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Tropic Thunder

Dreamworks // Unrated // November 18, 2008
List Price: $39.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by John Sinnott | posted November 18, 2008 | E-mail the Author
The Movie:


Last summer was pretty amazing when it came to movies.  Yeah, the
studios like to save their big features for the summer months, but for
the past several years Hollywood's output has been pretty anemic. 
The summer of 2008 was different however.  With several excellent
action flicks (Iron Man, Dark Knight,) fun cartoons (Wall-E,
Kung Fu Panda,
) and decent remakes and sequels (Indiana Jones, Get
Smart
) it was quite an exciting couple of months for movie buffs. 
Out of the several comedies that were released though, one stood out head
and shoulders above its peers:  Tropic Thunder.  This
parody of war films and Hollywood itself featured an all star ensemble
cast and was absolutely hilarious.  It was so successful in skewering
pretentious Hollywood stereotypes in general and war films in particular,
it's going to be hard for anyone to make a serious Viet Nam movie for the
next decade.  This hilarious film has now arrived on Blu-ray with
a magnificent image and superior sound.




The movies can be a tough business, especially if you're an actor. 
Action star Tugg Speedman (Ben Stiller) was the hottest thing in films
a decade ago, but his star has faded considerably since then.  His
last movie, a drama where he played a mentally handicapped farm hand, Simple
Jack, was mercilessly slammed by the critics.  He really needs another
hit film.  Five-time Academy Award winner Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey,
Jr.) is well respected in his field, but the bad-boy method actor of cinema
has had little popular success.  King of low-brow humor Jeff Portnoy
(Jack Black) can get people to see his films, most recently The Fatties: 
Fart Two, but hasn't had the critical acclaim that he craves.  These
three stars are joined by rapper Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson) to make
a Viet Nam movie based on a real rescue operation in hopes of salvaging
their careers.

Trekking out to Viet Nam on location, the production is horrible marred. 
First time director Damien Cockburn (Steve Coogan) can't control his cast
and after a $4 million effect scene goes off, with no cameras rolling,
the tough-as-nails studio head, Les Goodman (a nearly unrecognizable Tom
Cruise), threatens to shut down production.  With his back against
the wall, Sandusky, at the urging of the vet who wrote the book that the
movie is being based on ("Four-Leaf" Tayback played by Nick Nolte) takes
the cast out into the middle of the jungle and drops them there. 
He gives them a map and a set of scenes, and will film them covertly, like
The Blair Witch Project, while they have a real jungle experience. 
Hoping to get real emotions from the group, Cockburn gives them a pep talk
right before stepping on an old land mine and blowing himself up.

The only problem is that the actors think it's a stunt, and when they're
attacked by the local heroin producers (who assume they are real American
soldiers,) they figure it's all an act.  Will this group of mere thespians
be able to survive in a jungle with armed drug lords hunting them down?




This is an absolutely hilarious movie.  From the opening scenes,
a series of trailers and commercials that succinctly and accurately establishes
who the main characters are, to the final scene of Tom Cruise dancing,
the film is filled with nearly constant laugh.  The film mercilessly
pokes fun at egotistical, prima-donna actors right from the start. 
Unmarried and childless Speedman is looking to adopt a Vietnamese orphan
but bemoans that all the good ones have already been taken.  (There
may be some truth to what he says.  As he's talking he's looking at
a three year old child brandishing a large knife.)  Even more cutting
is Kirk Lazarus, a method actor who has undergone "pigment enhancement"
to become black.  He's not only playing the role of Lincoln Osiris,
he becomes the black man Lincoln Osiris, going so far as to take offense
when Speedman says "you people."  When Alpha gets irate that Kirk
aka Lincoln is going on about cooking greens and crawfish and asks him
why he's still in character Lincoln replies "Man, I don't drop character
'till I done the DVD commentary."  (Which is what happened in this
case... see the bonus section.)

One of the best scenes in the movie, which caused some controversy,
occurs when Lazarus and Speedman talk about "Simple Jack" and how the former
knew the latter would not win the Oscar he was hoping for.  In one
short speech Lazarus wonderfully shows how Hollywood exploits the mentally
handicapped for a chance at Oscar gold:  "Everybody knows you never
go full retard...  Check it out. Dustin Hoffman, 'Rain Man,' look retarded,
act retarded, not retarded. Counted toothpicks, cheated cards. Autistic,
sho'. Not retarded. You know Tom Hanks, 'Forrest Gump.' Slow, yes. Retarded,
maybe. Braces on his legs. But he charmed the pants off Nixon and won a
ping-pong competition. That ain't retarded. Peter Sellers, "Being There."
Infantile, yes. Retarded, no. You went full retard, man. Never go full
retard. You don't buy that? Ask Sean Penn, 2001, "I Am Sam." Remember?
Went full retard, went home empty handed..."




All of the main actors did a magnificent job.  Downey was particularly
strong, and he took a real risk with his role.  He could have easily
come across as racist playing the film with black makeup, but he fearlessly
threw himself in the role and was willing to become a parody of self-important
actors.  Jack Black was also entertaining as the comedian going through
drug withdrawals after a fruit bat steals his stash.  Ben Stiller
was also wonderful, acting every part of the spoiled actor who sees everything
slipping away.

The person who stole every scene he was in however was Tom Cruise as
the ass-hole producer Les Goodman.  Yes, the couch-jumping weird-o
Scientologist was amazing, and absolutely hilarious.  The scene where
he's talking to the drug gang that is trying to ransom an actor is so outrageous
that I had to play it again when the film was over.  Slimy, immoral,
and incredibly tough, Cruise's portrayal of Goodman was the best part of
a movie filled with highlights.



It should be noted that this is the Director's Cut of the film that
runs about 13 minutes longer than the theatrical version.  I saw this
film during its original release and there were a few added scenes (the
one-week wrap party, a couple of short segments in the jungle) and one
short omission (a short section when Speed is first brought into the drug
camp) that I noticed.  These weren't earth-shaking differences and
this cut has pretty much the same impact as the theatrical version.


The Blu-ray Disc:




Video:

This film comes with its original aspect ratio of 2.35:1 intact on a
50GB Blu-ray disc that uses the AVC MPEG-4 codec.  It looks absolutely
amazing too.  The first scene of the movie takes place in the jungle
where they are shooting the big action sequence, and it is indicative of
the entire film.  The green forest is lush and natural looking and
the level of detail is outstanding.  You can pick out every grain
of dirt on the soldiers faces along with their stubble.  The orange
of the explosions during the air strike are bright at vivid, but neither
the fire nor the smoke have any indication of blocking or other compression
artifacts.  The night scenes are equally impressive with shadows having
an impressive amount of detail.  The blacks are spot-on throughout
the film, dark and inky without being crushed.



I was really looking for something to point out as a flaw, but I came
up blank.  There was no banding in the sky, it doesn't appear that
there was any noise reduction used, and the dreaded edge enhancement was
absent.  This is a great looking disc that will impress anyone watching
it.

Audio:

The movie comes with a Dolby TrueHD 5.1 audio track that just sounds
superb.  Once again, the opening reference-quality scene really shows
off the audio.  The sounds of gunfire come from all corners of the
room and the immersive soundtrack really puts viewers in the middle of
the action.  The big explosions that occur in several places through
the film will really give a system's subwoofer a good workout too. 
There are some great window-rattling scenes (especially the battle at the
end) that will make you happy you spent all of that cash on a good LFE
speaker.

The problem with a lot of movies, especially action films, is that once
the battles and big budget-eating scenes are finished the soundtrack basically
collapses into a stereo mix.  That's not the case here.  Even
while the cast is just walking through the jungle the room is filled with
ambient sounds.  Everything from sticks cracking to bugs chirping
comes through clearly, but never overpowers the dialog.  Add to this
some great songs including "Sympathy for the Devil" and "For What it's
Worth" that are pitch-perfect and you've got an outstanding sounding film.

Extras:

The disc also offers up a good set of bonus features, many of them presented
in HD, which is very nice.  First off are two commentary tracks. 
Ben Stiller, Justin Theroux, Stuart Cornfeld, Jeff Mann, John Toll and
Greg Hayden are present for the "Filmmakers Commentary" where the nuts
and bolts of the film are discussed.  It's a bit on the dry side,
but has a lot of information.  The second alternate audio track features
Ben Stiller, Jack Black and Robert Downey, Jr.  I was really looking
forward to this but I thought it was a bit of a let down.  Downey
stays in character (up until the very end) but the joke wears thin after
a few minutes.  The other actors joke around and seem to have fun,
but the fun doesn't transfer to the audience.   I did find myself
laughing a couple of times, but this wasn't as entertaining as I was hoping.

As for video extras, the disc includes the following (all in HD unless
note):

Before the Thunder (5 minutes):  looks at the genesis of
the project and features interviews with Stiller and his co-writer who
discuss how they were working on the script for nearly a decade. 
The highlight of this piece is a clip of the first read through of the
script which is hilarious.  I would like to have seen the entire thing.

The Hot LZ (7 minutes):  A look at filming the opening sequence.

Blowing Shit Up (6 minutes):  an interview with the special
effects person in charge of the pyrotechnics.  This was pretty enjoyable.

Designing the Thunder (7 minutes): a look at the set designs.

The Cast of Tropic Thunder (22 minutes):  Most of the actors
involved with the film get a few minutes to talk about their characters.
*yawn*

 

Rain of Madness (30 minutes - HD):  The highlight of the
extras.  This is a mockumentary on the creation of the film that was
being made in the movie.  A parody of Heart of Darkness which chronicled
the creation of Apocalypse Now, this bonus, like the feature itself, is
a stroke of genius.

Make-Up Test with Tom Cruise (2 minutes):  Early test footage
of Cruise.  While he's in front of the camera he starts dancing and
it was so funny they worked it into the film.  Hilarious!

Deleted Scenes / Extended Sequences / Alternate Ending (19 minutes):
four extra scenes and an alternate ending.  Most of these were entertaining,
(especially the scene of Jack Black with the water buffalo!)  and
are nice inclusions.   I think they went with the correct ending
however.

Full Mags (11 minutes) is a film magazine worth of raw footage
showing the actors improvising on the set.  Nice to watch and funny
in parts.

MTV Movie Awards - Tropic Thunder (4 minutes, SD) a wonderfully
amusing video that the three main actors created to promote the film during
the MTV Music Awards.

This disc is also BD Live enhanced, but as of this writing before the
release date it was not active.

Final Thoughts:

Easily the most hilarious film of the summer, Tropic Thunder is destined
to become a classic.  Skewering Hollywood, actors, and pretentiousness
all at the same time, you'll be quoting lines from the film as soon as
the credits start rolling.  ("A nutless monkey could do your job.") 
This Blu-ray disc looks and sounds spectacular too.  A great film,
superb picture, and excellent sound.  This disc gets our highest rating. 
DVDTalk Collector Series.

Note: The images in this review are not from the Blu-ray disc and do
not necessarily represent the image quality on the disc.

 

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