jack Black, a tubby Warhol-wigged comedian; and Robert Downey Jr., an Australian method actor who undergoes an experimental pigmentation procedure in order to play an African-American soldier. All three are thrown together on the set of yet another Vietnam War picture (cue CSNY and the majestic helicopters!), where Steve Coogan is their bedraggled director.
But besides a high-powered cast, the movie has a secret, too, which Paramount and DreamWorks have been doing their best to keep under wraps until after the film opens: that a small, uncredited performance from Tom Cruise steals the whole show. In Tropic Thunder, Mr. Cruise plays Les Grossman, a bald, hirsute, foul-mouthed studio mogul with a penchant for hip-hop hip-swiveling moves. It’s an astonishingly funny and surprising supporting performance (especially considering Mr. Cruise’s last outing was in the dreadful, if well-meaning, Lions for Lambs). But producers have been trying to keep it quiet, playing up in photos the outrageousness of Mr. Downey Jr.’s blackface and Mr. Stiller’s ever expanding biceps.
In fact, when set shots of Mr. Cruise dressed in character surfaced on the Web in November of 2007, his lawyers (who seemingly have work to do all the time) threatened action, and the photos quickly disappeared. (Google it, though; some have crept back.) Even two weeks before release, no one involved in the production—not Mr. Stiller or his co-writers, Justin Theroux and Etan Cohen, nor the producers or co-stars—are willing to talk about Mr. Cruise’s performance until after the film is in theaters. Mr. Cruise’s past directors won’t even talk. (It’s a lockdown!) But we’ll say it: Once again, Tom Cruise has managed to completely flip our perceptions of him upside down and inside out. It doesn’t spoil a thing to say that the film is worth seeing for Mr. Cruise’s performance alone, or that we hope this might usher in a new era for the strange, secretive actor. Could it be that, in fact, Tom Cruise actually gets it? Is it possible that Tom Cruise has a sense of humor about being Tom Cruise? Can we love him again without also feeling creeped out?
OF COURSE, this isn’t the first time we’ve reassessed Tom Cruise. In 1999, 18 years into a career that had Mr. Cruise as the go-to American leading man, with those gleaming giant teeth, he surprised audiences with his turn as Frank TJ Mackey in Magnolia, a cold, coiled mass of furious energy, whose first three words in the film set the tone for his character: “Respect the cock.” Critics raved, and Mr. Cruise received an Academy Award nomination (his only other nominations came from 1996’s Jerry Maguire and 1989’s Born on the Fourth of July). In one supporting role, Mr. Cruise added a whole new layer to his image; he could do big box office, he could do political, and he could also do weird and indie.