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Feature


Following a failed attempt at Oscar baiting drama, action star Tugg Speedman (Ben Stiller) is cast in the biggest, most expensive war movie ever. The film, based on a celebrated Vietnam war memoir, also stars five time Oscar winning Aussie Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr.), an obsessive method actor who has altered his appearance to play a black man, Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black), the star of a popular gross-out comedy franchise, multi-platinum hip-hop star turned actor Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson), and first-timer Kevin Sandusky (Jay Baruchel). But when the director can’t get what he wants out of his motley crew, he takes them into the jungle for a little cinema verite filmmaking, and walks them right into battle with real mercenaries.

Tropic Thunder: Directo's Cut
With almost zero exception I tend to hate spoof movies. I don’t like the old ones that everyone else calls classic ( Airplane), I wasn’t happy with the resurgence ( Naked Gun), and I hate everything that’s come out of the popularity of Scary Movie. The only motion pictures that skirt the line of straight up spoof that I actually like are Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg’s double shots: Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz. Tropic Thunder, despite some great reviews, wasn’t something I was expecting to get a whole lot of laughs out of, but this is mostly because I was expecting a whole lot of spoofing. Factually, Tropic Thunder has more in common with Hot Fuzz than Scary Movie. Writer/Director Ben Stiller does drop more than a few directly referential jokes (like the fake trailers that open the film), but mostly he’s looking to lampoon the idiotic ins and outs of Hollywood. That slides it a little more into the ‘satire’ category.

The comedy runs hot and cold, but is much warmer than expected. The tone is reasonably hyperbolic, but there are still oodles of sumptuous subtleties, and no one is afraid to commit a perfect throwaway. Stiller has finally remembered the balance he brought to Cable Guy (a vastly underrated dark comedy), and the script features some genuinely clever digs at Hollywood. Sometimes it’s all too stupid to even deal with, but for every massive failure there’s at least two rousing LOLs to fill the gap. I also appreciate the craft of the film, as it looks like a million bucks, or $100 million bucks (or maybe $200 million bucks, no one really knows), but I’m mostly satisfied that this brand of super-broad humour finally made me laugh.

Tropic Thunder: Directo's Cut
Stiller is the weakest link among the actors, reproducing the same crazy ball of pent up emotions that he always plays. Really it’s his fault for casting better than himself, which is a plus as a director. Robert Downey Jr.’s performance is no surprise, but the charming thespian (who already won our hearts earlier this summer with his star-remaking turn in Iron Man) has never been this over-the-top. Downey Jr. usually plays his charming self in comedy roles, but Kirk Lazarus (or rather Kirk Lazarus in black-face) is nothing like anything else in the capable actor’s career. Then there’s Jack Black, who like Downey Jr. had a bang up summer in 2008. Just when I thought his shtick had worn out its welcome, Black works out his own clichés into two well-rounded characters with a surprisingly subtle (for Black) sense of comedy in Kung Fu Panda’s Po, and Tropic Thunder’s Jeff Portnoy.

But the headliners aren’t always the scene stealers. The supporting players, including Jay Baruchel, Brandon T. Jackson, Steve Coogan, Danny McBride, Nick Nolte, and Matthew McConaughey end up with just as many memorable one-liners, and are generally more loveable. The ultimate scene stealer, for better or worse, is a prosthetic engulfed Tom Cruise as Les Grossman. Cruise doesn’t take the chance to make fun of himself often enough, and the guy has incredible comic tone and timing. I could do without the dance sequences, but otherwise it’s a performance that might go down as a classic.

Tropic Thunder: Directo's Cut

Video


Tropic Thunder is a raunchy, goofy comedy, but it’s shot as closely to Apocalypse Now as possible for the majority of the runtime, which lends itself nicely to the Blu-ray format. The jungle sets and locations (Hawaii doubling for Vietnam) are enormously rich and colourful. The colours are about two steps beyond realistic, but are solid and sharply separated. The lush green hues will likely push your set to its vibrancy limit. The black levels are perfect, and are cut in a very neo-noir, Apocalypse Now fashion. Sometimes the blacks overtake the details in darker scenes, but I’m pretty sure this was done on purpose. Overall, though, the details are sharp enough to create that three-dimensional quality the best high definition discs exhibit. But really, this one comes down to the punchy colours, not the tiny details.

Audio


Crafting widescreen jungle vistas is only half the key to spoofing Vietnam War cinema, you still need to create jungle ambiance, load the channels with bassy gunshots and explosions, and pick some classic era rock music for the soundtrack. Tropic Thunder’s sound designers, and composer Theodore Shapiro’s score actually lampoon modern action movies more than ‘70s and ‘80s era war films, which makes for even more over-the-top audio experience. The disc’s Dolby TrueHD 5.1 track almost stands up to the real thing in scope and volume. There are only a few scenes with real firepower, but they boom with indubitable bass and zippy channel movement. The music rarely lets up, and represents the best mixes of some of your favourite songs, including Crystal Method’s ‘Name of the Game’, Creedence’s ‘Run Through the Jungle’, The Stones' ‘Sympathy for the Devil’, and Buffalo Springfield’s ‘For What it’s Worth’. The few instances of missing music are teeming with all kinds of ambiance, and the mixture of elements is enormously effective.

Tropic Thunder: Directo's Cut

Extras


Extras begin with two commentary tracks. The first commentary track features Stiller, his co-writers Justin Theroux and Ethan Cohen, and members of the crew. The tone is relatively serious, and pretty technical, but isn’t a bore (give or take a few too many back-slaps). The track acts as a marker for the reinstated ‘director’s cut’ footage, which was helpful since I missed the film in theatres. The second commentary features the three lead actors, Stiller, Black, and Downey Jr.. Stiller deals more with writing and directing rather than his acting, Black mostly giggles and eats, but offers a few jewels, and Downey Jr. commentates as Robert Downey Jr. playing Kirk Lazarus playing Sergeant Lincoln Osiris (how’s that for meta). It would be a great track if only Downey Jr.’s shtick didn’t grow old about twenty minutes in.

Next up is a selection of erroneously short making-of featurettes, starting with ‘Before the Thunder’, a solid, but painfully brief general look behind the scenes, running only five minutes. The brief glance at the first table read is golden. This is followed by ‘The Hot LZ’, a six and a half minute look at the production of the opening battle sequence, ‘Blowing Shit Up’ six and a half more minutes concerning the massive explosives used in the film, and ‘Designing the Thunder’, a seven and a half minute look at the film’s production design. ‘The Cast of Tropic Thunder is a little more substantial. This section is broken into seven parts (Stiller, Black, Downey Jr., Jackson, Baruchel, McBride and Nolte) with a play-all option. The sections are still mighty short, but added together the section runs just over twenty-two minutes. The addition of outtakes and behind the scenes goofing off is a big plus.

Tropic Thunder: Directo's Cut
‘Rain of Madness’ is a mockumentary spoof of the much celebrated making-of Apocalypse Now—‘Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse’. The mockumentaring is right on, very authentic, and very funny, especially if you’ve actually seen Hearts of Darkness. At about thirty minutes the joke doesn’t have a chance to wear too thin, and the inclusion of footage from Jack Black’s real life television pilot Heat Vision and Jack is inspired.

This longer director’s cut still doesn’t feature a whole lot of deleted and extended material. Things start with an introduction with Stiller and editor Greg Hayden, who for some reason introduce only one scene, then offer alternate commentary tracks for the others. There are a total of two deleted scenes (Jack Black lusting after a water buffalo and Stiller unpacking a gift basket), two extended scenes (sneaking into the compound with bamboo snorkels and a longer version of the escape sequence), and one alternate ending (which I’ll leave a surprise).

Tom Cruise’s make-up test, eleven minutes of raw dailies under the title ‘Full Mags’, both with optional Stiller intros, an MTV Movie Awards sketch, some BD-Live features, and trailers complete the disc.

Tropic Thunder: Directo's Cut

Overall


Tropic Thunder is pretty darn funny, and not entirely without a bit of heart. I think it’s important to again note that I usually don’t like this kind of film, which I think makes my recommendation that much bigger a deal than one from someone that gets along better with broad spoof. The Blu-ray looks and sounds spectacular, the extras are very amusing, and everything marked by the audio commentary as deleted from the theatrical version is pretty funny.

*Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray release.


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