Downey goes from Iron Man to... soul man?

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Image courtesy of Paramount/Dreamworks

I'm intrigued by the idea of seeing Robert Downey Jr. play industrialist-turned-superhero Tony Stark in the Iron Man feature film opening next month. The trailers are great, but Downey's performance in the Marvel Comics movie is sure to be eclipsed, however, by his upcoming work in the Ben Stiller comedy Tropic Thunder. The film concerns the production of a Vietnam-style movie, and the director (Steve Coogan) ends up stranding his cast (including Stiller and Jack Black) in an actual war zone.

The comedy appears to be walking into a literal mine field in its approach to Downey Jr.'s role, a method actor named Kirk Lazarus who's so committed to getting into character that he has his skin dyed to play an African-American soldier. (It's a little reminiscent of C. Thomas Howell passing as an African-American law student in the 1986 comedy Soul Man.) Can Tropic Thunder find laughs from blackface, a convention with a racist pop culture history? The only blackface jokes that haven't badly backfired in previous years are probably Darrell Hammond's Jesse Jackson impressions on "Saturday Night Live."

Tropic Thunder, at least, isn't concealing the gimmick, as shown in the recent trailer and the promotional poster released this week, which makes Downey Jr. look like Fred Williamson. Guess who's coming to theaters?

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