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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:
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.
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.
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.
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.