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It struck me about 30 seconds into Tropic Thunder that I wasn't the ideal reviewer for this action comedy. I was intrigued by the premise and looked forward to seeing Robert Downey Jr. again after the excellent Iron Man earlier this year. Unfortunately, really worthwhile comedies are becoming rare. The majority are either ultra-light chick flicks or raunchy gross-outs trying to be more "outrageous" and "non-P.C." than the previous raunchy gross-out. As the advertising suggests an old-fashioned action picture, viewers unfamiliar with the filmographies of Ben Stiller and Jack Black might be surprised at what passes for comedy these days.
Personally, I'm not sure I'd want to take my dog to Tropic Thunder, an inside- Hollywood satire about a trio of pompous movie stars filming a book about the Vietnam War. Tugg Speedman (Ben Stiller, also the director) is the star of idiotic action pictures. Tugg is on a career slide after a disastrous turn as "Simple Jack", a mentally impaired, bucktoothed character who acts and talks just like the idiotic hayseeds in Tex Avery cartoons. The film's continuous use of the word "retard" got some negative media coverage last summer. Frankly, that sounds like observing a massive oil spill and becoming incensed about a piece of asbestos found floating in the middle. In practical terms, the "retard" flap allowed Tropic Thunder to add the qualifier "controversial" to its list of accomplishments.
Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black) is a spoiled, obnoxious comedian famed for movies about farts (the spiritual core, it seems, of American humor in the 21st century). Jeff whines and gripes and goes nuts when a fruit bat steals his heroin supply -- and, in a surprisingly witty gag, promptly O.D.s and falls from the sky. Strung out and desperate for his fix, Jeff runs the gamut of druggie clichés in the middle of the jungle.
Self-absorbed "serious" thespian Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr.), has had his skin dyed black in order to play a black soldier, in the Robert De Niro cut-off-your-legs-to-play-Toulouse-Lautrec school of fine acting. Lazarus has a fine time patronizing the insecure Tugg, and shoveling BS on the subject of acting. The joke is that Lazarus maintains his jive-talk "black" accent even when not on camera, and even when Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson), the black member of the filmic platoon, tells him he's being annoying. Alpa Chino is a highly commercialized rapper who drinks his own beverage, marketed with the appetizing brand name "Booty Sweat."
The farce gets in gear when the movie-within-a-movie falls far behind schedule due to the immaturity and insecurity of the preening, competitive stars. The actors rattle off pages of ridiculously dense tough guy military jargon, while the over-eager effects crew goes overboard with gushing blood and gore effects. That this kind of Monty Python excess got old back in the early 70s is symptomatic of most of Tropic Thunder, which has only the gross exaggeration card to play, over and over again. When Stiller (surprisingly likeable in this role) and Downey Jr. play their actor's one-upsmanship games, Tropic Thunder it begins to be fun. The rest of the time, it's thuddingly obvious.
Tropic Thunder's crass, mercenary, heartless and vain Hollywood personalities are mostly an ordeal. A lot of hateful people treat each other atrociously, using non-stop tirades of absurd insider Hollywood jargon based on put-downs and obscenities. Afraid that he's lost control, director Damien Cockburn (Steve Coogan) flies his cast to Laos and abandons them in a jungle supposedly rigged with hundreds of video cameras, which will record the actors as they struggle to survive for real. Special effects pyromaniac Cody (Danny McBride) pummels them with explosives. Four Leaf Tayback (Nick Nolte), a handless veteran and author of the book that's being filmed, tags along to invent new ways to make the actors "suffer" more realistically.
Without realizing that they're no longer making a movie, the platoon becomes lost and tangles with the mercenary army of a Laotian drug lord, who turns out to be both a little kid and a fan of the movie Simple Jack. Going on his own, Tugg Speedman dons a Rambo- like costume topped by the skin of a Panda Bear. He also makes soulful contact with a Laotian orphan, for some cheap toss-the-kid-end-over-end-into-the-river humor. The show bounces from take-offs of Platoon (repeating the same gag, for some reason) to Close Encounters of the Third Kind (a mountain of uncut heroin) to innumerable references to Apocalypse Now.
Back in Los Angeles, Tugg Speedman's excitable agent Rick Peck (Matthew McConaughey) barges in on the film's producer to demand that Tugg be supplied with the on-location Tivo stipulated in his contract. The producer is Les Grossman, played by a not-immediately recognizable Tom Cruise. The impossibly abusive Grossman savages his staff in ways that make Kevin Spacey in Swimming with Sharks seem benign. Director Stiller reserves much of his end credit crawl for the spectacle of Cruise dancing, alone in his office. The only fun is seeing what the stars do with their parts -- for all its bluster, the supposed "satire" of Hollywood is a non-starter.
Nick Nolte is along for the ride as a grizzled old vet, and plays a good straight man to the young bantams. Unmentioned in any of the write-ups I've seen is actor Jay Baruchel, who plays the nerdy trooper Sandusky. Baruchel does a great job of providing exposition and support for the other players. He's actually funny in the movie-within-a-movie, playing a disemboweled soldier fascinated by his own intestines -- which look like last week's lasagna!
The show begins with three fake trailers, complete with the logos of real studios, a touch borrowed from Grindhouse that helps set up the movie stars' backstories. The screen also crawls with star cameos, further proving that Stiller & co. are tapped directly into the glitz factory.
The ending is a showy, small-scale firefight with things blowing up and the actors running for their lives in slow motion. Director Stiller's satiric intentions crumble as he reaches for the same lame effects as a Chuck Norris film, almost without irony. Any joke will do, as long as it appeals to the gross 'n' grungy tastes of the Horny Male audience.
It's just a shame that the present state of movie comedy is literally in the toilet. To be offended by even the most gawd-awful trash talk is to be uncool these days, so Savant hereby recuses himself from the task of evaluating the merit of Tropic Thunder. I only wish I could enjoy some of Robert Downey Jr's performance without sitting through the rest of this tropical raunchfest.
DreamWorks' Director's Cut Blu-ray of Tropic Thunder can't be faulted for presentation. The lush Hawaiian locations look great in Hi-Def. The blackface make-up for Robert Downey Jr. is exceedingly well done. Perhaps his role here is a warm-up for the actor to star in a comedy remake of The Jazz Singer, with plenty of anti-Semitic Holocaust jokes! What's the matter, where's your sense of humor?
The extras begin with two commentaries. Stiller talks quietly with his writers, a producer and other crewmembers on one track, identifying the new scenes in the Director's Cut. Stiller returns with Black and Downey Jr. on the other track. The trio creates a lively radio show atmosphere, even Downey Jr. stays in his Tropic Thunder "black-voice" character throughout, escaping the chore of having to evaluate the movie or his work. These guys are still "on" but come off as engagingly fun.
The balance of the extras is a surfeit of brief HD docus on the production, the setting, the pyro effects, the design, the cast and the on-set weather. Deleted scenes and an alternate ending follow, along with a funny clip from the MTV Movie Awards. Rain of Madness is a lengthy takeoff on the style of Hearts of Darkness, the famed docu about the making of Apocalypse Now. "Full Mags" is a collection of on-set improv material that has its ups and downs but mostly indulges the actors in search of their wafer-thin characterizations. BD-Live features include video rehearsals and "Dispatches from the Edge of Madness," more "Rain of Madness" type material.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Tropic Thunder Blu-ray rates:
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