Sometimes, Judge Erich Asperschlager feels like every day is a fake Vietnam War movie.
Our review of Tropic Thunder (Blu-Ray), published November 19th, 2008, is also available.
"In the winter of 1969 an elite force of the U.S. Army was sent on a top secret assignment in South East Vietnam…Of the 10 men sent, four returned. Of those four, three wrote books about what happened. Of those three, two were published. Of those two, just one got a movie deal.
This is the story of the men who attempted to make that movie."
In a summer of subpar comedies that implored us to love gurus and not mess with the Zohan, many casual moviegoers expected Ben Stiller's pet project Tropic Thunder to be just another mindless Hollywood spoof. In the months leading up to its release, however, word began to spread that, despite starring both Stiller and Jack Black, Thunder was something more than a cookie cutter comedy. By the time it hit screens in mid-August, critical buzz was deafening, and audiences flocked to the phenomenon. Before long, that acclaim was in a shouting match with people offended not by Robert Downey Jr.'s blackface performance, but by Stiller's character's portrayal of a mentally challenged farmhand. By the time Tropic Thunder left theaters, it had managed to become the kind of Hollywood spectacle the movie itself parodied. With time and distance separating it from both the buzz and the controversy, how does Tropic Thunder fare on DVD?
Facts of the Case
With the big-budget war epic Tropic Thunder in danger of getting shut down by its temperamental backer (Tom Cruise, Eyes Wide Shut), director Damien Cockburn (Steve Coogan, Hot Fuzz) decides to take drastic action. At the urging of the Vietnam vet (Nick Nolte, Hulk) whose autobiography is the basis for the movie, he loads up a chopper with the feuding principal actors—action hero Tug Speedman (Ben Stiller, Arrested Development), gross-out comedian Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black, School of Rock), Australian method actor Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey, Jr., Iron Man), rapper Alpa Chino (Brandon Jackson, A Talent for Trouble), and rookie Kevin Sandusky (Jay Baruchel, Undeclared)—and drops them off in the middle of the jungle to shoot the rest of the film guerilla-style. The plans go awry when the fake soldiers encounter some real gun-toting drug runners, who they mistake for fellow actors.
Tropic Thunder is a weird movie because it was both the beneficiary and victim of the hype that surrounded it. I'm sure when many people saw the first movie poster, they thought either "Oh great, another Ben Stiller movie" or "Oh great, another Jack Black movie." But appearances can be deceiving, and Tropic Thunder surprised critics and audiences alike by being both a deft satire of Hollywood culture and an affecting homage to war movie classics like Platoon and Apocalypse Now. The only problem with the acclaim is that it may have set expectations too high. Tropic Thunder isn't a soulless comedy money grab but, at times, it succumbs to the kind of dumb humor that makes people wary of Hollywood comedies in the first place.
Ben Stiller and co-writer Justin Theroux started the script for Tropic Thunder a decade ago, with the origin of the idea coming nearly ten years before that. The labor of love also marks Stiller's first stint as feature director since 2001's so-so Zoolander. Had Tropic Thunder been as silly as that male model comedy, I doubt it would have been more than a footnote to a middling summer schedule dominated by a sadistic clown and his brooding nemesis. Thunder succeeded in part because it hit theaters at exactly the right time, surrounded by the kind of Hollywood blockbusters it so perfectly skewers. The timing for the DVD may not be as perfect, but the move to the small screen doesn't rob the film of its best material.
Stiller and Theroux have written a mostly smart script, and the keen eye of cinematographer John Toll, combined with the lush Asia-by-way-of-Hawaii landscapes, gives the film an authentic war movie look. The supporting cast is full of great actors, from Apatow alum Jay Baruchel and young comedian Brandon Jackson to over-the-top performances by Matthew McConaughey as Speedman's agent, Nick Nolte as grizzled veteran "Four Leaf" Tayback, Bill Hader as a slimy studio exec, and a heavily made up Tom Cruise as the foul-mouthed Les Grossman. Of the big three actors, Stiller dominates the film, playing the vapid Speedman as a slightly more self-aware Derek Zoolander. He's good at playing dumb guys in smart ways. Jack Black, unfortunately, has the weakest role, not because his performance is off, but because his drug addicted character spends the whole movie in a detox stupor.
You're no doubt heard it before, but I'll say it again: the best thing about Tropic Thunder is Robert Downey, Jr. His starring role in Iron Man may have catapulted him into the Hollywood limelight, but his turn as method actor Kirk Lazarus is the kind of performance that's going to keep him there. The specifics of Downey's troubled past have been well-dissected, so I won't go into them except to say that we're lucky he made such a remarkable recovery. Many people expected that his portrayal of a white actor playing a black man would cause controversy, but it didn't. In almost anyone else's hands, it probably would have. But, like Lazarus, Downey embodies the role so that his performance is too sincere to be offensive.
No discussion of Tropic Thunder would be complete without addressing the controversy that surrounded the movie-within-the-movie, Simple Jack. It's tough to say now whether the outcry from organizations who work with the mentally challenged was warranted. Speedman's characterization of Jack pops up several times throughout the movie, and is the basis for jokes that use terms like "retard" and "short bus." But, as with everything else in Thunder, the real joke is on self-serving actors who take on such roles in hopes of nabbing an Oscar the easy way. At worst, Simple Jack is an excuse to get some of the film's cheapest laughs. If anyone should be offended by Tropic Thunder, it's women. There are only a handful of female roles in the movie, none of which are main characters. In fact, most of the women in the film are on the pages of the nudie mag McConaughey's character flips through while he's on the phone with his client.
Even if you saw Tropic Thunder in the theater, it's worth revisiting on DVD because this director's cut adds another 13 minutes to the running time, restoring several linking scenes that were originally cut for time, as well as some additional gore in the opening battle. Unlike so many unrated directors' cuts, this one is more than just a cheap marketing ploy.
The Tropic Thunder: 2-Disc Director's Cut has more than just a longer version of the film, it also includes more than three hours of extras. The first disc has two commentaries, one with Stiller, co-writer Theroux, cinematographer Toll, producer Stuart Cornfeld, production designer Jeff Mann, and editor Greg Hayden, and another with the film's three lead actors. The first is a solid rundown of the technical difficulties in making so ambitious a film. The second is two hilarious hours with an on-fire Downey who overpowers Stiller and Black by doing the entire thing as Sgt. Lincoln Osiris, living up to his assertion in the film that he "don't drop character 'til the DVD commentary."
Disc Two is packed with nearly three additional hours of extras. Besides the requisite slate of making-of featurettes—covering the film's genesis, the opening battle scene and its climactic explosion, and the movie's design—there are profiles of the main cast, a viral video shot for the MTV Movie Awards, a handful of deleted and extended scenes, the Tom Cruise make-up test that birthed his character's signature dance moves, and an alternate ending that leaves a minor character's fate in question. They're all worth watching, but the most unique bonus feature is the mockumentary "Rain of Madness" and the associated "Dispatches from the Edge of Madness," in which faux documentarian Jan Jürgen covers the making of the film up to the mysterious disappearance of its director and lead actors.
Even if you only have a standard-def set up, Tropic Thunder looks and sounds great. The 5.1 surround mix is a rich tapestry of jungle noises, whizzing bullets, explosions, and a kick-ass classic rock/hip hop soundtrack. The transfer captures all the detail of film's lush settings, aping classic war movies in a way that makes Tropic Thunder feel more cinematic than any comedy in recent memory.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Tropic Thunder was, and is, a surprisingly good action comedy, but it never strays too far from a mainstream Hollywood film. Though many of its dumb jokes are at the expense of the entertainment industry, that doesn't make them less dumb. Black and Stiller, especially, succumb to the kind of broad humor they've built their careers on. If you don't expect too much from Tropic Thunder, you'll enjoy it much more.
My biggest complaint with the pacing of the film is that we don't spend enough time with the principle actors before they get dropped off in the jungle. Even though this director's cut stretches the first act to a full half hour, I still wanted to know more about Lazarus's skin pigmentation surgery, for example, or Jeff Portnoy's rise to fart fame. Fortunately, the "Rain of Madness" short film covers all this background info and more. I just wish there was time for more set-up in the actual film.
Tropic Thunder is a movie that deserves to be seen apart from the hullabaloo that surrounded it's theatrical run—and the "controversy" it touts on the back of the box. It's a good, if not great, comedy with rip-roarin' action and stellar performances down the line, and this two-disc director's cut—with its exhaustive slate of extras—is the perfect way to watch it on DVD.
This should really go to a fake war tribunal, shouldn't it? Not guilty.
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