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Wednesday, November 19, 2008
  DVD Review: Tropic Thunder

I reviewed Tropic Thunder when it was released theatrically, and I loved it. But if you can handle a peek behind the curtain of my reviewing process, I tend to write theatrical reviews a lot quicker than DVD reviews. DVDs usually have extras and often commentaries as well, and the additional time it takes me to go through all that material usually means I have more time to think about the movie. And I seemed to enjoy Tropic Thunder more than a lot of people I know, so I was particularly curious to revisit the film to find out if my initial gushing reaction was overblown.

After watching the extended Director’s Cut of Tropic Thunder, I’m happy to report that this is (still) one of the best comedies I’ve seen this year. The story follows a troubled production of an Oscar-baiting Vietnam epic (also called Tropic Thunder) with a cast of superstars: Tugg Speedman (Ben Stiller, who also co-wrote and directed), a dull-witted, fading action star; Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr.), a multiple-award-winning Australian “bad boy” who takes method acting to absurd extremes; Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black), a heroine-addicted comic whose crude, flatulence-themed comedies have made him a star; Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson), a rapper more interested in hawking his lines of soft drinks and candy bars and clothes than acting; and Kevin Sandusky (Jay Baruchel), a starry-eyed newcomer eager to sink his teeth into his first film role. When the rookie British director (Steve Coogan) gets fed up with his actors’ refusal to follow his orders, the grizzled ‘Nam vet on whose memoirs the film is based (Nick Nolte) suggests he leaves the group out in the actual jungle to fend for themselves in the hopes of shocking them into taking the project seriously. The problem is that they end up stumbling across a real drug-processing operation hidden in the jungle and Speedman ends up getting captured by the gun-toting thugs, leaving the rest of the actors to mount an actual operation to rescue him.

Stiller, who’s been working on this idea literally for decades (he says he got the idea while shooting his small role in Steven Spielberg’s 1987 World War II film Empire of the Sun) is really shooting for the stars with this ambitious genre hybrid, and it’s remarkable how well it all comes together. Just like Downey’s character has layers upon layers of identities (he underwent a “controversial” procedure to darken his skin so he could play a black man, and stays in character no matter what happens), Tropic Thunder has many levels to it as well; it works as a silly comedy, a sharp HThe gang all suited up and ready for actionollywood satire, a war movie, and a spoof of war movies. It’s almost dizzying, and it’s really amazing that this movie not only isn’t a trainwreck, but it’s actually quite brilliant.

First things first, Tropic Thunder is damn funny. The script manages to somehow be both pretty vicious in its take on Hollywood and the film industry, but at the same time it’s also a love letter to movies and movie-making (Stiller fills the film with references to classic war movies like Platoon, Apocalypse Now and Saving Private Ryan). The cast is also excellent. I mentioned in my Kung Fu Panda review how tired of Jack Black I’ve become over the years, but by casting him as a guy who’s supposed to be an annoyingly hyperactive jackass, it actually makes Black’s portrayal of Portnoy even funnier (it also helps that, of the three main stars, Black’s role is by far the smallest). Canadian Jay Baruchel is the movie’s real unsung hero as the one guy in the group even remotely grounded in reality, and he manages to be incredibly funny despite being saddled with what’s largely the straight-man role.

But Tropic Thunder belongs to Robert Downey Jr., period. I said in my original review and stand by it now that this is one of the best performances of the year, and it’s really too bad the Academy routinely ignores comedies, because Downey is doing some flat-out amazing work here. Every time he’s onscreen the movie sings, and his dynamic with Stiller’s character in particular is probably my favourite aspect of Downey’s performance (which is my favourite thing in the movie). In one of the extras, Coogan discusses the potentially offensive racial aspects of the role, and he put its perfectly: the performance is really about the Australian character’s take on playing a black man. It’s about how Kirk Lazarus misunderstands blackness (i.e. playing the character as a collection of stereotypical tics, cartoonish voice and all), and tGenius at workhat’s why it’s funny. It’s a comment on racial stereotyping, done quite effectively through satire. I’m prone to hyperbole, but I fully expect Downey’s work to go down in cinematic history as one of the great comic performances.

Another aspect of Tropic Thunder that struck me, especially on repeat viewings, is how great the movie looks. Stiller hired Oscar-winning cinematographer John Toll (rightly considered one of the best in the business) to shoot the movie, and it looks great, adding to the feeling that it’s a “real” movie and not just a comedy or spoof. And when the action kicks in at the end, I never felt like I was watching an action scene in a comedy, but rather like I was watching a ‘80s-era action flick. I’ve liked Stiller ever since The Ben Stiller Show, and he hasn’t lost his touch for pitch-perfect media satire.

If there are any problems I have with Tropic Thunder, they involve the Tugg Speedman character. Unlike the other characters, he’s easily the broadest and most stereotypical – Stiller playing dim yet hugely successful superstar is basically a slightly different version of the main character from his last directorial effort, Zoolander, only now he’s an affable-if-shallow actor instead of an affable-if-shallow male model. Also, all the Hollywood jokes can be bit inside-baseball (jokes about agents and box-office grosses and Machiavellian studio execs, etc., especially from a lifelong showbiz guy like Stiller, comes across as somewhat self-indulgent), so if you’re turned off by that sort of thing, be warned.

I’ve watched Tropic Thunder movie four times now (once in theatres, once on DVD and twice more with the commentaries) and unlike most comedies, it still manages to make me laugh really hard on repeat viewings. It may just be my favourite comedy of the year, and I recommend it highly.



The two-disc Director’s Cut of Tropic Thunder comes with a great assortment of extras, striking a near-perfect balance of being pretty interesting (not to mention funny) without being too in-depth; there’s no three-hour making-of documentaries here, but I still felt like I came away with an understanding of the process of making the movie.

As I mentioned, there are two commentary tracks, one with Stiller, Black and Downey, and another with Stiller and his crew. The crew commentary is, as expected, way technical, as they discuss the nuts and bolts of shooting various scenes, special effects, stunts, lighting, etc. It’s kind of dry, but Stiller and company keep it pretty fresh.

The cast commentary is a lot more fun. There’s a scene in the film where Downey’s character says he doesn’t drop character until heNick Nolte and Danny McBride, just being f***ing awesome’s done the DVD commentary, and Downey actually runs with that, doing the bulk of the commentary in the voice he uses for most of the film. (He’s not really “in character” though; it’s really more that he just does the voice.) I was pretty astounded that he even attempted it, and even more so that he’s actually incredibly funny the whole time. For the small segment of the film at the end where Lazarus finally drops character, he takes on the Australian accent, and then makes a brief appearance at the end as just Robert Downey Jr. It’s easily the best audio-commentary performance I’ve ever listened to. It’s clear on both tracks how seriously Stiller takes his work, though he’s always happy to talk about how funny and great everyone is.

There are also a handful of featurettes on the production. None of it is terribly fascinating, but they’re all short enough to get to the point and get out, as it were. There’s a couple of deleted and extended scenes as well, though the
“commentary” is basically just Stiller explaining the clip in the opening seconds; he then just falls silent and lets the scene play out, which is weird.

The best extra, however, is the fake documentary Rain of Madness, a parody of Hearts of Darkness, the famous documentary about the infamously troubled Apocalypse Now shoot. Co-screenwriter Justin Theroux (who’s also an actor; he plays the director in David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive and was the villain in the second Charlie’s Angels movie) plays pretentious German filmmaker Jan Jurgen, documenting the shoot of Tropic Thunder (the movie-in-the-movie version), and includes interviews with most of the cast in-character. It’s really funny stuff, particularly where Jurgen documents Downey’s character’s descent into method-fuelled madness. It’s great stuff, and some of the most genuinely fun DVD extras I’ve reviewed yet.

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