If you don't recognize that African-American actor standing between Jack Black and Ben Stiller, there's a good reason: He's white. In Tropic Thunder, an epic action comedy co-written and directed by Stiller, Robert Downey Jr. plays Kirk Lazarus, a very serious Oscar-winning actor cast in the most expensive Vietnam War film ever. Problem is, Lazarus's character, Sgt. Osiris, was originally written as black. So Lazarus decides to dye his skin and play Osiris, um, authentically. Funny? Sure. Dangerous? That's an understatement. ''If it's done right, it could be the type of role you called Peter Sellers to do 35 years ago,'' Downey says. ''If you don't do it right, we're going to hell.''
The film marks Stiller's first directing effort since 2001's Zoolander. With Thunder (opening Aug. 15), he takes aim at the sweetest target of all: actors. Downey plays one of a team of self-indulgent stars cast in the modern equivalent of Apocalypse Now. Stiller plays an action hero who has just adopted a baby from Asia but worries that ''all the good ones are gone.'' Black portrays a comedian known for performing multiple roles in a single film -- his latest is called The Fatties: Fart 2. But when the film's director (Steve Coogan) and writer (Nick Nolte) get fed up with their prima donna cast, they drop them into the jungle to fend for themselves. The actors think they're doing some sort of full-immersion filmmaking, but the danger they're in is very real.