Tropic Thunder: Director's Cut (UK - BD)
Chris Gould takes a look at the recent action movie spoof starring Ben Stiller
After a failed attempt at Oscar glory with his serious drama 'Simple Jack', waning action star Tugg Speedman (Ben Stiller) is cast in 'Tropic Thunder', one of the biggest and most expensive war movies ever made. Based on the memoirs of celebrated Vietnam veteran Four Leaf Tayback (Nick Nolte), the film also stars five-time Oscar winning Australian actor Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr.), an obsessive method actor who has undergone a controversial skin pigmentation procedure to play the platoon's African-American sergeant (a sort of high-tech 'blacking up'), Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black), star of a wildly popular gross-out comedy franchise about an obese family (in which he plays all the roles), record-selling hip-hop artist-turned-actor Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson), and newcomer Kevin Sandusky (Jay Baruchel), the only one of the group to have bothered with boot camp. When the production falls a month behind schedule after only five days of filming, Four Leaf convinces first time director Damien Cockburn (Steve Coogan) to take the production into the jungle to shoot guerilla style. Unfortunately things quickly go awry and the film stars find themselves stranded in the middle of the Golden Triangle and hunted by a gang of drug traffickers.
Comedy is a strange animal. What works for some won't necessarily work for others, so making a film that appeals to wide audience is actually pretty tricky. I guess this is true of every genre, but with comedy it seems to be especially so. My sense of humour tends to lean towards risqué, adult humour that borders on the offensive (and occasionally violates those borders), be that in stand-up comedy or television and film. I like shows that aren't afraid to go right up to the boundaries of taste and decency and then beyond. With that said, I also like witty, satirical comedy with plenty of wordplay and, somewhat contradictorily, I have a fondness for the utter stupidity of films like Airplane! and The Naked Gun. Given the above and a rather encouraging red band trailer, I was hoping that Tropic Thunder would be right up my street. Well it sort of was. A bit. Maybe. Truth be told, after a couple of viewings I'm still not entirely sure if I really liked the film or not.
Things get off to a great start with a series of, quite frankly, genius faux trailers for films staring the actors of 'Tropic Thunder' (that's the fake Tropic Thunder of the film, not the movie itself). Watching Ben Stiller lay into 'worthy' actors' attempts to win awards by going 'retard' is amusing and just the sort of thing that makes me laugh, while Jack Black's send-up of Eddie Murphy's fat-suit gross-out comedies is totally on the money (let's face it, they're about as funny as tertiary syphilis, to quote a much better reviewer than me) and Downey Jr. seems to be channelling Russell Crowe as he and Tobey McGuire gaze longingly at one another in their gay monk opus 'Satan's Alley' (fantastic title). Unfortunately, once the trailers finished I never laughed as hard or as often again. Don't get me wrong, the satirical elements work fairly well most of the time and there are plenty of chuckles to be had, but it was missing the belly laughs required of a truly outstanding comedy.
Performances are good across the board, although Stiller pretty much plays the same angry, insufferable character that he plays in all of his films, but here that actually works in his favour. Jack Black is just, well, Jack Black, and although he doesn't have as much to do as I might have liked he does deliver one or two cracking lines. Downey Jr. is clearly the most talented actor of the bunch, but while I found the concept of a white actor playing a back man amusing, I didn't find the character all that funny (although his interplay with Brandon T. Jackson is nice). It's not all about the principal cast though, as supporting players Jay Baruchel, Brandon T. Jackson, Nick Nolte, Danny McBride, Steve Coogan and Matthew McConaughey steal many of the scenes. Much has been made of Tom Cruise's cameo as foul-mouthed producer Les Grossman, and while there is something oddly amusing about watching Cruise in a fat suit dancing to Flo Rida's 'Low', it's not exactly breaking new comedy ground.
This release of this film includes a few additional and alternate scenes. Those that stick in the memory are a seven day 'wrap' party for the film and the substitution of the scene where Speedman and the drug trafficker are spitting in each others faces with a different scene. There's also more profanity, if that's your thing.
Paramount delivers a 1080p AVC-encoded transfer at the film’s theatrical ratio of 2.35:1. Tropic Thunder is a highly stylised film, with a hyper-realistic palette that—while unnatural—is very pleasing to the eye. Colour rendition is very faithful to the theatrical experience, with the lush greens of the jungles and the fiery oranges of the explosions looking particularly good. Detail levels are excellent, allowing you to pick out the pores on the actors' faces (if that's you kind of thing), and the image is incredibly clean. I honestly can't remember any film or digital artefacts during the entire two-hour runtime, which is very impressive. Black levels are also superb, while shadow detail is good (if not outstanding) even in the darkest scenes. Although Tropic Thunder is about as far removed from reality as is possible, it is still a fine looking film and Paramount continues to impress with yet another great transfer. I only hope that the rest of 2009 brings more of the same.
The film's primary soundtrack is a Dolby TrueHD 5.1 affair that offers up plenty of action. All six channels get a pretty good workout, especially as the film progresses and the actors move further into the jungle. During these scenes the surround channels are used to great effect, filling the room with the ambient sounds of the jungle environment and creating a lot of atmosphere. When the action starts to heat up bullets fly in all directions, choppers whiz around the soundstage and the various grenades and heavy weapons all pack a suitable punch. Dialogue remains clear for the majority of the proceedings, but there were one or two moments where it became a little indistinct (although to be fair it's usually when Robert Downey Jr. is speaking). The action is nicely underpinned by Theodore Shapiro's score, which is a fairly constant presence and lampoons traditional war/action movie music to great effect. The film also features a number of rockin' tunes from The Crystal Method, Edwin Star and The Rolling Stones, among others.
However, I felt that there were one or two moments of missed opportunity, such as the helicopter crash in the opening scenes. In the film the chopper hits the ground and the blades fly towards the camera, but rather than carrying on past the viewer into the rear left channel, the sound stops abruptly. I also felt that the application of bass was a little off, with some of the smaller explosions packing more bass than the huge fireballs that erupt when the jets 'napalm' the jungle in the opening battle. Even so, this is still a great TrueHD track that should please action junkies everywhere.
For this review I'm going to try something different with this section. Instead of my usual practise of writing lengthy paragraphs about the extras, I’ve decided to list them separately so that individual features are easier to pick out and the whole thing doesn’t drag on for so long. It's worth mentioning here that all of the bonus material on the disc is presented in high-definition, with the exception of the MTV Movie Awards skit and the BD-Live content.
Director, Writer and Crew Commentary: The first commentary track features Stiller, Justin Theroux, Stuart Cornfeld, Jeff Mann, Greg Hayden and John Toll. It's definitely the more serious of the two tracks on offer, but it's not as dry and boring as your average technical commentary. The track is also useful if you missed the film in theatres, because it serves to point out the altered and reinstated footage.
Cast Commentary: Stiller, Black and Downey Jr. are on on hand to offer their opinion of the film. This is the more entertaining of the the two commentary tracks on offer, with plenty of friendly banter and more than a little bit of Jack Black eating a tuna sandwich. True to his word in the film, Downey Jr. doesn't break character for the entire track.
Before the Thunder (04:54): This featurette discusses the movie’s origins and the various iterations it went through on its way to becoming the film presented on the disc. Although short, it gives you about as much background info on the project as you realistically need.
The Hot LZ (06:25): Producer Stuart Cornfeld talks us through the process of creating one of the film's action scenes (specifically the landing zone scene). Along with the standard talking head interviews with the principal cast, the featurette includes behind the scenes footage.
Blowing Shit Up (06:18): As the name implies, this featurette details the process of creating the various explosions found throughout the film. The effects guys are on hand to talk us through the gags, some of which look truly spectacular.
Designing the Thunder (07:31): Once again, Stuart Cornfeld and the rest of the cast and crew are on hand to take us through the process, which includes location scouting, various environmental difficulties and production design.
The Cast of Tropic Thunder (22:12): This featurette introduces all of the principal actors, from Stiller, Downey Jr. and Black, to Nolte, Jackson Baruchel and McBride. You can choose to watch each actor's interview individually, or play all.
Rain of Madness (30:00): This is a faux documentary on the making of the film, in which the cast and crew discuss the making of the ‘real’ Tropic Thunder in character. Presented by 'Jan Jürgen' (Justin Theroux), the documentary is actually one of the funniest things on the disc.
Deleted and Extended Scenes (14:52): There are a total of four deleted and extended scenes on offer, with an optional intro by Stiller and editor Greg Hayden. None of them are particularly memorable and it's easy to see why they were trimmed for pacing. Three of the scenes also include optional commentary.
Alternate Ending (03:29): Pretty self-explanatory this one. The alternate ending comes with optional director’s commentary and features a little more Matthew McConaughey action.
Tom Cruise Make-Up Test (01:34): This is a short sequence that shows Tom Cruise in full Les Grossman make-up, hip-hop dancing and generally acting like a bit of a tit. Ben Stiller and editor Greg Hayden are on hand to introduce the sequence.
Full Mags (11:14): This feature showcases some of the unused dailies featuring Stiller and Downey Jr., once again with optional introduction from Stiller and Hayden. It’s basically just eleven minutes of the two actors riffing and adlibbing a scene from the movie, delivering alternate lines and subtle differences in their performances.
MTV Movie Awards – Tropic Thunder (04:06): An amusing little skit featuring Stiller, Downey Jr. and Black, in which they lampoon the film and generally take the piss out of one another. It’s not as funny as the very best MTV Movie Awards sketches, but it did raise a chuckle or two (not least for the comments about Downey Jr., suitcases full of cocaine and hookers).
BD-Live: If your player has the ability to go online, BD-Live delivers the additional features ‘Dispatches from the Edge of madness’ and ‘More Full Mags’. These take the form of fake interviews with the cast and crew in character (again conducted by Jan Jürgen), along with outtakes and improvisations. They are definitely worthwhile extras, but they are actually present on the three-disc DVD release.
Digital Copy: As is fast becoming the norm for high-profile releases, disc two includes a digital copy of the film that you can download to your PC or fruit-themed portable device. Good times.
Tropic Thunder is a bit of an oddity. It looks great, features some genuinely witty observations and some decent performances, but it still failed to excite me for much of its running time. It's definitely a competent film and easily on a par with the majority of comedies I've seen in recent times (in fact it's better than many of them), but it didn't entertain me in the way that favourites such as Team America: World Police and Shaun of the Dead do. Although the observational comedy is good I found myself stroking my chin and thinking 'Oh yes, that's so true', rather than howling with laughter, but even so Tropic Thunder is a step up from the usual dross that passes for comedy these days.
I have no such mixed emotions about the disc though. It is yet another great effort from Paramount, who are fast becoming my favourite studio for the quality and consistency of their Blu-ray output. The fantastic audio-visual elements and entertaining collection of high-definition bonus material are reason enough to pick this one up. This is the standard that all studios should be aspiring to, so let's hope they sit up and take notice.
* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray release and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.
Review by Chris Gould
Suitable only for persons of 15 years and over
Release Date: 26th January 2009
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: Dolby TrueHD 5.1 English, Dolby Digital 5.1 French, Dolby Digital 5.1 German, Dolby Digital 5.1 Italian, Dolby Digital 5.1 Spanish
Subtitles: Danish, Dutch, English, English SDH, Finnish, French, German, Italian, Norwegian, Spanish, Swedish
Extras: Director and Crew Commentary, Cast Commentary, 'Before the Thunder', 'The Hot LZ', 'Blowing Shit Up', 'Designing the Thunder', 'The Cast of Tropic Thunder', 'Rain of Madness', Deleted and Extended Scenes, Alternate Ending, Make-Up Test, 'Full Mags', MTV Video Awards Sketch, BD-Live, Digital Copy
Easter Egg: No
Director: Ben Stiller
Cast: Ben Stiller, Robert Downey Jr., Jack Black, Jay Baruchel, Brandon T. Jackson, Steve Coogan, Danny McBride, Nick Nolte, Tom Cruise, Matthew McConaughey
Genre: Action, Comedy and War
Length: 121 minutes
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