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Tropic Thunder (2008)

Paramount Home Entertainment
DVD Released: 11/18/2008

All Ratings out of
Movie: 1/2
Video: 1/2
Audio: 1/2

Review by Mike Long, Posted on 11/16/2008

While there's no doubt that he's become a huge star, and is one of our most recognizable actors, it could be argued that Ben Stiller has had an odd movie career, both in front of and behind the camera. Since the late 90s, Stiller has had a string of hits and has appeared in some classic comedies. But, there was a period between 2003 & 2005 where he starred in no less than six films, and rumblings about overkill begin to appear in chat-forums. Stiller has also worked as a director over the years as well, but he's had less success there. Reality Bites got a lot of hype from MTV, but was seen as a disappointment. The Cable Guy wasn't what fans of Jim Carrey wanted from the actor. Zoolander made money, but it took it years to achieve a true following and appreciation. Thus, it was somewhat surprising that Stiller's latest project, Tropic Thunder, was a hit from the get-go and broke the $100 million mark. Something that successful must be good, right?

Tropic Thunder is a movie about the making of a movie...which is entitled "Tropic Thunder". The movie is based on the autobiography of Vietnam veteran Four Leaf Tayback (Nick Nolte) and will tell the story of how he lost his hands in battle. The movie stars action star Tugg Speedman (Ben Stiller), who knows more about action than drama. Speedman has been paired with 5-time Oscar winner Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr.), who is known for getting lost in his characters. For his role in "Tropic Thunder", Lazarus is playing an African-American, and had his skin darkened for the role. Comic actor Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black) has joined the cast for the opportunity to do something serious. Rapper Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson) has taken a break from promoting his "Booty Sweat" energy drink to be in the film. These four actors are prima donnas and have no interest in listening to first-time director Damien Cockburn (Steve Coogan). When a major stunt goes wrong, Cockburn gets chewed out by producer Les Grossman (Tom Cruise), Tayback convinces the director that the only way to make the film work is to make it real for the actors. So, Cockburn decides to change to a guerilla style of filmmaking. He takes the four leads, along with co-star Kevin Sandusky (Jay Baruchel), into the jungle and leaves them there. The actors have no idea what is happening and begin to walk through the jungle. However, they will soon encounter locals who don't like outsiders and don't care that the actors think they're still in a movie.

On the surface, Tropic Thunder appears to be a spoof of war movies, specifically the Vietnam films of the 80s. However, the movie is actually skewering Hollywood. The movie opens -- with no warning whatsoever -- with fake commercials and trailers promoting the products of the actors in the movie within the movie. These ads spoof popular genres and they are hilarious. From there, we go to the set of "Tropic Thunder" and witness the incompatibility of the actors and see how they care more about themselves than they do about this massive project going on around them. The movie allows time to get to know the characters and we see just how crazy and reckless they are. So far so good.

And then the action moves to the jungle and the movie really slows down. From here on out, the movie truly canít decide what it wants to be. In order for us to understand that the locals arenít playing with the actors, the movie gets violent and becomes an action film. Yet, intermingled in this are jokes about the characters and their situation. The problem is that we didnít come here for an action film and despite lots of gunfire and explosions, the movie never truly plays as an action film. And, the comedy during this section isnít very good either, save for some jokes concerning Portnoyís issues.

But, within all of this, Stillerís real goal is to lampoon Hollywood greed and how actors are out of touch with reality. There is a running joke about Tivo which goes throughout the movie and at every turn there is some sort of comment about the way in which the actors are being ďmis-treatedĒ. Cruiseís character sees himself as being all powerful, even being above the law. Despite the fact that audiences today are quite savvy about the movie industry, itís hard to believe that a movie so top-heavy with inside jokes became a hit.

Given the fact that Iíve liked Stillerís directorial work in the past, and the great cast involved here, I had expected much more from Tropic Thunder. The opening is hilarious and there are some nice jokes in the first act, but the second half of the film is actually boring at times, and it gets quite redundant. Even worse, as Stiller (and co-writer Justin Theroux) strive to make fun of Hollywood, the story gets more and more surreal and less engaging. The last five minutes of the movie contains some good jokes, but it canít save Tropic Thunder from being mediocre.

Tropic Thunder crashes onto DVD courtesy of Paramount Home Entertainment. The movie has come to DVD in two separate releases, the R-rated Theatrical Cut and an unrated Directorís Cut, which is some 13 minutes longer. For the purposes of this review, the unrated cut was viewed. The film has been letterboxed at 2.35:1 and the transfer is enhanced for 16 x 9 TVs. The image is very sharp and clear, showing no grain and no defects from the source materials. The colors look great, most notably the lush green jungle. The image is well-balanced, never getting too bright or dark. However, some shots are a bit soft and lack in detail. The DVD carries a Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track which provides clear dialogue and sound effects. The action scenes are the stars here, as the speakers are filled with explosions and gunfire. The bullets fly through the front and rear channels, as the helicopters sweep past us. The explosions give the subwoofer a solid workout. The scenes in the jungle offer some good stereo effects as well.

The Tropic Thunder two-disc set contains a jungle full of extras. Disc 1 offers two AUDIO COMMENTARIES. The first features Ben Stiller, Co-writer Justin Theroux, Producer Stuart Cornfeld, Production Designer Jeff Mann, Director of Photography John Toll, and Editor Greg Hayden. The group discusses the story of Tropic Thunder, as well as the making of the film. Stiller and Hayden are nice enough to point out shots and scenes which werenít in the theatrical cut and they discuss why they were cut. The second has Ben Still, Jack Black, and Robert Downey, Jr.. This commentary is odd to say the least, as Downey stays in character during the talk...actually he plays two characters during the commentary, neither of which are himself. That aside, Stiller and Black talk about the making of the film and share their thoughts on their fellow actors and shooting in the jungle.

The remainder of the bonus features are found on Disc 2. "Before the Thunder" (5 minutes) contains comments from Stiller and Theroux, who discuss the original idea for the film and how the script evolved. We get to see a table read here. "The Hot LZ" (6 minutes) examines the challenge of shooting the opening scene, which combines war footage with a movie set. This is made up almost entirely of on-set footage. "Blowing Shit Up" (6 minutes) looks at the explosions in the film and how they were done. "Designing the Thunder" (7 minutes) examines the film's locations (in Hawaii) and the creation of the buildings and sets. "The Cast of Tropic Thunder" (22 minutes) offers profiles of the principal cast -- Stiller, Black, Downey Jr., Jackson, Baruchel, McBride, and Nolte -- which are done in short segments. These can be viewed individually, or as a group. Each segment examines the character and contains comments from the actor adn their co-stars. There are some deleted scenes and alternate takes here. "Rain of Madness" (30 minutes) is a faux documentary with Justin Theroux playing a documentary filmmaker. You know that things will be weird when you're watching a fake making of for a movie which explores the making of a movie. "Dispatches from the Edge of Madness" (23 minutes) continues the theme of Rain of Madness, as we get small segments from the faux documentarian examining the on-set problems. The DVD contains two DELETED SCENES, two EXTENDED SCENES, and an ALTERNATE ENDING. These are proceeded by an introduction by Stiller and Editor Greg Hayden. The ALTERNATE ENDING is only slightly different from the final film. "Make-up Test with Tom Cruise" (2 minutes) isn't funny and can be viewed with an introduction by Stiller and Hayden. "MTV Movie Awards - Tropic Thunder" (4 minutes) shows the skit with Stiller, Black, and Downey Jr. from the MTV special. There's some funny stuff here. "Full Mags" (33 minutes) offers extended raw footage of four scenes from the film. "Video Rehearsals" (3 minutes) shows video location scouting and rehearsals accompanied by commentary with Stiller and Hayden.

Paramount Home Entertainment has also brought Tropic Thunder to Blu-ray Disc. The film has been letterboxed at 2.35:1 and the Disc contains an AVC 1080p HD transfer which runs at an average of 27 Mbps. The image here is very sharp and clear, showing no grain or defects from the source material. When compared to the DVD, the image is much sharper here and the level of detail is quite impressive. The softness is gone, replaced with a nice amount of depth, which is reflected in the landscape shots. The colors are excellent and the image is never overly bright. The Disc contains a Dolby TrueHD 5.1 audio track which runs at 48 kHz and an average of 4.0 Mbps. This track provides clear dialogue and sound effects. This is an excellent track, as it features some of the best subwoofer effects that Iíve heard on a Dolby TrueHD track. The stereo effects are highly detailed, both in the action scenes, where bullets whiz by on the right and left, and in the jungle, where we can hear every minute sound. The surround effects are great as well, and the helicopters sound as if they are going to land right on top of us. The Blu-ray is definitely an improvement over the DVD.

The extras on the Blu-ray Disc are identical to those found on the DVD, although, in an odd move, "Dispatches from the Edge of Madness", "Full Mags", and "Video Rehearsals" are only available through BD-Live, which means that they won't be accessible to all viewers.

Review Copyright 2008 by Mike Long