TROPIC THUNDER - DVD review

...when you throw enough gags at an audience, some of them are bound to work.

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.
Puccio
William D. Lee's picture
William
Lee

Note: In the following joint review, John and Will provide their opinions on the film, with John also writing up the Video, Audio, Extras, and Parting Thoughts.

The Film According to John:
"Tropic Thunder," the spoof of Hollywood war-movies and Hollywood moviemaking, was one of the funnier comedies I saw in 2008, the others being quite a bit different. The remake of "Get Smart" was relatively gentle and reserved; the Coen brothers' "Burn After Reading" was irreverent and sarcastic; and "Forgetting Sarah Marshall" was salacious but intelligent. "Tropic Thunder," on the other hand, is wildly outrageous, crude, vulgar, and most often over-the-top. In their own ways, though, all of these movies made me laugh, at least in part. They do their job.

The premise of "Tropic Thunder" is one of those "what if's." What if a group of goofus actors making a Vietnam war movie on location in Vietnam traveled to the interior of the country, had real enemies shooting at them, and didn't know it was all for real? What if they thought it was just part of the film they were making?

When a movie company gets stuck and the producer threatens to pull the plug, the filmmakers decide to go for broke and shoot in the Vietnamese rain forests with hidden cameras. Only in the middle of the jungle where they're shooting, they run into members of a genuine drug cartel who think the actors are DEA officers. It all gets pretty silly pretty fast.

Ben Stiller co-wrote, co-produced, directed, and stars in the film. I mean, you'd think it was a Ben Stiller film. And you'd be right; his touch is everywhere. Stiller plays an fading, Stallone-type actor, Tugg Speedman, who has starred in about 800 Rambo-like action movies, most of them sequels, and now desperately needs a hit or his career goes down the tubes. His answer is a Vietnam saga, "Tropic Thunder," in the mold of "Platoon," "Apocalypse Now," and "Full Metal Jacket."

Stiller is funny, to be sure, but it's Robert Downey, Jr. who steals the show and upstages everybody. He plays Kirk Lazarus, an Australian superstar method actor who takes every part he plays as the Second Coming. Lazarus is patterned on such meticulously finicky actors as Russell Crowe or Robert DeNiro. Stiller says it was important to cast a real-life no-nonsense actor that audiences could take seriously if the satire was to work, and certainly Stiller found his man in Downey. The guy is always the best part of any film he's in, and he's able to play heavyweight roles and comic ones with equal ease. In "Tropic Thunder" Downey's Lazarus character accepts a part as a black man in the film within the film, and to do it up right the character demands not using makeup but going so far as to have his skin dyed black. Then he insists upon remaining in character at all times, actually beginning to think that he really is black. "I don't drop character until I done the DVD commentary." The result is hilarious, and Downey easily makes the movie worth watching.

The film's third major star is sort of the odd-man-out: Jack Black. Black's a funny guy, but his character, Jeff Portnoy, a gross, conceited, drug-addicted comic actor famous for fart jokes, never comes off as very funny; at least, not as funny as the others, perhaps because his character is the most overblown, exaggerated one of the lot. He simply comes across as crude for crudity's sake.

Among the film's other players are Brandon T. Jackson as Alpa Chino, a hip-hop artist gone Hollywood; Jay Baruchel as Kevin Sandusky, a naive chatterbox who ventures into the fake film's very real jungle with the rest; Nick Nolte as Four Leaf Tayback, a tough, grizzled, handless Vietnam vet on whose autobiographical book the filmmakers are basing the movie within the movie; Steve Coogan as Damien Cockburn, the effete British director of the movie; Danny McBride as Cody, the film crew's manic pyrotechnics expert; Matthew McConaughey as Rick Peck, Speedman's Tivo-obsessed agent; and Bill Hader as Rob Slolom, a studio toady.

Then, there is a major Hollywood superstar whose name does not appear in the keep-case credits. By now everyone on the planet knows who it is, but for the two viewers who have been on the International Space Station these past few years, I won't mention it (even though it's listed in the extras below; sorry about that). Anyway, even if you know who the superstar is, you probably won't recognize him under the hair and the lack thereof. And he takes the part so earnestly, it's hard not to crack up just looking at him.

Nevertheless, there are several problems with "Tropic Thunder" that hold it back from classic status, like never knowing when to quit, milking a gag too long, letting whole sequences go on too long, and interspersing brilliance with, literally, flatulence. Illustrating the point are the pseudo trailers that open the movie, wherein each of the stars of the film within a film gets his own preview. Two of the trailers, the ones for action hero Tugman and serious dramatic actor Lazarus are clever and witty and very, very funny; the two for hip-hop artist Chino and comic actor Portnoy are intentionally gross and distasteful. These moments of ups and downs set the tone for the rest of the movie and make it hard to enjoy the good for the bad.

"Tropic Thunder" has a little something in it to offend everyone. Stiller isn't afraid to poke fun at the expense of the physically handicapped, the emotionally challenged, the disabled, blacks, even pandas. For every big laugh, though, there's a groaner. For every cute gag, there's one so coarse or tasteless, you have to shake your head. It's a remarkably uneven film, yet when the laughs do come, they can be so sidesplitting or so surprising, they may be worth the trouble of the clunkers. You take what you can get.

John's Film Rating: 6/10.

The Film According to Will:
I honestly can't remember the last time I saw a comedy that was so relentlessly over-the-top and anarchic as "Tropic Thunder." Perhaps, the first "Naked Gun" film or maybe I should stretch my memory all the way back to "Airplane!" or "Kentucky Fried Movie." "Tropic Thunder" is more than just a jab at Vietnam War movies, but also takes numerous pot shots at actors and Hollywood in general. We've got greedy financiers, clueless directors, self-centered talent agents, and, of course, egotistical movie stars. Therein lies the main drawback to the film: It is definitely going to be TOO much for many viewers. "Tropic Thunder" dials it all the way to eleven and never tones the volume down. It's loud and almost cartoonish. You'll loudly groan in disbelief or disgust.

Ben Stiller stars as…well…the star, Tugg Speedman, action hero extraordinaire. Once an instant ticket to box office success, Speedman finds his fame waning. His latest big-budget blockbuster, "Scorcher VI: Global Meltdown" flopped. "Simple Jack" in which Speedman attempted more serious fare by playing a mentally handicapped individual was met with much derision. Speedman hopes to revive his sagging career by mixing action and drama in a war epic based on best-selling book based on the true-life story of Vietnam veteran Lt. Four Leaf Tayback (Nick Nolte), who lost both his hands during the conflict. Tayback himself serves as the film's consultant. Stiller's co-stars include Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr.), a five-time Oscar winner from Australia. Lazarus is infamous for the great lengths he'll take to become his character. In order to play the African-American Sgt. Osiris, Lazarus has undergone a pigment alteration procedure to become a black man, his baby blue eyes replaced by contacts and his blonde hair covered by an afro wig. The third star of the picture is Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black), an overweight comedian with serious drug problems. While Lazarus could be seen as a dig on Daniel Day-Lewis, Portnoy is a poke at troubled, overweight actors like John Belushi and Chris Farley, with a little bit of Andy Dick tossed in for good measure.

Portnoy's heroin addiction isn't the only trouble plaguing the controversial film within a film. The picture is helmed by first-time director Damien Cockburn (Steve Coogan), who is in way over his head. Cockburn is dangerously behind schedule and ridiculously over-budget. Even worse, he's only four days into production. Seeing that his life story is being flushed down the toilet by an incompetent director and overly demanding actors, Tayback convinces Cockburn to shoot the film "guerrilla-style." Cockburn takes them into the jungle where he's rigged the trees with hidden cameras and explosives. They're to act as if everything they see is real. Unfortunately, Cockburn steps on a stray land mine and is literally blown to pieces. Even more unfortunate, the actors (particularly Speedman) still believe it is all part of the movie. Speedman doggedly sticks to the script even when the cast comes under attack from a band of drug dealers known as the Flaming Dragon.

The cast of "Tropic Thunder" also includes Brandon T. Jackson as rapper Alpa Chino, who doesn't take kindly to Lazarus's blackface routine; Jay Baruchel as Kevin Sandusky, the only cast member to have actually read the script and attended training camp; Danny McBride as the film's overzealous pyrotechnic specialist; and Matthew McConaughey as Speedman's talent agent who refuses to allow his client to go without TiVo. McConaughey stepped into the role after Owen Wilson backed out following his much-publicized suicide attempt.

"Tropic Thunder" is definitely Ben Stiller's most ambitious project. Stiller not only stars in the film, but he also serves as the director, producer, and one of three co-writers. Stiller's writing partners are Etan Cohen ("Idiocracy") and actor Justin Theroux who makes his screenwriting debut with "Tropic Thunder." Theroux's writing obviously impressed Robert Downey Jr. as he was hired to write the much-anticipated "Iron Man" sequel.

Stiller apes several Vietnam War movies with the obvious references being "Platoon" and "Apocalypse Now." "Tropic Thunder" even features the staple of any good Vietnam movie, the classic 70s' rock soundtrack. Yet, "Tropic Thunder" isn't anything like the idiotic dreck churned out by the "Insert Movie Genre Movie" machine. It doesn't rely on lazy, random pop-culture references. Instead, the film lampoons the moviemaking process by not just breaking the envelope, but by ripping it into pieces, burning it, and urinating on the ashes. Right away, the audience is thrown into the insane proceedings by a trio of hilarious mock trailers shown before the film begins proper. The award-winning film starring Lazarus is a must-see and features a cameo I will NOT spoil for anyone. In fact, "Tropic Thunder" is filled with sidesplitting cameos that should be seen to be believed, including a certain A-list star who is nearly unrecognizable as a fat, balding, foulmouthed investor.

Honestly, the main reason to see "Tropic Thunder" and the main source for the film's buzz has been Robert Downey, Jr. as a black man. Or should I say a white man pretending to be a black man. Downey has seen his career skyrocket thanks to the enormous success of "Iron Man." His wonderful performance in that superhero movie is followed up by a riotously entertaining turn as an actor who goes way too far. Yes, it is controversial, but is it offensive or racist? Not at all. The point of the movie is to point out how ludicrous the acting process is. Downey owns this role just as he did Tony Stark. My only complaint would be the man does his part so well, I found half of his dialogue nearly incomprehensible. Stiller acquits himself well enough. The role is different from the usual put-upon men he plays in movies like "Meet the Parents" or "Night at the Museum" and more like the wacky roles from "Mystery Men" and "Zoolander." The rest of the cast is mostly underutilized or bring nothing new to the table, Jack Black and Nick Nolte in particular.

"Tropic Thunder" may be a wild film, but it is also a wildly uneven one. It does nothing subtle or low-key and it will not be to everyone's tastes. There were times when I laughed loudly in the theater or applauded at an excellently pulled off gag. There were other times when I found the zaniness grating or stupid. The plot is quite scattershot. It feels as if the writers could come up with the big jokes, but had difficulty stringing them together with a cohesive story. "Tropic Thunder" is a case where the film's parts are better than its sum.

Will's Film Rating: 6/10.

Video:
DreamWorks offer the movie in its theatrical aspect ratio of 2.35:1 using an anamorphic transfer. The image displays good color and definition, with natural facial tones and fairly strong contrasts. Black levels usually remain deep, setting off the hues, although sometimes things get a bit too dark; film grain is light but realistically present; and an overall glossiness seems consistent with what I remember seeing in a movie theater.

Audio:
As befitting any real action movie, the film's Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack delivers an abundance of surround activity, a wide frequency response, and plenty of dynamic punch. During the opening sequence, it's intentionally hard to hear and understand the dialogue, but don't worry about it; it's part of the fun. Bass is thunderous at times and the musical background is pounding; like the rest of the audio, though, they are always at the service of the film's raunchy humor.

Extras:
Disc one of this 2-Disc Director's Cut edition contains the feature film and several audio commentaries. The first commentary is with the filmmakers: co-writer, co-producer, and director Ben Stiller, executive producer Justin Theroux, producer Stuart Cornfeld, production designer Jeff Mann, director of photography John Toll, and film editor Greg Hayden. The second commentary is with stars Ben Stiller, Jack Black, and Robert Downey, Jr. In addition to all the talk, there are twenty-four scene selections; a series of trailers at start-up, with even more trailers in the main menu; a public service announcement; and English, French, and Spanish spoken languages and subtitles.

Disc two contains the rest of the bonus materials, and they are numerous. Things start with "Before the Thunder," a five-minute section with Stiller, the producer, and others on preproduction stuff. Next is "The Hot LZ," a six-minute bit on the location shooting in the film. After that is "Blowing Shit Up," six minutes on the film's explosions, and then "Designing the Thunder," seven minutes on the sets.

After those relatively brief featurettes is a twenty-two-minute segment, "The Cast of Tropic Thunder," covering Stiller, Black, Downey, Jackson, Baruchel, McBride, and Nolte. By the way, Downey says in his section that "Ironman" will be a trilogy, but it's hard to know if he's kidding or not.

Moving along, we get two mock documentaries, "Rain of Madness," a thirty-minute spoof of making-of docs, and "Dispatches from the Edge of Madness," twenty-three more minutes of satiric comments on the making of the movie. They're meant as send ups of films like "Hearts of Darkness," the documentary on the making of "Apocalypse Now." The "Tropic Thunder" ones do a pretty amusing job, but they tend to overstay their welcome.

No collection of extras would be worth its salt if it didn't include a series of deleted and extended scenes, plus an alternate ending, so that's what comes next: Two deleted scenes, two extended scenes, and an alternative ending, all with optional introductions by Stiller and film editor Greg Hayden.

Finally, we get a minute-and-a-half "Makeup Test with Tom Cruise"; a four-minute skit from the MTV Movie Awards with Stiller, Downey, and Black that is the funniest of the bonus items; thirty-three minutes of raw film magazine footage (before editing) called "Full Mags"; and three minutes of video rehearsals.

The two discs come housed in a double keep case, further enclosed in an attractively embossed slipcover.

Parting Thoughts:
"Tropic Thunder" is the closest thing you'll find to a Farrelly brothers comedy that doesn't involve the Farrelly brothers. It's filled with the same zany, inflated, often gross, off-the-wall antics that so many of the Farrelly comedies contain, and just as with the Farrellys, you'll find as many or more misses as hits. Still, when you throw enough gags at an audience, as this movie does, some of them are bound to work; meaning that you may find yourself laughing often enough to justify the time you spend with it.

Just be aware that the film is not for everyone. The original theatrical cut got a well-deserved R rating for profanity, crudeness, and violence, and this unrated Director's Cut with almost another quarter of an hour provides even more of the same. The Wife-O-Meter lasted about ten minutes before she gave it up and left the room. As I say, be advised.

Ratings

Video
8
Audio
8
Extras
9
Film Value
6