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Tropic Thunder

(2008) *** R
107 min. DreamWorks SKG. Director: Ben Stiller. Cast: Ben Stiller, Jack Black, Robert Downey Jr., Jay Baruchel, Nick Nolte.

/content/films/3179/9.jpgThe take-no-prisoners action comedy Tropic Thunder is all about BS. First, it's a return to form for Ben Stiller, who stars, directs, produces, and co-writes. The Vietnam movie within the movie inspires hilariously spot-on '60s musical shorthand, like Buffalo Springfield's "For What It's Worth." Primarily, of course, Tropic Thunder is about all manner of bullshit, as spewed by actors, directors, authors, agents, and studio heads. But don't get too smug: can we really say we're not as insecure, selfish, and blithely destructive as the Hollywood types in Tropic Thunder? Well, yeah. But still: that doesn't mean we shouldn't check ourselves before we wreck ourselves.

Tropic Thunder skewers three recognizable types of the modern screen actor, and all have one thing in common: no one will call them on their crazy and/or stupid behavior. Pompous action star Tugg Speedman (Stiller) is insecure about his scene-stealing co-star, Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr.). Lazarus takes his "Method" acting to pretentious extremes, including the full-time adoption of an African-American persona (complete with skin-pigmentation surgery). And comic actor Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black) is looking to be taken seriously after playing "America's favorite obese family" in movies like The Fatties: Fart 2. Implicit in Tropic Thunder is not only the absurdity of Hollywood (pampered actors wasting millions of dollars on popcorn movies) but the imperial self-confidence of the Ugly American. In this case, he can't even be bothered to read the script, much less take an interest in the real world.

When the actors stumble off the Southeast Asian set of their Vietnam movie "Tropic Thunder" and into big trouble with druglords, they're left to their own devices and discover they have only one: make-believe. To provide relative voices of reason (and to represent for the non-star actor), screenwriters Stiller, Justin Theroux and Etan Cohen include in the group Jay Baruchel's Kevin Sandusky (the one man who seems to have done his homework) and Brandon T. Jackson's Alpa Chino (yeah, they went there), an African-American rapper turned actor rightly incensed at Lazarus' blackface character. They're all led off the reservation by stressed-out director Damien Cockburn (Steve Coogan) and the devil on his shoulder, military advisor Four Leaf Tayback (Nick Nolte). "It" comic actor Danny McBride plays the special effects man, who once lost a finger on Driving Miss Daisy.

/content/films/3179/20.jpgTropic Thunder comes on strong with a number of big laughs and never lets up on the intensity. Between the wall-to-wall Hollywood mockery and the violence both "fake" and "real," some viewers' heads may ache, but the energy powers the story through its rough patches in ways that last week's action comedy (Pineapple Express) rarely managed. Stiller never claims the film is anywhere but over the top, but he's comfortable there, and in his acting mode, Stiller often underplays Speedman, a mostly reactive character. Black is funny (especially the "Old War Movie Grunt" voice he adopts for the movie within the movie) in predictable ways, but it's Downey who once again dazzles, sporting a makeup design by Rick Baker.

Fresh from the high of Iron Man, Downey gives an Oscar-worthy comic performance as a pastiche of Russell Crowe and Peter Sellers (by way of Lou Gossett Jr.?). Sellers once said, "There is no me. I do not exist," and Lazarus' abyss moment comes when he says to himself, "I think I might be nobody." Lazarus' cliched idea of a black man is funny in itself (clearly blaxploiter Lazarus has based "Sgt. Lincoln Osiris" on the exaggerated acting style found in blaxploitation films), but Downey's immersive take on the immersive actor is pure genius. As Lazarus puts it, "Man, I don't drop character till I done the DVD commentary." Another classic moment:

Lazarus: What do you mean, "you people"?
Chino: What do you mean, "you people"?!

You don’t have to be a Hollywood insider to find Stiller’s brutal sendup of the industry spot-on. All of the decade’s worst movies you’ve endured (or hopefully avoided) get spoofed along the way, and the film even starts with a run of fake trailers that's better than anything from The Ben Stiller Show. Stiller relentlessly spoofs Vietnam war movies, of course (cue the CCR), including a Platoon-esque dance of the riddling bullets. Childish boasting gets a Hollywood-lingo spin ("I've done a lot more effects-driven event films than you"), and two stars who normally headline their own movies take supporting parts that allow them to send up the Hollywood agent (Matthew Conaughey, playing Wii while on his headset phone) and the scary studio head, played by Tom Cruise in glasses, bald cap, body fur, and gut.

/content/films/3179/19.jpgIt must be said that Tropic Thunder is somewhat hit and miss: Hollywood isn't exactly a fresh target, and some of the humor tastes stale. And it would have been nice if the filmmakers had resisted the impulse to caricature the Southeast Asian drug producers. Sure, no one's weeping for criminals, but I wonder if level-headed businessmen with guns might not have made a funnier contrast to the freaked-out, racist actors. The filmmakers get in a joke about the reach of dominant American culture, a joke that leads to a plot point, but one suspects that successful drug dealers aren't clutching to a single old VHS tape, even in the jungle. But these are nitpicks: while taking his shots, Stiller simutaneously proves his generosity to his fellow actors and to an audience hungry for good laughs. Tropic Thunder may not win any Oscars, but look out, Teen Choice Awards!

(A tempest in a teapot has erupted over the use of the word "retard," but it's integrated into scathing Hollywood satire and put into the mouths of insensitive idiots. Referring to Speedman's Oscar bid playing "Simple Jack," Lazarus tells Speedman he made the mistake of going "full-retard." DreamWorks wisely pulled a "Simple Jack" website that used the word ill-advisedly out of the film's context, and yes, unfortunately, some impressionable youngsters and idiot adults will miss the subtlety. But maybe they'll grow up one day. Meantime, we can all enjoy the irony that Stiller's Oscar-winning director of photography John Toll also shot Jack, the Robin Williams movie about a boy in a man's body.)

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Aspect ratios: 2.35:1 Anamorphic Widescreen

Number of discs: 1

Audio: Dolby TrueHD 5.1 Surround

Street date: 11/18/2008

Distributor: Paramount Home Entertainment

Paramount delivers a fully loaded special edition for one of the year's funniest movies. The Blu-ray edition (mirrored on 2-disc DVD) showcases a brilliant transfer with vibrant color and impeccable detail. Like a lot of modern films, this one looks a bit contrasty on home video, but it's a minor complaint: Tropic Thunder looks great. It also benefits from a robust Dolby TrueHD 5.1 soundtrack. A standard comedy might not need the discrete detail that Dolby TrueHD provides, but this film's mix of dialogue and explosive action is ideally served and smartly takes advantage of all speakers for the same directional effect one gets in the movie theater.

The home-video edition features a new unrated and expanded "Director's Cut," as well as two feature-length audio commentaries. The first, with writer/director Ben Stiller, executive producer and co-writer Justin Theroux, production designer Jeff Mann, producer Stuart Cornfeld, editor Greg Hayden, and cinematographer John Toll, is a mostly serious accounting of the film from conception to production to final cut, with the occasional wisecrack from Stiller and Theroux. Those uninterested in what's essentially a "film school" track should proceed directly to the highly entertaining track featuring Ben Stiller, Jack Black, and Robert Downey Jr., the latter remaining in character. That's right: he does his "Osiris Jones" voice, as promised by Lazarus in the film.

Billed as created by Theroux and Steve Coogan, the mockumentary "Rain of Madness" (30:00, HD) stars Theroux as documentary filmmaker Jan Jürgen, a Werner Herzog type (there's even a scene directly spoofing an infamous one from Herzog's Grizzly Man). Hearts of Darkness is another clear inspiration for this very funny companion-piece short film.

The disc also houses a number of featurettes that collectively amount to a behind-the-scenes documentary. “Before the Thunder” (4:54, HD) focuses on the idea behind the movie, with thoughts offered by Stiller, Cornfeld, Theroux, Jay Baruchel, Downey Jr., and Coogan; also included are glimpses of the shoot and the table read. “The Hot LZ” (6:25, HD) focuses on the film-opening sequence and its large-scale action, with Cornfeld, Mann, Stiller, stunt coordinator Brad Martin, Baruchel, Black, and aerial coordinator Alan D. Purwin.

“Blowing Shit Up” (6:18, HD) finds Cornfeld, special effects supervisor Michael Meinardus, Mann, Baruchel, special effects general foreman Anthony Simonaitis, and producer Eric McLeod discussing the film's pyrotechnics, which we see being set and employed.“Designing the Thunder (7:31, HD) focuses on production design and Hawaii locations, with Cornfeld, Danny McBride, Nick Nolte, McLeod, Stiller, Mann, Downey Jr., Theroux,

“The Cast of Tropic Thunder (22:12 with "Play All" option, HD) is a series of profiles of Stiller, Black, Downey Jr., Jackson, Baruchel, McBride, and Nolte, as well as their characters. Though compact, they offer a variety of perspectives, with the actors commenting on each other and their roles.

“Make-up Test with Tom Cruise” (1:34, HD) comes preceded by an "Intro by Ben Stiller and Editor Greg Hayden" (1:12, HD), in which the duo explains as best they can the origin of Cruise's dance sequence.

Deleted Scenes/Extended Sequences/Alternate Ending
also begins with a Stiller/Hayden intro (1:55, HD) that leads into "Water Buffalo Wrestling" (1:35, HD); "Speedman Unpacking His Backpack" (1:44, HD) has optional audio commentary by Stiller and Hayden. Categorized as extended scenes are "Snorkels" (3:30, HD) and “Eight Minutes in Hell" (8:03, HD), both with optional audio commentary. The "Alternate Ending" (3:29) also features optional commentary.

Yet again with a Stiller/Hayden intro (:53), "Full Mags" (11:14, HD) provides raw, uncut footage of two synchronized full magazines of film, from "Action" till the magazines run out. For students of film acting (and modern comedy directing), it's utterly fascinating to watch director/actor Stiller sparring with Downey Jr. in full improvisational mode.

"MTV Movie Awards--Tropic Thunder" (4:06, SD) -- Rounding out the supplemental package is a promotional short the cast filmed for the MTV Movie Awards.

Lastly, the Blu-ray disc includes some of the best BD-Live Content yet offered by a studio, amounting to 48 minutes of HD footage. On the other hand, standard DVD users get these without the need to be hooked up to the internet, so it's a trade-off. Anyway, by accessing the disc’s online interface. You can download eleven "Dispatches from the Edge of Madness," deleted scenes from “Rain of Madness” amounting to 23 more minutes; three minutes of video rehearsal clips introduced by Stiller and Hayden; and three more “Full Mags."

Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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