In 10 Words or Less
Fake war is a funny thing
Loves: Robert Downey Jr.
Likes: Jack Black, Respected actors playing against type
Dislikes: Danny McBride's on-screen persona
Hates: War movies
Letting filmmakers make fun of filmmaking seems like a good idea at first glance, as no one would know their world better, but it hasn't worked out too often. Sure, The Player is great, but more likely you end up with Bowfinger. Hell, even the wonderful Christopher Guest couldn't mine gold from movieland with For Your Consideration. So it was pretty ballsy for Ben Stiller to make it the subject of his first time back in the director's chair on a feature since Zoolander.
Stiller also stars in the film, (as well as wrote it with co-writers Justin Theroux and Etan Cohen) playing Tugg Speedman, an action star on the down side of his career, who's looking for respect, but failing miserably, playing a severely mentally handicapped man in Simple Jack. He's not the only movie star dealing with issues, as Jack Portnoy (Jack Black) has a massive drug problem to go along with a career based on farting, while five-time Oscar winner Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey, Jr.) Is such a method actor that he has his skin color altered to play a black man on-screen. Together, the are the stars of Tropic Thunder, a big-budget Vietnam War film, adapted by first-time director Damien Cockburn (Steve Coogan) from a book by veteran "Four Leaf" Tayback (Nick Nolte.)
To say the production is troubled is an understatement, and producer Les Grossman (a fantastically camouflaged Tom Cruise) is furious. To solve the problem, Tayback has an idea: take the cast away from their luxury trailers and sycophants and film them guerrilla-style to get real performances out of them. So Cockburn, Tayback, the cast, including first-time actor Sandusky (Jay Baruchel ("Undeclared")) and rapper Alpa Chino (movie rookie Brandon T. Jackson,) and FX pro Cody (Danny McBride), head out into the jungles of Vietnam to make their movie. Instead of getting good footage, they run into a heroin production ring the delusional Speedman mistakes for actors portraying the enemy. And, unlike most times this phrase is used, hilarity actually does ensue.
Tackling the story on two fronts, as Speedman and company apply their acting skills to actual combat in order to survive, while Speedman's agent Peck (an against-type Matt McConaghey) wheels and deals to get his client back, the movie is constantly moving, never getting bogged down in any of the many threads the film juggles. Part of the joy is seeing the actors play out the characters' idiosyncrasies, with Baruchel serving as the straight man, even though he gets to be very funny at times (especially during the final reel.) Portnoy's struggles with the effects of drugs are pretty out-there (and quite funny) while the tension between the newly black Lazarus and lifelong black guy Alpa builds effectively and naturally.
The most impressive part of the film, a result of just about everything coming together beautifully, is the way it exists as both a fantastically funny comedy and a pretty exciting action film, with both aspects sharing screen time in spots. Part of it is the ability of the actors to create fully-realized characters, so it works to see Downey, Jr. act like a reject from a '70s blaxplotation film, only to follow it up with a kick-ass shoot-out or rescue. Even Stiller's Speedman, who, aside from Black's strung-out fat comedian, is the most cartoonish character, doesn't defeat the reality of the story, since it's firmly established that, as a movie star, his reality is skewed from the beginning. The cast is excellent right down the line, topped incredibly by Cruise's producer character (with Bill Hader at his side), in a performance that, combined with his role in Magnolia, makes it clear that there's another side to him beyond being leading man.
This director's cut of the film (the only one included) is about 13 minutes longer than what was seen in theaters, and the differences range from significant to minor, in some cases returning a second or two to a scene. But one major addition early on, inserting a massive party scene, helps more firmly establish the actor characters, and is actually quite funny to boot. Is the director's cut better than the original film? Not in any major way, but it certainly didn't hurt to make these changes.
A two-disc set, Tropic Thunder arrives in a clear, dual-hubbed keepcase with a two-sided cover, which is packed in a matte, foil embossed slipcover. Neither cover screams comedy, but the inner cover is certainly intended to be the cover for the film the cast is making, which is a nice touch. The DVD features an animated anamorphic widescreen menu, with options to watch the movie, select scenes, adjust languages and check out bonus features. Audio options include English, Spanish and French Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks, while subtitles are available in English, Spanish and French, along with closed captioning.
Presented with a very wide (2.35:1) anamorphic transfer, the film looks very solid, with nice, bright color (check out the greens of the jungle), and a very clean image loaded with fine detail. Some of the darker night scenes showed some minor issues with noise, but overall it looks good, without any obvious problems with dirt, damage or digital artifacts.
The audio is delivered in a Dolby Digital 5.1 track that captures the bold sound of all the action going on in the film, with strong bass in the explosions, and a dynamic mix that sends bullets to all the surrounds. The dialogue is just as clear and distortion-free, with nice separation from the effects.
The extras kick off on Disc One, with a pair of audio commentaries. Up first is what's called the filmmakers' commentary, with Stiller, Theroux, producer Stuart Cornfeld, production designer Jeff Mann, cinematographer John Toll and editor Greg Hayden. For such a relatively large group, it's a rather low-key affair, as it seems like Stiller does most of the talking (the guys all sound pretty similar, so I can't be sure.) The one thing the chat does very well though, is point out the changes from the theatrical release, along with sharing some info about the production effort, including location notes and bits about how scenes were shot.
The second track is the rare superstar commentary, as all three of the big names, Stiller, Black and Downey, Jr., sit down to talk about the movie. Well, at least two of them are involved, since Downey, Jr. decided to do the track in character. Though it's cute in concept, as it ties into a joke in the movie (right through to the end,) it gets rather annoying real quick. As director, a somewhat quiet and reserved Stiller serves as emcee for the track, while Black is his usual boisterous self (showing up late and eating a big burger), though he at least tries to stick to the topic. Black and Downey, Jr. are obviously having fun hanging out and talking about the movie, but you can't help but think it could be better if Stiller loosened up and Downey, Jr. was himself.
Disc One also has some previews and a PSA.
Disc Two is where the bulk of the extras live, which are made up mostly of featurettes covering the various elements of the film. "Beyond the Thunder" is an almost five-minute history and overview of the movie, with interviews and on-set footage. We go a bit deeper in "The Hot LZ," spending over six minutes exploring how the opening battle was created, which ties into the six-minute "Blowing S#!t Up," a thoughtful exploration of the film's many fireworks, while there's even more production info in "Designing the Thunder," a 7:30 look at the set design on the film. With the production covered, the cast gets the bonus spotlight, as a seven-part, 22-minute series focuses on the the main cast. These featurettes are all pretty surface in their content, but the participants are having fun, so the mood is light and enjoyable.
There are several homages to the classic Vietnam film Apocalypse Now throughout Tropic Thunder, and a large one in the extras, as a 30-minute documentary, "Rain of Madness" follows documentarian Jan Jurgen (Theroux) as he follows Cockburn's production. A solid parody of Hearts of Darkness (along with a solid jab at Grizzly Man,) it's extremely funny, though some of it repeats material in the film. (Odd note: one detail, about Sandusky, doesn't match the info in the director's cut.) There's more from Jurgen in the 11-part "Dispatches from the Edge of Madness," which includes 23 mintutes of clips similar to the material in "Rain of Madness."
A selection of deleted and extended scenes are up next, with four in total, plus an alternate ending. Nothing here was all that interesting, especially the "Eight Minutes in Hell" which extends a scene between Stiller and Downey, Jr. to excruciating lengths. The alternate ending makes a bit more logical sense, but it doesn't work nearly as well. These scenes have video intros by Stiller and Hayden, who explain their decisions. There's more excised footage in "Full Mags," 33 minutes of pure improvisational footage from four scenes. Basically, they just let the camera roll, which makes these a rare glimpse at what an editor has to deal with. Appropriately, they come with a video intro by Stiller and Hayden. Also neat are the three minutes of video rehearsals, which were done to plan camera positions. These are presented with an intro and commentary by Stiller and Hayden, and have overlays of the actual scene from the film, to see how they ended up.
There's a couple of bits left, but they are fine ones, starting with Cruise's make-up test for the film. The look changed by the final film, but here is where the memorable appearance began, and it's still funny. You also get the segment the film's stars did for the MTV Movie Awards, in which Stiller tries to create a viral video to promote Tropic Thunder, with the help of Black and Downey, Jr. The comedy is beyond base, but you can't help but laugh at the enthusiasm Downey, Jr. shows for abusing Black. I could watch this repeatedly for at least 2 or 3 hours.
The Bottom Line
Ben Stiller's pulled off one hell of a trick here, making a very funny ensemble comedy, an insider spoof of Hollywood, and an exciting action film, all in the span of one movie that's nicely paced despite having a lot of business to take care of. The DVD set offers up solid sound and video and a pretty wide collection of extras that fit well with the film. If you're a fan of watching egomaniacs get their just desserts and want to laugh hard along the way or just don't get war movies, this is an excellent choice.
Francis Rizzo III is a native Long Islander, where he works in academia. In his spare time, he enjoys watching hockey, writing and spending time with his wife, daughter and puppy.Check out 1106 - A Moment in Fictional Time or follow him on Twitter
*The Reviewer's Bias section is an attempt to help readers use the review to its best effect. By knowing where the reviewer's biases lie on the film's subject matter, one can read the review with the right mindset.