Tropic Thunder (3-Disc Directors Cut) Review
Things are falling apart for Damien Cockburn (Steve Coogan). Plucked from cinematic obscurity, the British director finds himself in the middle of the jungle helming a mega-budgeted Vietnam epic starring three of Hollywood’s most troublesome actors on a shoot which make Terry Gilliam’s Don Quixote troubles seem trivial by comparison. A month over schedule after only five day’s filming, driven more than half-mad by self-obsessed, pampered actors as interested in what’s in their trailers as in the script and faced with the prospect of mad studio boss Less Grossman shutting the whole sorry mess down, he decides only drastic action can save his troubled production. Thus the morning after a blowout party to celebrate the end of the first week of filming, he bundles his hungover cast into a helicopter and, before they quite know what’s hit them, lands them in the middle of the jungle, far away from the comforts of their Tivos and little bags of powder on which they rely so heavily. For the rest of the film, he tells them, they are going to shoot on the hoof, Blair Witch style, improvising their roles as they make their way back to civilisation, filmed by a bunch of hidden cameras, so they’d best pull themselves together and get on with it. What he and they don't realise is that he has abandoned his actors in the neighbourhood of a Vietcong-like gang called the Flaming Dragon, a local heroin concern who don’t take too kindly to a bunch of cosseted Hollywood types invading their territory. And so fact and fiction begins to blur as his actors begin their trek back, unsure or unaware that the enemy they face isn’t part of the movie until one of their number is captured and begins, in his imprisonment, to undergo his own voyage into a heart of darkness. Can they pull themselves together enough to save the day, rescue their colleague and escape from the hellhole of the jungle in one piece? It’s almost like some bad Vietnam movie...
Which is why the major problem with Tropic Thunder is that it is at least ten years out of date. The targets of Ben Stiller’s satirical comedy, which range from war movie clichés to inane Hollywood superstars, are largely from an earlier age. Directing for the first time since Zoolander in 2001, Stiller creates some spot-on visual parodies of the Vietnam genre, complete with swooping shots of helicopters in formation and soldiers dying nobly in the rain, bravely reaching out a hand to their comrades even as vicious Charlie goes in for the final shot. But although one can't help admiring accuracy of the pastiche, there is a nagging sensation of so what? Not only is the particular genre of film far less prevalent than it was ten, twenty years ago, but even if it wasn’t this sort of mickey-taking has been done many times before, just as well. The one advantage that Tropic Thunder has over its earlier spoofs is in a much larger budget, with every dollar up on screen; this is a joke that comes complete with real-life explosions and action set pieces, and one can’t help feeling that Stiller is so in love with the visuals of what he is recreating that he at times forgets to say anything new on the subject. This does result in a few moments which don't so much actively mock as just replicate their serious predecessor, a trap into which especially the final third of the movie, in which the rescue attempt is made, falls.
His other main targets, the excesses and stupidity of Hollywood superstars, are again a little passe. Stiller’s action hero lug Tug Speedman and Jack Black’s Jeff “Fats” Portnoy are both based on actors whose day has come and gone; no longer do the Speedman-like Stallone and Schwarzeneggar dominate the box office while anyone like Portnoy (a drug-addled John Belushi/Chris Farley amalgamation with a bit of Eddie Murphy thrown in for good measure) who indulge themselves excessively in all that wealth and fame have to offer are nowadays more often pitied and pilloried than protected by movie executives. The lessons this film wants to teach have already to a large degree been learnt: the modern day heirs of the Eighties beefcakes, your Rocks and so forth, know they can’t rely on formulaic franchises to keep them at the top, while it’s the likes of Shia LaBeouf, who eulogise the joys of clean-living and total professionalism, who get ahead while the Lindsay Lohans of the world are publicly chastised by studio heads and find themselves going from A Prairie Home Companion to I Know Who Killed Me in the blink of an eye. Mocking such figures is the filmic equivalent of Private Eye starting to do jokes about Margaret Thatcher again.
Which is not to say that the movie doesn’t score some more modern-day hits; indeed, when it does it hits hard, which makes one wish there wasn't so much wasted time elsewhere. There was some fuss before the film’s release about Robert Downey, Jr's character, especially the fact that, as intense and rather stupid method actor Kirk Lazarus, he had “blacked up” to play his part. Fortunately, just like all those protests years ago claiming that Life of Brian was mocking Jesus rather than his followers, such complaints completely miss the point. While as much of a one-joke character as Speedman and Portnoy, the Australian Lazarus is far more relevant to today’s cinema in satirising the pretentious nonsense some actors come out with with, and is therefore far more amusing a figure. The character, and Downey’s playing, is merciless, as Lazarus, keeping up an absurd accent at all times in the quest for total immersion in his role, utters meaningless statements about his art (“I don’t read the script, the script reads me”) while coming across as big a jackass as any of the others. In addition, he occasionally is used as the mouthpiece for razor sharp observations; his explanation to Speedman as to why the latter’s last attempt to break out of his beefcake roles, the I Am Sam-like role Simple Jack didn’t work, is quite the best commentary in the entire film, and makes one wish that there was a lot more on a similar level.
But there isn’t. Too often Stiller goes for the easy gag, the cheap insult or casual reference to pop culture for gags - mistranslation jokes and gags about celebrities adopting foreign babies are extremely easy to do after all. Tom Cruise’s role as Grossman, much lauded elsewhere, relies for its humour entirely on the fact that the man playing him is Tom Cruise. OMG, look at Tom! He does have a sense of humour after all. Haha, cool. Watch him bust those funky moves. What a good sport. Maybe we should like him more? It doesn’t help that his character feels crowbarred in, and that the subplot which seems to justify his extended presence in the film, in which Speedman’s agent (Matthew McConaughey) has a crisis of conscience, is bizarrely superfluous, lending nothing to the film and seeming to be there simply to break up the action in the jungle. Equally, the treatment of another comic character, Brandon T Jackson’s, is as clichéd as the films Tropic Thunder sets out to satirise, right down to a punchline which is oddly naive in our enlightened times.
All of which makes for a good looking, mildly entertaining but generally frustrating film. Ultimately it manages to sum itself up with the mock trailers with which it opens. Three out of the four go for obvious, banal humour - one of which, the trailer for Portnoy’s Fart franchise, really wouldn’t look out of place in a Scary Movie - but the fourth, Satan’s Alley, is extremely funny and well-judged. Thus it is with the rest of the film, which when it hits hits very well but is too often content to go for the comfort zone of easy laughs. You can see on screen all the actors are having a whale of a time as they compete to out-funny each other, from Black’s hysterics to Downey’s deadpan utterances, but it’s not nearly as much fun to watch as it probably was to be there. Ironically given its subject matter, this is a film, from budget to stars to script, which is far too indulgent.
In addition to the Blu-ray release (which, for once, doesn’t have any more features than the SD) there are two editions of Tropic Thunder on Region Two, a single-disc edition and the three-disc director’s cut release under review here. The big difference between the two, besides of course the additional extras, is that while the single-disc version has the original theatrical cut of the movie, this three-disc sets comes only with the longer DC version. A choice would have been nice, especially if, like me, you didn’t see the film at the cinema and so can’t compare the two, but there you go. In the section detailing extras below, I’ve asterisked those which aren’t included in the one-disc release. The film itself, and all the extras (including the Commentaries, always a pleasing inclusion) are subtitled.
After skipping past trailers for Eagle Eye, Watchmen and Ghost Town (there’s a point, how come Ricky Gervais didn’t cadge a cameo in the film?) the viewer is presented with an amusing Main Menu, which is designed entirely as though the film really were a serious Vietnam epic, complete with stirring music and slow-motion clips from the battle sequences. The only problem with the otherwise friendly layout is that on Disc Two several of the features are missing a Play All function, so that, for example, you have to select each Deleted Scene in turn to watch. This is doubly clumsy given that there are Play All functions for most of the other extras for which it is applicable do have one.
The presentation of the film is generally very nice. The Video is for the most part crisp and clear, and holds a large amount of detail. I would question the accuracy of the flesh tones for a few sequences, but given the lighting of those scenes it’s difficult to tell if that’s a problem with the transfer or an intended effect. There’s also some blockiness in some of the scenes filled with foliage, but otherwise it’s a very pleasant film to watch. The Audio doesn’t quite play along with the joke of the film in that it doesn’t quite have the dramatic oomph you would expect in the battles, never really immersing you in the action, but while it’s thus less ambitious than one might expect it’s still perfectly serviceable, with the helicopter flights very resonant and a suitably atmospheric jungle ambience. The one quibble I had for the audio is that I couldn’t always tell what Downey was saying, but have a nasty suspicion that’s more because I’m getting old and deaf than any fault with the disc.
Quite the best Extra included is Rain of Madness* (30:00). It was pretty obligatory to have a Hearts of Darkness spoof on the disc somewhere, but this is very good indeed, taking some of the best jokes and ideas from the film to make a companion piece that is at times far witter, as well as considerably more subtle, than its parent. Starring Tropic’s co-writer Justin Theroux as the suspiciously-accented documentary maker Jan Jurgen, it focuses far more heavily on Coogan’s director, much to his benefit. In the main film Coogan looked out of place and ended up feeling wasted, but he more than justifies his presence by taking centre stage here in a feature which suits far more his own comedy style. Great fun, and well worth checking out. As an addendum, Dispatches from the Edge of Madness* (23:04) is extra material shot for the spoof but cut out, all of which, with the exception of an overlong sequence featuring Lazarus’s “family”, is just as funny as what was left in.
Conversely, there are about fifteen minutes of Deleted and Extended Scenes* which aren’t any great shakes at all, including an Alternate Ending that is hardly different to that which they used. They do come with optional audio commentaries from Stiller and his co-editor Greg Hayden, but these are somewhat perfunctory and tail off very quickly. In a similar vein, and also with a Stiller/Hayden intro, the Full Mags (31:57) offers four sequences of raw footage in which the cast were encouraged to improvise, from which were cut the choicest morsels. Moderately amusing, as long as you can bear to watch the same few lines of dialogue being gone over again and again. There’s also a very brief look at some Video Rehearsals* (3:04) which are exactly what they sound like and are too edited in this featurette to be of much interest.
There are two Commentaries, both of which feature Stiller. The Filmmaker commentary, included only on the three-disc edition, sees him joined by Theroux, producer Stuart Cornfeld, Production Designer Jeff Mann, DP John Toll and editor Greg Hayden. The first half of the track is very strong, with all joining in for what is an informative, if straitlaced, track. However, in the second half several contributors fall somewhat silent, leaving Stiller and others to hold the fort, and while it would be wrong to say it peters out, certainly the first half is the strongest. The second yak track is a far more jokey affair, unsurprisingly given that it features Stiller, Black and Downey, the latter keeping to his word from the film that he would remain in character until the end of the DVD Commentary. This had the potential for being highly annoying but fortunately it isn't, and while the track isn't perhaps hugely revelatory, it makes for an amusing, very casual couple of hours as the three trade banter and recall the film's shoot.
The rest of the extras consist of your standard Making Of featurettes. Before the Thunder* (4:52) sets the scene in a vague fashion, while The Cast of Tropic Thunder (22:10) briefly highlights each of the stars - Stiller, Black, Downey, Jackson, Jay Baruchel (who, incidentally, is very good in the film), Danny McBride and Nick Nolte – although in truth these are little more than puff pieces. Somewhat better are the featurettes which focus on the practicalities of the shoot. The Hot LZ (6:25) looks at the filming of the spoof battle sequence which comes near the beginning of the movie, Designing the Thunder* (7:30) has cast and crew talking about the problems of the location shoot, and the thinking behind some of the sets which were built there while Blowing Shit Up (6:17)... well, I forget what that one was about, but remember it was quite enlightening all the same. All of these, while brief, are slightly more informative than your average Making-Of pieces, albeit not especially substantial. There’s also the Make-up Test with Tom Cruise (1:36) in which he first improvised his dancing. Finally, to tie things up, there’s the MTV Movie Awards – Tropic Thunder (4:06) spoof starring Stiller, Downey, Jr and Black, which is good fun. There is also a Digital Copy of the film included on the third disc, which was not available for review.
Had Tropic Thunder been released ten, fifteen years ago it would have been hailed as a necessary riposte to the excesses of popular US cinema at that time, and considered a classic. Now it just looks like an outdated, costly exercise, albeit with some amusing moments - not so much Apocalypse LOL as Apocalypse Heh. However, should you be a fan this package is pretty comprehensive, with a lot of additional bits thrown in as well as the standard fare of commentaries, deleted scenes and Making-Ofs. Although the absence of the Theatrical Cut is a disappointment, this is otherwise an excellent release of a disappointing film.