Released: August 13, 2008
|by Dan Goldwasser
on November 14th, 2008
Ben Stiller's action-comedy Tropic Thunder follows the story of four Hollywood egos as they try to make a Vietnam war movie. Tug Speedman (Stiller), is the washed up action hero on his last attempt to hold onto his stardom; Oscar-winning Australian actor Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr.) underwent a controversial skin pigmentation treatment to play one of the platoon's African-American members; comedian Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black) is dealing with a drug problem; rapper Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson) keeps trying to work his product placement into the film, and rookie actor Kevin Sandusky (Jay Baruchel) sees the film as his big break. But when oversized Hollywood egos get in the way of director Damien Cockburn (Steve Coogan) making his movie properly - and a $4 million explosion is accidentally set off without the cameras rolling - studio head Les Grossman (Tom Cruise) gives Damien an ultimatum: get his actors in order, or he's going to shut down the film.
At the suggestion of "Four Leaf" Tayback (Nick Nolte), the veteran who wrote the book the film is based on, Damien takes the actors deep into the Vietnamese jungle to have them experience what it's like in the thick of things, with the intention of having his special effects guys make them feel like they're really in a battle. Unfortunately, Damien is killed when he steps on a land mine, and soon the actors - who think they're still making a movie - encounter the heroin-producing Flaming Dragon gang - who think the actors are DEA.
Written by Ben Stiller, Justin Theroux and Etan Cohen, Tropic Thunder effectively skewers Hollywood and the cult of celebrity. From the opening parody trailers, to the portrayal of method actors that take things a bit too far, to even bits of Theodore Shapiro's musical score, the film takes a bulldozer approach - no one is safe, even the mentally challenged (which led to some controversy during the film's release). Much of the humor tends to come from the Hollywood insider-type jokes (especially most of Tom Cruise's performance, and Matthew McConaughey's role as Speedman's myopic agent), but there's something for everyone, and it's a violent comedy that will have you laughing with the absurdity of what these actors get themselves into.
The "Director's Cut" runs about 14-minutes longer than the theatrical version, and will be released on DVD and Blu-ray on November 18, 2008. (The theatrical version is not available on Blu-ray, although they could have included both versions with seamless branching.) As far as transfers go, the Blu-ray sports a very natural film-like image. Cinematographer John Toll (Braveheart, Legends of the Fall, The Thin Red Line) knows his stuff, and shooting in Hawaii (for the jungles of Vietnam) allowed him to bring out a war-like high contrast shoot, without blotching out the subtleties. It's got an impressive black level, colors are well represented, especially green, and flesh tones look normal. (There's even a nice a sense of the sky being overcast, which evokes memories of how the cinematography in Predator looked). Film grain is subtle and non intrusive. For a 2008 film, it looks about as good as one would expect. Similarly, audio is presented in English 5.1 Dolby TrueHD, and French/Spanish 5.1 Dolby Digital. The TrueHD track is a punchy sound mix, and dialogue is clear even when a battle is raging around you. Shapiro's score is nicely presented, and it's a very clean and sharp audio track overall.
Special features on the Blu-ray start out with two commentary tracks for the film. The first one features director/writer/actor Ben Stiller, writer Justin Theroux, producer Stuart Cornfeld, production designer Jeff Mann, cinematographer John Toll and editor Greg Hayden. Stiller takes the lead, but allows everyone to chime in to talk about their various roles in the production. It's a more technical commentary, focusing on the story development and shooting aspects, and it's pretty informative. The second track features Ben Stiller, Jack Black and Robert Downey Jr. Actor commentaries are usually not very well done, but in this case, since Stiller is also the writer/director, Black is great at improv, and Downey Jr. does the entire commentary in character, it's worth listening to. It might not be as funny as the film, but it has some great moments.
Once you get beyond the film, there is a boatload of extras for the film. "Before the Thunder" (5-minutes) is a short featurette that looks at the origins of the idea for Tropic Thunder, and how it came about. "The Hot LZ" (6.5-minutes) looks at the shooting of the opening battle sequence in the film. "Blowing Shit Up" (6.5-minutes) is a fun look at all the different pyrotechnic events in the film, including the 1,600 gallon explosion at the beginning of the film. "Designing the Thunder" (7.5-minutes) is a look at the production design, and how they built the exterior sets, drug compounds, hotels, and interior stage sets.
"The Cast of Tropic Thunder" (22-minutes) is broken up into seven segments: "Stiller", "Black", Downey Jr.", "Jackson", "Baruchel", "McBride" and "Nolte" (you can choose "Play All" if you want). It takes a look at the various casting choices, and the different things that each actor brought to their roles, and the stereotypes they were trying to portray. "Rain of Madness" is the 30-minute long mockumentary starring Justin Theroux as German filmmaker Jan Jurgen, who was making a documentary about the film production making Tropic Thunder (the film within the film, not the Stiller film). It's satirical and tongue-in-cheek and owes a lot to Hearts of Darkness. "Make-Up Test with Tom Cruise" (1.5-minutes) has an introduction by Ben Stiller and Editor Greg Hayden, and shows Cruise enjoying his new persona through hip-hop dance.
There are two "Deleted Scenes" (3-min) with commentary, and two "Extended Sequences" (11-min), also with commentary. Entertaining, but they drag on a little too long. Finally an "Alternate Ending" (3.5-minutes) gives us a different take on what happens with McConaughey's character. "Full Mags" (11-minutes) presents a full magazine of the film in raw footage form so you can see how the improv choices came about through various takes for the "Choose a Dude" scene. Finally, the MTV Movie Award sketch (4-minutes, SD) is included - it's a very funny promo for the film that milks the success of Iron Man and Kung Fu Panda along with some good old-fashioned roasting. There are no trailers (a sad omission), and at the time of this review, the BD-Live aspects were not yet activated. However, according to the back of the box, the BD-Live extras will include the "Dispatches from the Edge of Madness" podcasts (related to the Rain of Madness mockumentary), "Additional Full Mags" and "Video Rehearsals". Obviously all of these are already on the Blu-ray, but require BD-Live to "unlock", like the BD-Live extras on Kung Fu Panda.
Tropic Thunder is a pretty funny satire on Hollywood and celebrity excess, and a good war movie on top of it. It's over-the-top and violent, looks and sounds great, and will have you laughing guaranteed. The inclusion of some solid behind-the-scenes extras as well as a lengthy mockumentary makes this a package worth looking into.
|by Dan Goldwasser
on August 22nd, 2008
In Zoolander, Ben Stiller tackled the fashion industry with his satirical take on male modeling. Now he turns his sights on Hollywood and war films, with the biting satire, Tropic Thunder. When three of Hollywood's biggest actors come together to film the "true story" of Vietnam veteran "Fourleaf" Tayback's (Nick Nolte) heroic escape from a POW camp, everything goes wrong. Action star Tugg Speedman (Ben Stiller) is banking on the film to jumpstart his floundering career after a misguided attempt at drama (playing a retarded man in Simple Jack) nearly bankrupted his reputation. Comedy star Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black), best known for his flatuence-inspired comedy film series The Fatties, is dealing with a major drug problem. Five-time Oscar-winning Australian actor Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr.) is such a method actor that he undergoes a controversial skin pigmentation procedure to play a black man. And rapper Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson) feels compelled to plug his line of "Booty Sweat" energy drinks during the filming. When a $4 million explosion accidentally goes off, ruining a take, director Damien Cockburn (Steve Coogan) needs to do something drastic to get his actors in line - or else studio executive Lee Grossman (Tom Cruise) will shut down the production. After consulting with "Fourleaf", Cockburn decides to immerse his actors in the jungle, which has been rigged with explosives, and use hidden cameras to film their true reactions. Unfortunately, they were dropped into the middle of the "Golden Triangle", run by the Flaming Dragon gang, who believes the actors are actually DEA agents set to destroy their heroin operation. As they move through the jungle, Speedman is convinced that the obstacles they're encountering are actually part of the film, but Lazarus and the others are quickly convinced that something has gone terribly wrong. When Speedman breaks off from the group and is captured by the Flaming Dragons, soon a rescue has to be planned - and the actors might just have to become the characters they've been portraying.
There's a lot more to Tropic Thunder than mentioned here; some subplots involving Speedman's agent Rick (Matthew McConaughey) and Grossman, as well as "Fourleaf" and the pyrotechnic engineer Cody (Danny R. McBride) are all pretty funny as well. The humor might not go over with people who aren't keen on "Hollywood", but the film does a great job at lampooning the craft of acting and filmmaking. The speech that Lazarus gives Speedman about going "full retard" is brilliant, because he's giving it while going full blackface. It's that kind of humor that makes Tropic Thunder even funnier than the obvious gags, but there are certainly plenty of those as well. Dressed in a balding fat suit, Tom Cruise is great as Grossman, giving us his take on the quintesential studio chief (one can only wonder if he had any particular people in mind), and Robert Downey Jr. is nothing short of brilliant.
But the problem with Tropic Thunder is that it seems like Stiller had almost too much money to make the film. There is a lot of excessive explosions and flashy things, and I think it almost feels like it was a way to justify the budget. The other problem with the film is that it peaks in the first five minutes. There are fake trailers (and commercial for "Booty Sweat") that precedes the actual film, and those are so absolutely hysterical and amazing (they even got Universal, New Line Cinema and Fox Searchlight to approve the use of their logos) that it's hard to see how the rest of the movie would keep that energy. And sadly, it doesn't, but it's still pretty darn funny stuff.
Tropic Thunder is rated R, and for good reason. There's a lot of drug references, swearing, and gory violence. Yes, that's right - it's a blood-and-guts type of war movie, and that's fine - but it might surprise some people who expected a silly Ben Stiller comedy. Composer Theodore Shapiro's score provides some rocking energy, and his send-up of the overly dramatic "Wailing Woman" moments (replete with vocalist Lisbeth Scott) had the audience laughing. It's always nice when the music can contribute to a joke. It's not a perfect film by any means, but it's certainly funny entertainment. You might not get all the humor if you're not familiar with the inside workings of Hollywood, but don't let the "controversy" dissuade you from seeing Tropic Thunder.
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