Tom Cruise: New Days of 'Thunder' | Robert Downey Jr. Plays a Black Crowe | Cruz Chooses Woody; Franco's a 'Bad' Grad

Tom Cruise: New Days of 'Thunder'

Eighteen years later, Tom Cruise is about to have many more days of "Thunder."

Tuesday night I got to see Cruise in Ben Stiller’s hilarious Hollywood satire, "Tropic Thunder," and let’s just say he steals the show.

Yes, I am praising Tom Cruise, kids. Let’s put aside the Scientology and the Nazis for a minute. Forget that he disallowed wife, Katie Holmes, from playing her role in "The Dark Knight," now one of the biggest hits of all time. Just, let’s put that all aside for a sec.

In "Tropic Thunder," Cruise is part of a huge, star-studded ensemble cast and many different subplots all leading to the same point. He plays the coarse, vulgar, garrulous head of a movie studio who’s ready to write off a kidnapped big blockbuster action star in exchange for an insurance payoff.

Click here to see Cruise in 'Tropic Thunder'

The star, played by Stiller — who wrote and directed this painfully funny endeavor — gets caught while shooting the movie "Tropic Thunder" on the Vietnam/Laos border with co-stars Robert Downey Jr., Jack Black, Jay Baruchel and Brandon T. Jackson. More about all of them, especially Downey, in a minute.

So much is riding on Cruise’s extended cameo. There are other very good ones, including Matthew McConaughey's Hollywood agent — not so easy to pull off in the shadow of Jeremy Piven’s Ari Gold on "Entourage" — and Steve Coogan’s implosive British film director. Cruise has no other film coming out this year. Next February his entire career is being gambled like so many chips on a Vegas craps table in the movie "Valkyrie."

His "Thunder" character is at once anti-Semitic and disgusting. But in Stiller’s film, there is so much that is offensively funny, Lev Grossman fits right in. Cruise wears a bald pate, a hair shirt with open collar and a gold chain, not to mention substantial padding.

Lev curses, throws things at his assistants and crunches soda cans. There are three real-life Hollywood titans who aren’t going to be amused at this amalgam send-up, starting with "Die Hard" overlord Joel Silver.

But Stiller has done for Cruise what Quentin Tarantino did for John Travolta in "Pulp Fiction." He’s resuscitated him through dance. (This theory of career revival is acted out now on TV in "Dancing with the Stars.")

Lev Grossman watches from afar in Hollywood via videolink as his $200 million movie, "Tropic Thunder," is subsumed by chaos, and what does he do in his office? He dances! To disco music! Cruise is his most unselfconscious since "Risky Business" as he gyrates his paddled pelvis with unbridled glee.

And what works about his physical transformation is that at least in his first scene, many at the screening Tuesday night had no idea it was Tom Cruise. Just as with Downey’s performance, it takes a few scenes of squinting before you realize what’s going on. Kudos go to the "Tropic Thunder" makeup department (not to mention to special effects for amazing explosions).

Will "Tropic Thunder" save Cruise’s career? It’s hard to say, with "Valkyrie" hot on its heels. But it’s nice to see Cruise playing a character and not his sanctimonious self. For two hours, all that other stuff associated with him floats away, and you just get to enjoy that kid we met such a long time ago.

Robert Downey Jr. Plays a Black Crowe

OK — so Robert Downey Jr., already on top of his game this year in "Iron Man," is downright hilarious in "Tropic Thunder" as Australian movie star Kirk Lazarus. With blond hair, bright blue contacts and a killer Aussie accent, Downey puts Russell Crowe to shame.

But then there’s the twist: Lazarus has gone through some absurd procedure to have his skin dyed black so he can play a stereotypical wise-cracking, slang-talkin’ black Vietnam journeyman soldier in the "Tropic Thunder" movie within a movie.

Offensive? Yes. But Downey was smart enough to include in this group (including Jack Black, excellent as a white Eddie Murphy comic, addicted to crack, and Jay Baruchel as the straight man) an actual black actor, Brandon T. Jackson, as a rapper-actor a la Diddy who’s also in the "Thunder" troop. His name says it all: "Alpa Chino."

The result is that no matter how far Downey goes — he reminded me of Ivan Dixon from "Hogan’s Heroes" — Jackson is there to counterbalance him so as to avoid race issues.

One of the funniest exchanges in the movie is when Downey’s Lazarus takes offense at someone referring to him as "you people."

"What do you mean by 'you people'?" he asks in his fake-elder Negro accent. Jackson, who actually is black, chimes in: "What do you mean by 'you people'?"

Downey also gets one of the best speeches in any comedy, again certain to offend a lot of people in the best way possible. Stiller’s actor, Tugg Speedman, who’s like a mini-Stallone, has unsuccessfully tried his hand at serious acting in an "I Am Sam"-type flop called "Smiling Jack."

Downey’s Lazarus gets a whole speech riffing on Hollywood’s love of "retards" and how to play them — it’s absolutely side-splitting and painfully accurate. That clip alone could get him actual awards attention this fall, which would be just desserts.

Everything else about Hollywood gets lampooned in "Tropic Thunder," including Lazarus' desire to adopt a foreign child while shooting the movie in Indochina. Stiller zings Madonna and Brangelina with this arrow, especially when Lazarus has a one-second comic change of mind. It’s beautiful, just like all of this film.

Cruz Chooses Woody; Franco's a 'Bad' Grad

Penelope Cruz arrives in New York Wednesday to start promoting Woody Allen’s excellent "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" before it opens next Friday. Cruz does the New York premiere Wednesday night and the Hamptons on Sunday. She’s so good in this comedy as Javier Bardem’s crazy ex-wife that she’s a cinch for a Best Supporting Actress nomination.

Woody, you know, has directed more of those performances than any other director — from Dianne Wiest (two wins) to Mira Sorvino, Judy Davis and Samantha Morton, not to mention the one that got away: Mia Farrow in "Broadway Danny Rose."

Cruz has another movie out this week, called "Elegy," in which her work is also very good. But she wisely skipped Tuesday night’s mini-premiere given by the non-existent Cinema Society (it’s a PR company that’s really just two guys) to give Peggy Siegal’s Woody Allen premiere the usual star-studded oomph.

And Siegal tossed another premiere Tuesday night, at Tenjune nightclub and STK steakhouse, for producer Judd Apatow’s latest hit, "Pineapple Express." Yes, it’s another film with the ubiquitous Seth Rogen, the Steve Guttenberg of the modern era. But "Pineapple" is lucky enough to feature James Franco, the best actor-not-star of his generation.

Franco, as I told you last February in this column, has just graduated from UCLA and is heading to a graduate degree in creative writing here in New York this fall. At Tuesday night’s party, his annoying publicists kept either dragging him away or inserting themselves in our conversation lest Franco blurt out the name of his institution of higher learning and thus cause some academic frisson. (Call me, and I’ll tell you the name.)

Anyway, Franco’s big revelation of the night? He was a big Michael Jackson fan when he was growing up and loved the "Bad" and "Beat It" videos. Alert the press!

P.S. Is it too early to let leak that beautiful, young, talented Katie Lee Joel is hosting the Mercedes-Benz Polo this Saturday in Bridgehampton for Blue Star Jets? Everyone’s excited that Billy Joel will come, too, and that Katie will bring snacks from her lip-smacking good high-cholesterol cookbook. Angioplasties are extra!