Tropic Thunder (Director's Cut) Review

A movie where movie stars make fun of movie stars making a movie that's really not a movie. Behold, Tropic Thunder, directed by and starring the guy who played Derek Zoolander, now taking on Tugg Speedman and continuing to somehow coax people into cinema seats by being painfully unfunny and repetitive. I know Ben Stiller has his fans, and I can't actively dislike him since he was fine in The Royal Tenenbaums, but his appeal is entirely lost on me. He frequently plays the same annoying character, almost always the weakest link in every film, and then fails to see the irony in "spoofing" celebrity both here and in Zoolander. Listening to and watching the guy who made Along Came Polly and The Heartbreak Kid try to make fun of movie star inanity just seems a bit much. Paying the bills is one thing, but establishing a distinct and solitary niche and then occasionally trying to wield creative control on films that do little more than confirm your self-loathing for making crap film after crap film all comes across as trying way too hard. How many times do you have to embarrassingly match wits with Robert De Niro before being financially secure?

Stiller's most recent attempt to turn a promising idea for a comedy sketch into a feature film stretched way too thin finds him on pretty familiar ground. You can see the wheels begin to turn. Have Stiller play his Tom Crooze persona, sign up the real Cruise to yet again hide behind a lack of glamour to play against type in what amounts to an overly extended cameo and add in Jack Black being really annoying as a drug addict stuck in the jungle without his stuff. Oh and how about Robert Downey Jr. playing the dude playing the dude disguised as another dude, who also happens to be a black man. Gangbusters! Sometimes Tropic Thunder feels so transparent that you can almost hear the conversational building blocks that designed every terribly overdone joke and gimmick. Movie stars go film a troubled Vietnam war flick on location and things get intense. INTENSE! It's so crazy up in here that things are blowing up at the wrong time and the 5-time Oscar winner Kirk Lazarus (Downey, Jr.) can't let Stiller's Tugg Speedman have his crying scene without producing some spittle himself. The director, played by Steve Coogan, is livid and in way over his head. His tantrum ends up on Access Hollywood, causing the whole production to face the threat of closing up shop.

Until, and here's the supposed genius plot that doesn't kick off until over half an hour into the director's cut version found on this disc, the writer of the source book, played by a grizzled Nick Nolte, coerces the Coogan character to drop those pampered pantywaists into the jungle and let 'em fend for themselves against the elements. The plan, let's say, goes awry. The film, let's say, does the same. It culminates in an explosive pyrotechnic blaze of glory right out of the very war movies it seems to want to parody. Unless this joke is so advanced that Tropic Thunder is also mocking the audience like a Michael Haneke film, it utterly fails. Where in the rule book of satire does it allow for the satirising work to fall into most of the very same traps it's supposedly targeting? The icing on the cake here would be an Oscar nomination for Downey. It's not a question of whether the actor might deserve it (though I'm not sure how worthy a Mr T. impression really is), but you must seriously consider how thick the irony would be if he's recognised for a risky performance rolled into a risky performance by an awards fiend. It'd be like giving Richard Burton a bottle of Johnnie Walker Blue for playing a drunk.

For all his obviating and tightrope walking of the line between racism and mocking the same, Downey's performance is far and away the main reason to watch Tropic Thunder for anyone over the age of admission. He's always one of the more interesting actors we have today, kinetic in both spirit and action to a degree hardly attempted by his often conservative peers. The silly trailer we see for the fictional Satan's Alley actually looks entirely watchable because of Downey's presence. Similarly, Tropic Thunder falls into the same category by letting Downey constantly titillate us with just how far he's willing to go for the character and film, both fake and real. If not a great performance, it is absolutely an enthralling one. The commitment he gives seems genuine, and unlike the highest profile star hiding behind heavy make-up, Downey's portrayal never seems like a stunt.

Even though you can see through Tom Cruise's performance from the onset, I'll admit that he too adds something of value to the film. Regardless of detractors or his own personal eccentricities, Cruise is quite a good actor and seeing him intensely tear away at a profane and disgusting character is pretty fun. I wish he'd stop hiding behind mini crutches like the make-up here or the long hair in Magnolia or the gray top in Collateral and so on and try out a totally irredeemable character in his normal face. Until that happens, this is probably his best attempt at going full asshole, so to speak. Of course, Stiller and Jack Black do their best to offset those positives, and the plot dives into the pool of stupidity with unintended briskness. I did like Jay Baruchel as the neophyte actor in the bunch, but his best tangent, about the format war between Blu-ray and HD-DVD, was apparently ad-libbed so Stiller and company fail again. Watch the film for Downey, watch it for Cruise, watch it even for Baruchel, but don't expect the razor to be very sharp.

The Disc

The U.S. Blu-ray release contains only the 121-minute director's cut, which seems to be about 14 minutes longer than what was shown in cinemas. As it is, the version here is obviously too long and mostly gets bogged down in nonsense around the third act. The theatrical cut can only be found on the one-disc DVD edition, but really should be available elsewhere since that's the version everyone saw upon the film's initial release. After watching the entire thing three times including the commentaries, I'm almost certain it has to be better in a shorter incarnation. The added value perceived by the director's cut gimmick has become one of the more annoying trends in DVD/Blu-ray.

Video is presented in roughly 2.35:1, 1080p, and it all looks exceptional. John Toll's photography of the Hawaiian locations is probably better than the film deserved. Detail absolutely glistens in both jungle scenes and close-ups. Colour too is reproduced without flaw. It's a pristine transfer of a film that already should look quite impressive. Nothing to complain about here.

A few audio options are given, but only a Dolby TrueHD 5.1 is offered in English. Dubs in Dolby Digital 5.1 Spanish and French are also available, plus the two commentaries. The English language track spreads out some of the effects nicely across the rear channels and the occasional gunfire too sounds effective when evenly distributed. Ambient jungle noises and a few songs that try to set the feel of a war movie fill out the soundtrack nicely. I can't imagine fans of the film being disappointed with the presentation. Subtitles are offered in English and English for the hearing impaired, as well as French, Spanish and Portuguese. They are white in colour.

The first of two commentaries is provided by a cast of behind-the-scenes people. Ben Stiller is joined by Justin Theroux, Stuart Cornfeld, Jeff Mann, John Toll and Greg Hayden, but it's Stiller who does most of the talking and prompts others into sharing. There's little dead air and lots of voices to keep up with. Even so, I found it dreadfully boring. Much of this commentary is about the technical details of location and shooting and other sausage factory goings-on that bear no significant relationship to the finished product. It's probably a good effort, but ultimately of little interest to most viewers. There are two types of commentaries - one that can entertain the average viewer and one more inclined to satisfy those involved with the production. This is of the latter variety.

Better, though still flawed, is the second track with Stiller again and Jack Black and Robert Downey, Jr. It's more casual, but Stiller continues to come across as humourless and businesslike. Black spends a good portion eating lunch (a 4x4, protein style, from In-N-Out Burger) but does help to balance things out between Stiller's seriousness and Downey, who remains in character as Kirk Lazarus playing Lincoln Osiris. I enjoyed Downey's antics despite soon realising that he had painted himself into the corner a bit by keeping on with a one-dimensional character. Mostly still funny, though.

All the special features except the MTV Movie Awards skit and, I think, the Cruise make-up test are in HD and I believe everything has optional subtitles.

Four short featurettes that are only playable separately but do seem to nonetheless each be part of a whole start off the outright bonus material. "Before the Thunder" (4:54) talks about the film's origins going all the way back to Stiller having a small role in Empire of the Sun in 1987. "The Hot LZ" (6:25) discusses the preparation and planning of the opening war scene in the movie, and "Blowing Shit Up" (6:18) stays true to its name by turning the focus to explosions. Kaboom. "Designing the Thunder" (7:31) goes into some detail on the locations and production design on the film.

Individual profiles of "The Cast of Tropic Thunder" can be played separately or all at once (22:12). They mostly consist of a hodgepodge of behind the scenes footage and interviews, giving about three to four minutes to each actor (Stiller, Black, Downey, Jr., Jackson, Baruchel, McBride and Nolte). The beefiest supplement is probably the faux documentary "Rain of Madness" (30:00) featuring co-writer Justin Theroux as a Werner Herzog-like director who's been filming the production only to get a disturbing wake-up call about the disappearance of the main cast and Steve Coogan's director character. I think it's intended as a satirical cross between Grizzly Man and the Apocalypse Now making-of Hearts of Darkness. Like the Stiller-directed Tropic Thunder, it goes too far for a couple of jokes, but it's a pretty fun watch on its own.

The bonus material mostly limps home from here. A "Make-Up Test with Tom Cruise" (1:34) shows how Les Grossman first became a dancing machine and has an introduction (1:12) with Stiller and editor Greg Hayden explaining the situation. Really underwhelming is a selection of excised footage put under the "Deleted Scenes/Extended Sequences/Alternate Ending" umbrella. Every piece that's here has an introduction either on camera or audio only by Stiller and editor Hayden. There are two deleted scenes - "Water Buffalo" (1:35) and "Speedman Unpacks Backpack" (1:44) - and two more extended sequences - "Snorklers" (3:30) and "Eight Minutes in Hell" (8:03). The alternate ending (3:29) gives us some details on the fate of Tugg Speedman's agent Peck. More entertaining is the "Full Mags" (11:14) bit, also with an intro (0:52) from Stiller and Hayden, that shows us a full uninterrupted magazine of film. The "Choose a Dude" scene is just split screen close-ups on Downey and Stiller as they do take after take, with the former ad-libbing several lines that are often hilarious. They should've let Downey play every character in the actual film like Jack Black's fake actor does in his Fatties franchise.

A silly thing on viral videos (4:05) done for the MTV Movie Awards and featuring Stiller, Downey and Black closes out the disc's extra features. Some BD-Live material can also be accessed by connecting your Blu-ray player to the internet and so forth. "Dispatches from the Edge of Madness" and a couple more of the "Full Mags" are available this way, but the two-disc DVD also includes them right on the second disc.

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Last updated: 18/04/2018 21:33:33

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