Tropic Thunder, 2008.
Directed by Ben Stiller.
Starring Ben Stiller, Jack Black, Robert Downey Jr., Steve Coogan, Jay Baruchel, Danny McBride, Brandon T. Jackson, Bill Hader, Nick Nolte, Matthew McConaughey, and Tom Cruise.
Kino Lorber continues releasing minor classics with a new Blu-ray of Tropic Thunder, featuring a 4K remaster supervised by director Ben Stiller. The film remains uproariously funny, and the theatrical and director’s cuts are included here, along with all of the previous bonus features.
Revisiting Tropic Thunder 14 years after its release, I found the film remains a biting satire of war movies in general and big-time Hollywood stars in particular. Set in the jungles of Vietnam, the movie stars Ben Stiller, Jack Black, and Robert Downey Jr. in the roles of action-star-in-decline Tugg Speedman, drug-addled comedian Jeff Portnoy, and five-time Oscar winner and method actor Kirk Lazarus, respectively.
A trio of hilarious fake film trailers play before the film, setting the scene for the production of the film-within-the-film, which is as chaotic as you might imagine. Speedman’s agent (played by Matthew McConaughey) is intent on ensuring his client gets first-class treatment on set while Portnoy is a modern-day Fatty Arbuckle indulging in his vices, and Lazarus is a pretentious jerk who underwent “pigmentation alteration” to darken his skin for the role and refuses to ever break character.
Steve Coogan plays the in-over-his-head director Damien Cockburn while Tom Cruise is arrogant, abusive studio executive Les Grossman in an uncredited role, and Nick Nolte stars as the grizzled Vietnam veteran on whose book the film-within-the-film is based. The supporting cast includes Jay Baruchel as newbie actor Kevin Sandusky, who is excited by his big break and is doing everything by the book, and Brandon T. Jackson as Alpa Chino, a rapper who hawks an energy drink and is trying to cross over into acting.
I laid all that out because a film like this really needs to lean into the tropes, and Tropic Thunder does so in a big way. Sandusky is probably the only character who comes out of the whole mess more or less intact, while the rest of the movie-within-a-movie cast goes off the rails when they get lost in the jungle and have to figure out how to get back to civilization.
Of course, when you push satire far enough, you’re bound to offend some people, and Tropic Thunder received plenty of flak in 2008 for its use of the word “retard” and the fact that Downey was in blackface. As the parent of a kid on the autism spectrum, I can understand why “retard” was used to not only show the characters’ ignorance but to also poke fun at the idea of actors playing non-neurotypical characters to wide acclaim. (Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man and Tom Hanks in Forrest Gump are of course cited as two examples of that.)
As for the blackface controversy, well, it’s clear that it was another example of poking fun at method actors who lose themselves in roles so entirely that they end up acting like lunatics. (Jim Carrey’s turn as Andy Kauffman in Man on the Moon comes to mind, although he’s not mentioned in this film.) Jackson’s Alpa Chino character is on hand several times to ridicule Lazarus for his stereotypical speech and, in one of many hilarious moments, for quoting the theme song from The Jeffersons.
Paramount has remastered Tropic Thunder in 4K for new 4K Ultra HD and Blu-ray editions; I received a copy of the latter for review. I last watched the film on DVD, so I missed the Blu-ray edition and don’t have it on hand for a comparison. My understanding, though, is that the film’s visual quality has improved a lot in the last 14 years, thanks to the maturation of the format. I certainly thought it looked great.
Kino Lorber has provided the theatrical and director’s cuts here; the latter is about 12 minutes longer than the former. Unlike some director’s editions (or extended editions, or whatever you want to call them) that just feature a couple new scenes, director Ben Stiller’s longer version of Tropic Thunder has a bunch of new and extended scenes as well as many slightly different moments, takes that are a little longer, and so forth. There are too many differences to list here.
However, Kino Lorber didn’t commission any new bonus features for this release, although if you’re like me and only have the DVD, you’ll still appreciate this new edition for the improved picture quality. The two versions of the film are on separate discs, which was a necessity since the director’s cut likely couldn’t have been achieved with seamless branching, and the bulk of the extras are on the director’s cut platter. Here’s what you’ll find:
• Commentary track: Stiller, executive producer and co-writer Justin Theroux, production designer Jeff Mann, producer Stuart Cornfeld, editor Greg Hayden, and cinematographer John Toll get together to talk about the film. Despite the subject matter, it’s actually a pretty technical discussion that covers the nuts and bolts of making the film. It’s very different from the other commentary, which is the lone bonus feature on the other disc. (More on that in a moment.)
• Rain of Madness (30 minutes): If you’re going to satirize war movies in general and Vietnam war films in specific, then you have to put together a mockumentary that takes a shot at Hearts of Darkness, right? Hearts is the well-known documentary about Coppola’s Apocalypse Now shoot, which went over schedule and over budget and had plenty of on-set drama, and Rain of Madness puts that doc right in its crosshairs.
• Production featurettes (49 minutes): This is a bundle of featurettes, the longest of which is 22 minutes. It starts with pre-production and goes through the making of the film. Too bad someone couldn’t sit down with the main cast and crew members again to discuss how the film has aged.
• Deleted and extended scenes, along with an alternate ending (21 minutes): Yes, there was even more excised footage that didn’t make it into the director’s cut, and you’ll find it here. Each bit has a short introduction, along with optional audio commentary.
• Full Mags (11 minutes): Stiller encouraged a lot of improvisation on the set, and you get to see some of that here.
There’s also a promotional short for the MTV Movie Awards (are those a thing anymore?). The old Blu-ray had a BD-Live component that let you check out more extras online, but that’s not found here since I don’t think that service exists anymore. It’s a shame that the extras found there weren’t included on this disc.
Finally, the theatrical version of the film features a commentary track with Stiller, Black, and Downey Jr., and if there were annual awards for commentaries, this would have swept them in 2008. Downey Jr. stays in character for much of the discussion, which manages to be not only really funny but very informative too. Usually funny commentary tracks end up being self-indulgent and go off the rails, but not this one. Kudos to Stiller for navigating through two well-done commentary tracks.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★