It has been seven years since Ben Stiller made his last directorial effort, "Zoolander," a high-concept Hollywood satire of the world of male fashion models. In "Tropic Thunder," Stiller once again turns to satire, but this time he sets his poisonous pen on more familiar territory: high-concept Hollywood movies. This film revolves chiefly around the increasing calamities of a hugely overblown war movie being shot in Vietnam. Based on the memoir of Vietnam vet Four Leaf Tayback (Nick Nolte), who lost both hands while in a prison camp, the movie seems destined for failure because of the clashing egos of its motley crew of stars. In the lead role as Tayback is Tugg Speedman (Ben Stiller), an action star whose celebrity and credibility have faltered in the wake of a misguided attempt at serious acting. In supporting roles are comedian Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black), best known for a franchise based around his ability to fart on command, Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson), a young rapper with his own brand of soda called Booty Sweat, and Kevin Sandusky (Jay Baruchel), an unknown hoping for stardom. The only credible actor in the film is Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr.), a five-time Oscar winner who controversially turned down the lead role in favor of playing a black soldier, going so far as to undergo a skin pigmentation alteration procedure.
Unable to get his vision across with the onset distractions and a powerful Hollywood mogul breathing down his neck, director Damien Cockburn (Steve Coogan) decides to plant his actors in the jungles of Vietnam, away from the glitz of celebrity living, with hidden cameras strategically placed in trees and bushes in hopes of saving the film by lending it a gritty verisimilitude. Speedman enthusiastically steps up to the plate, hoping to rescue his fading career with what may be the role of a lifetime. The rest of the cast remains considerably more reserved, especially when they encounter the "enemy," who don't seem to be acting. Eventually, the group finds their environment to be more real than they could ever have imagined it, but their showbiz lifestyles still take precedence.
As comedic metacinema, "Tropic Thunder" revels in ironic self-reference. The film opens with several fake trailers and ads that introduce the main characters and set the tone for the satire that is to follow. Media personalities such as Maria Menounos of "Access Hollywood" and Tyra Banks make cameo appearances as themselves, while the lead actors play thinly veiled versions of real movie stars or even themselves. Jack Black's character is a crude comedian whom nobody takes seriously. Robert Downey Jr. is a gifted actor who is plagued by personal troubles. These characters, along with everyone else in the movie, are so absorbed in their own perceived dilemmas that they are oblivious to the absurdity of their situations. As Stiller's agent, Matthew McConaughey displays his patented laidback persona to good effect, only coming out of it when he fears that Stiller does not have a TiVo on set. Egos rule over creativity and sincerity, and the production that is at the center of the film is reduced to a pastiche of iconic moments from past war films, explosions, and graphic scenes of carnage.
To capture the genuine look of previous war movies, Stiller hired Oscar-winning cinematographer John Toll. In addition to recreating famous shots from "Apocalypse Now" (1979) and "Platoon" (1986), Toll imbues many scenes with the appearance and atmosphere of "The Thin Red Line" (1998), which he also photographed. The film is ridiculously well shot for the type of comedy that it is, but that is part of its effectiveness. In order to spoof overblown, high-concept movies, it must look like one. Of course, that's not difficult, considering that it is one. It plays like a melding of Robert Altman's "The Player" (1992) and Wes Craven's "Scream" (1996). Like the Altman film, it deliberately packs in as much of the formula as it can (big stars, high explosives, graphic violence) in subtly subversive ways, but like Craven's film, it is designed to appeal to mainstream audiences who are not necessarily looking for subversive satire. It is the big, dumb film that it mocks.
And it is funny. Very funny, though perhaps not so much because of the satire. Again, as in Craven's "Scream," the in-jokes and lampooning are clever and different, but it is the ways in which the film adheres to Hollywood conventions that attracts its audience and keeps them entertained. Let's face it; Ben Stiller is not one to bite the hand that feeds him. We cannot expect "Tropic Thunder" to be a savage indictment of the Hollywood formula. It is closer in spirit to a roast. Yes, it attacks celebrity culture and the excesses of Hollywood filmmaking, but it does so with a wink and slap on the back, celebrating that same culture as much as it ridicules it. Like typical summer entertainment, it's vulgar, star-studded, and shit blows up. It is derivative and brainless, but Stiller is smart enough to acknowledge how brainless it is and laugh about it. We can laugh about it too, because we are in on the joke.
The rest of the cast are clearly in on the joke as well. This is most hilariously demonstrated in Tom Cruise's unexpected cameo appearance as the overweight, middle-aged, bald mogul who is overseeing the production. Nearly unrecognizable under heavy prosthetics, Cruise gives what may very well be the funniest performance of his career. Mere words cannot describe what has to be seen to be believed, as he creates a profane, shamelessly one-note characterization of corporate greed... and that's not the funny part! He would have stolen the film were it not for one other truly masterful performance.
Which brings us to Robert Downey Jr. Say what you will about the rest of the film, but Downey is brilliant here. He has an uncommonly difficult role to pull off for such a movie. His Kirk Lazarus remains in character as black soldier Lincoln Osiris through almost the entire film, even after the cast realize that they are no longer making a movie. As such, Downey — in addition to appearing in blackface for nearly two hours — must maintain a stereotypical "African American" voice and dialect that is intentionally over the top yet retains a consistent level of believability. He must walk the threshold between safe and offensive without veering too far onto either side. We are always aware that his character is "playing" a character, yet we come to care for that fictional personality. When he finally breaks character, we are genuinely startled to see his "real" character underneath. He is operating on so many levels here that it almost belies the film's intentional superficiality. I would rank his performance on par with Dustin Hoffman's in "Tootsie." If Robert Downey Jr. does not receive major nominations for this role in the next award season, I will frankly not be surprised, but it will be further proof that comedy is greatly undervalued.
Dreamworks Home Entertainment brings "Tropic Thunder" to DVD in a 2-Disc Director's Cut edition. The theatrical version is available separately in a single-disc edition. I have not seen the theatrical cut, and I do wish that Dreamworks had included both versions on the DVD. The director's cut is roughly 13 minutes longer than the original, and Stiller points out which scenes were added in his audio commentary. It seems as though most of the additions were scenes that he simply liked but did not necessarily feel were important to the film, and in some cases he found them redundant. This raises questions about why they needed to be reinserted into the film rather than included in the deleted scenes section. While I felt that the director's cut flowed pretty smoothly, I do feel that it runs too long, and most, if not all, of the scenes that were added could have been left out.
The film looks fantastic in a 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer. The sweeping visuals are striking with bold colors and rich black levels. I did not detect any digital artifacts, and it is safe to say that the picture looks as good as it will look on standard definition (the Blu-ray edition will be released on the same day).
Audio is just as excellent in a 5.1 Dolby Digital surround track. Most of the dialogue is pushed to the front, but the rear speakers are utilized greatly during the action sequences as the sounds of gunshots, explosions, and ambience are distributed effectively to put you right in the middle of the scene. Voices are always clear. The sound effects can be powerful but never harsh. Spanish and French 5.1 tracks are also available, as well as English, Spanish, and French subtitles.
The film is accompanied by two audio commentaries on Disc 1. The first is a filmmaker commentary, featuring Ben Stiller, co-writer and co-producer Justin Theroux, co-producer Stuart Cornfeld, production designer Jeff Mann, director of photography John Toll, and editor Greg Hayden. This is a very informative track as the group share a good discussion of the technical aspects of the film. They obviously had a good time recording this track, and it is a pleasingly low-key discussion. The second commentary features Stiller once again with Jack Black and Robert Downey Jr. This is definitely the more entertaining of the two, although it is greatly lacking in substantial information. It doesn't really matter, as Downey owns the discussion (just as he steals the movie) by actually speaking in character the entire time! Even if you are not a fan of commentaries, you must listen to this one if you enjoy the movie.
Also on Disc 1 is a public service announcement for groups dedicated to the mentally challenged, including the National Down Syndrome Society and the Special Olympics. This is no doubt the studio's way of addressing the somewhat unexpected controversy that erupted this summer when many of these same groups protested against the film for its politically incorrect use of the word "retard" and Stiller's depiction of a mentally challenged man in one of the fake movies within the movie.
Disc 2 contains the rest of the special features, starting with a series of short featurettes on the making of the film. "Before the Thunder" (5 min.), "The Hot LZ" (6 min.), "Blowing Shit Up" (6 min.), and "Designing the Thunder" (8 min.) provide brief insight into the film's genesis, the combat scenes, the explosions, and the production design, respectively.
Next up are a series of featurettes on the cast, focusing on Stiller, Black, Downey, Brandon T. Jackson, Jay Baruchel, Danny McBride, and Nick Nolte. Collectively, these add up to about 22 minutes. All of these featurettes mix interviews with behind-the-scenes footage.
Next is the 30-minute "Rain of Madness." Clearly a parody of the famous documentary on the making of "Apocalypse Now," "Hearts of Darkness," this mockumentary is narrated by German documentary filmmaker Jan Jürgen (Justin Theroux) as he follows the cast and crew of "Tropic Thunder" (the film within the film) on their disastrous endeavor. Although it features the principle stars of the movie, this faux documentary is just never very funny. It has its moments, but it is too slowly paced, and Theroux never really establishes Jürgen as an interesting character.
Following this are several shorter segments, labeled as "Dispatches from the Edge of Madness," which feature what are apparently outtakes from "Rain of Madness." Again, these are simply not very funny. These collectively last about 23 minutes.
After this, we are treated to two deleted scenes, two extended scenes, and an alternate ending. All of these are accompanied by brief audio commentary by Stiller and editor Greg Hayden, save for the first deleted scene, which has a filmed introduction by the two. The commentaries themselves are essentially just introductions and rarely last for the entire scene. The alternate ending is enjoyable, but I am glad they went the way they did for the final film.
A make-up test with Tom Cruise follows, complete with some very funny footage of him doing what he does best in the film. You can also watch an optional introduction with Stiller and Hayden.
A four-minute sketch from the MTV Movie Awards is also included, featuring Stiller, Black, and Downey attempting to film a viral video to promote the movie. This is quite funny, and having seen it before on the actual show, I was pleased to see it again.
A section called "Full Mags" features uninterrupted footage of the actors improvising on camera, sometimes for about seven or eight minutes at a time (the amount of time that a magazine of film lasts). The last of these, "Laz at Campfire," is absolutely hilarious. The rest can grow a bit tedious as we see the actors mostly repeat their lines again and again.
Rounding out the disc is some footage of video rehearsals with the main actors. Once again, Stiller and Hayden provide an introduction.
"Tropic Thunder" is rude and crude, but it is also self-conscious and ironic. Ben Stiller's satirical targets are easy, as he essentially (and literally) turns the camera on himself and his Hollywood crew, but he has fun mocking his own industry. Mixing farts, guts, and satire will certainly not be to everyone's taste, and many will dismiss it as mindless summer entertainment. Is there a higher truth uncovered at the end of the film? Probably not. But that's not why we watched it in the first place.