I caught a preview screening of Tropic Thunder, the new Ben Stiller epic-comedy-war-movie-about-a-war movie this evening.
It's not genius, but there's some marvellous bits in it, including some pinpoint accurate Hollywood in-jokes, and great performances, including sheer brilliance from Robert Downey Jr as an Australian method actor cast as an African-American army captain. By crikey that man is charismatic, even with the potentially crowd-displeasing blackface. I'm so glad he got off the gear.
But the absolute highlight of the film is a stellar "cameo" from Tom Cruise. I don't think I'm giving too much away by naming Cruise - it's fairly widespread knowledge on the internet that he's in it, and I won't tell you exactly what he gets up to. Hell, my brother happened to be in the same cinema (I had no idea until he texted me afterwards to say "Go see Tropic Thunder!") and he didn't even pick up it was Captain Scientology until the end. So maybe you won't even pick it. Save to say that having read descriptions of his performance as a "career-saver", I completely understand and agree. He's just fantastic. There's a musical moment in the film... ah, just go and see it.
It's made me think about other famous "cameo" appearances. There's something either extraordinarily exciting or mind-numbingly cheesy about a cameo. Alfred Hitchcock popularised the director's cameo - but you wouldn't hang out in an M. Night Shamaylan film waiting for M. Night to turn up looking creepy. Of course, chances are after The Happening, you wouldn't be hanging out in a M. Night Shamaylan film ever again.
My favourite cameo is probably Sean Connery as Richard the Lionheart in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. Everything you want in a cameo - he turns up at the happy ending looking awesome in armour, cracks a gag, then kicks off the celebrations. Nice. Mel Brooks even ripped it off for Robin Hood: Men In Tights, getting Patrick Stewart to do the same thing (except with more gags).
Superhero movies are full of cameos. Samuel L. Jackson's eyepatch-clad appearance at the end of Iron Man rocked, as did Iron Man himself (the aforementioned Robert Downey Jr) subsequently at the end of The Incredible Hulk. There's always a geeky cheer when Stan Lee turns up in Marvel films, but these days it's more of a "Gee, what's Stan up to this time?" vibe. A cameo's not quite as exciting when you know it's coming at some stage.
Sometimes a cameo doesn't even need to be the actual actor. Remember the end of Batman Begins, when Gordon told Batman of a new criminal on the scene who just leaves Joker playing cards everywhere? The Dark Knight's raspy "I'll look into it" certainly gave the geeks of my acquaintance their very own Bat Pole. Their Spidey-senses tingled at the confirmation that the Clown Prince of Crime would indeed be the cinematic Batman's next adversary (while Alfred, of course, would continue to be Batman's batman), even though Heath Ledger had yet to be cast.
Cameos are hugely common in TV shows - particularly sitcoms. Virtually everyone popped up at some stage on Friends, and turning up on The Simpsons as either themselves or a character seems to be a rite of passing for celebrities of all sorts.
So what other film or TV cameos have you cheered or groaned at?