DreamWorks/Paramount (2008), 2 discs, 120 mins plus supplements, Not Rated, $35
An acerbic, biting satire of Hollywood and, most notably, the fickle glamor of celebrity, Tropic Thunder is like the current crop of movie brats’ take on Sunset Boulevard. Fading action star Tugg Speedman (Ben Stiller) desperately needs a new hit, while Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black, channeling the look he sported in his small role in Tim Burton’s Mars Attacks!) is eager to prove himself an actor and break away from the gross-out comedies he’s a blockbuster hit in. Along with method thespian Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr), who has undergone a controversial skin pigmentation procedure to play a black role, the three find themselves on location in South East Asia, set to film an adaptation of a Vietnam War vet’s (a very grizzly Nick Nolte) book, Tropic Thunder.
With the production haemorrhaging time and money (“one month behind schedule just five days into shooting” a mocked up TV report says early on) and the first-time director under pressure, the make-believe squad find themselves out in the field, where the movie is going to be filmed, guerrilla style, from secretly placed cameras. However, little known to the group, including rapper Alpa Chino (an absurd gag name that is never at all referenced as anything out of the ordinary, much to the film’s credit) and brainiest of the “recruits”, Sandusky, they’ve gone and found themselves in a real troublesome spot, where native gangsters are out to protect their business at any cost. When the director steps on an old mine and is literally blown out of the picture, our ragged band of pampered Hollywood stars find themselves in a very real firing line…!
As much as anything, Tropic Thunder is as much a spoof of the commercial movie industry as it is a pastiche of the war movies (Apocalypse Now, Platoon, etc) it spoofs, even going as far as to present a bunch of fake commercials and movie trailers that precede the movie proper. These are great fun (“Approved For…Audiences” the green rating card reads) and parody the kinds of films the three fictional heroes have made their names in; best of all is the wonderful Eddie Murphy-like Meet The Fatties: Fart 2, and a serious starring vehicle for Lazarus, Satan’s Alley co-starring “MTV Best Kiss” award winner Tobey Maguire. Though these do add for a little flavoring, I did wonder how much more sharp Tropic Thunder could well have been if the actors had simply played “themselves” for real: how much closer to investing in these silly egos would we have been if it was “Ben Stiller”, “Jack Black” and “Robert Downey Jr” throwing their star strops? Perhaps the precious egos didn’t want to stretch that far, though names apart that’s the basic idea and would have certainly added some levels.
Funnily enough, after his breakthrough in There’s Something About Mary, I’ve slowly slipped away from enjoying Stiller as much, though it’s certainly true that while he has repeated himself over and over, he’s far from becoming the churn-out master that a Will Ferrell seems to have become. Stiller is always amusing, but in that seen it before way, though whenever he’s in a good film, he rises to the material.
I enjoyed his directorial debut The Cable Guy and his performances in a number of films, even the poorly received but darkly hilarious Duplex and brilliant Mystery Men, while Night At The Museum was a genuinely wonderful surprise, but I often find he takes himself too seriously. Stiller has that kind of Steve Martin face: one that’s not automatically hysterical like a Bill Murray or Jim Carrey but still quirky enough not to be taken as a serious leading man. They’re comic-actors’ faces, able to take the lead but ultimately best when playing in their default comedians’ roles. Actually, evoking Martin is warranted for another reason: I’m sure I’m not the first to draw comparisons between Tropic Thunder and Martin’s 1986 movie Three Amigos! in which three – you got it – actors are left stranded playing in what they think is a set-up when it is anything but.
Tropic Thunder is able to become its own movie, however, and feels like an alternate take on the same theme rather than a copy…although the parallels are interesting (both sets of actors must eventually take on the real danger to emerge true heroes on the other side), Tropic Thunder plays to its strengths of its leading players: Stiller as the inadequate know-all, lost more than he knows, Black as the “jelly-bean”-addicted clown and Downey Jr as a Russell Crowe-like thesp who doesn’t break character until the DVD commentary and tries to help Stiller to shake off the stigma of Simple Jack, a disastrously blatant attempt to draw sympathy from the Academy voters – all three are different enough to work on screen in their own way and not crowd each other. Throw in Tom Cruise as a passionately loathsome studio boss, and Matthew McConaughey as Stiller’s agent, and Tropic Thunder becomes one of the most outrageous and enjoyable hits of the year.
Released on two-disc DVD and Blu-ray in an extended Director’s Cut, the only additions to Tropic Thunder seem to be some extra shots, some of them too risqué for the R-rating the film received in theaters, such as McConaughey’s choice of reading matter and the addition of a party scene early on: none of which is much more “outrageous” than what played in theaters. The first disc includes a pair of Audio Commentary tracks: the first with Stiller the writer-director and select crew, which is a fine discussion of the film – Stiller’s first such track – but far from being anything amazingly revealing.
The second track, with the three principals – Stiller again, Black and Downey Jr – is much more fun as the trio rib each other. Staying true to character, Downey Jr records as Kirk Lazarus, but it’s a gag that Stiller doesn’t seem to be in on or want to be, letting the side down and once again seeming to prove that he can take himself too seriously…he’s done Stiller the serious director’s track: this one should have been more of a celebration but its reigned in somewhat, by his refusal to play along with Downey Jr, who continues anyway, along with Black’s sometimes “out there” remarks. The track sounds like it was recorded the morning of the premiere…topics include what the guys will be wearing, with some mocking towards Black’s choice for the Kung Fu Panda premiere. It’s at this point that you kind of wish the characters in the film had simply been Stiller, Black and Downey Jr, as the exact same dynamic plays out amusingly here.
The second disc lines up an impressive amount of background info and joke documentaries, starting with Before The Thunder, which describes the evolution of the plot and some more original concepts, while we get into the shooting with The Hot LZ, looking at the big action scene that opens the film, a theme continued in Blowing S#%t Up. Production topics are covered in Designing The Thunder and the self-explanatory The Cast Of Tropic Thunder, while Rain Of Madness takes great pains to create a completely compelling half-hour documentary from the movie’s fictional point of view, using faked background material and actual on-set footage to produce a very real diary of “production”, though it starts to feel like overkill in Dispatches From The Edge Of Madness, which further blurs the lines between reality and…not reality.
A series of Deleted, Extended and Alternate Ending Scenes are introduced by Stiller, featuring more material that was even kept from this extended cut and, via audio comments, the explanations why. A Make-Up Test With Tom Cruise is a particular surprise highlight: Cruise garnered good will for spoofing himself as a ruthless studio chief, and while his physical transformation didn’t fool me the way some people struggled to work out who was under the prosthetics, it’s interesting to see the alternate choices made here. The MTV Movie Awards footage plays the entire promo created for the program, and funny it is too as Stiller plays up the inadequacies of starring against Iron Man and the Kung Fu Panda himself.
The final two entries open up the movie process: Full Mags are complete takes for four full scenes, showing how a moment evolves in front of the cameras, and Video Rehearsals takes us back to the location planning for the shoot. The amount of material supplied may feel a little out of whack for what is ostensibly just a silly comedy, but there are some revealing insights in here that fans of the film will probably appreciate. Unfortunately, following other recent Paramount releases, there is no original theatrical trailer…a glaring oversight given the comprehensiveness of the rest of the package.
Presented in anamorphic 2.35:1, Tropic Thunder looks great, a finely detailed image in which the explosions emit real heat from the screen. The audio is pretty explosive too: a Dolby 5.1 track which is big fun and delivers each foul word in the expletive heavy language with perfect reproduction. The packaging follows Paramount’s recent suit of providing a slipcover that doesn’t just replicate the sleeve underneath, being the Tropic Thunder crew logo on the front and a very 1960s Vietnam War-esque shot of the actors underneath. The backs of both leave a little open to interpretation: instead of a plot synopsis they’re both mainly given over to stills and a listing of the bonus features, though a disclaimer does point out the recommendation that Tropic Thunder is for mature audiences only.
Cinematic Classic or Faded Print?
One of the funniest movies of the year, this might not be everyone’s cup of java, but it’s certainly very amusing filmmaking on a grand scale. Looking as epic as the movies it takes delight in taking pot shots at, Tropic Thunder is a blast. Highly recommended.