Unrated Director’s Cut
Directed by Ben Stiller
Starring Ben Stiller, Robert Downey Jr, Jack Black, Nick Nolte, Jay Baruchel, Danny McBride
Paramount Home Entertainment
Release date: November 18, 2008
Tropic Thunder, the first full-on comedy directed by Ben Stiller since his sublime tribute to airheaded male models Zoolander, is both a love letter and a poison pen middle finger to the increasingly overblown business of moviemaking. It’s a measure of the amount of serious guts and brains that it would take a major Hollywood studio (in this case Dreamworks) to green-light an expensive action-comedy that’s also a savage satire of the industry itself. But a movie like Tropic Thunder has been a long time coming. Having your cake and eating it too has rarely been this hilarious.
Damien Cockburn (Steve Coogan) is only a few days into the shooting of his directorial debut, the mega-budget Vietnam War epic Tropic Thunder based on an acclaimed memoir of the same name by veteran Sgt. John “Four Leaf” Tayback (Nick Nolte, giving great grizzle), and the production is in an unprecedented state of chaos.
The studio has forced the newcomer into casting a corral of egotistical superstars in the lead roles: as Tayback on-the-skids action star Tugg Speedman (Stiller), who is in dire need of a comeback after his ill-advised attempt at snagging Oscar respectability Simple Jack bombed at the box office; as portly grunt Fats comedian Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black), the star of the fart-driven Fatties franchise and a hopeless drug addict; as 19-year-old grunt Motown rapper Alpa Chino (Brandon Jackson), whose hit single “I Love Tha Pussy” and the popularity of his energy drink Booty Sweat and energy bar Bust-A-Nut has convinced the studio to rope him into the movie to give it some additional appeal to the younger demographic in exchange for a Booty Sweat product placement; and as the unit’s battle-hardened black sergeant Lincoln Osiris Australian Method actor Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr.), a five-time Oscar winner so dedicated to his role that he underwent a controversial medical procedure that altered the color of his skin and never breaks character until he does the DVD commentary. If the task of dealing with a bunch of pampered primadonnas wasn’t enough, Cockburn is in hot water with studio head Les Grossman (Tom Cruise… no, I’m not kidding) over a $4 million explosion effect that was detonated even though the cameras weren’t rolling due to Speedman and Lazarus clashing over who should be crying during a particularly emotional scene (“This is emotionality,” Lazarus barks).
With the film’s shutdown and his firing imminent, Cockburn is convinced by the real Four Leaf (who flew to the set to act as an unofficial technical adviser) to take his out-of-control cast, which includes cooperative newcomer Kevin Sandusky (Jay Baruchel), and drop them somewhere in the middle of Southeast Asia with nothing but their combat gear and weapons. With a map that so-called leader Speedman can’t read to save his life and a handful of scene directions, the actors are ordered to march through the bush to a location where they will be airlifted out of the area while improvising their performances. Hidden video cameras placed by Damien all around their marching path will record it all. Meanwhile, Four Leaf and the production’s overenthusiastic demolitions expert Cody Keith Underwood (Danny McBride), who has rigged up the area with explosive effects to simulate real-life combat for the actors, hang back with the helicopter and the detonator. The actors seem to enjoy getting down and dirty at first, but egos soon clash when Speedman refuses to give up the map he can’t read for fear of being overshadowed by Lazarus, who won’t break character even in the face of the mortal danger they encounter when they come across a heroin manufacturing ring. The local drug dealers believe the fatigue-wearing actors to be DEA agents and when they capture Speedman, the delusional fallen star thinks they’re actors too. Facing certain death, not to mention Portnoy’s heroin withdrawal, Speedman’s overwhelmed co-stars must muster up enough courage to save his life even as the power brokers back in Tinseltown — including Tugg’s agent Rick “The Pecker” Peck (Matthew McConaughey) — discuss how best to benefit from this burgeoning tragedy.
Tropic Thunder is one of the best comedies of the year and it’s without a single doubt the biggest. It takes major balls to make a big-budget comedy that mocks the making of big-budget Hollywood movies and the conflict between bloated star egos, pretentious directors, and tyrannical studio executives, but Ben Stiller did it and in the process delivered one of his finest hours as both actor and director. Everything comes together so smoothly in this film, from the performances to the over-the-top action scenes to the music to the editing to the machine gun onslaught of in-jokes that only the most devoted of cinema junkies will understand, that it’s a total joy to watch every minute of it wondering how one priceless comic scene can possibly be topped and then watching it be topped.
There’s only a moderate amount of sentimentality present in Tropic Thunder and it doesn’t show up until close to the end of the movie. By then it has been duly earned. Until it comes into play, the rest of the film plays like the classic comedies of the 1970s and 1980s that were blessed with an anarchic spirit and mostly were heavily influenced by MAD Magazine and National Lampoon among other things: Animal House, Caddyshack, Used Cars, Slap Shot, The Blues Brothers, and Stripes. Those comedies were beautiful displays of organized chaos, veritable riots of talent brought together and then cut loose to hilarious effect. You laugh your ass off but wonder how in the hell they kept all this glorious madness from going off the rails.
Make no mistake ladies and germs, Tropic Thunder is a goddamn comedy epic, but not one where the laughs and attention to character and detail are completely overtaken by pointless sound and fury. Oh there’s plenty of sound and fury in this movie, and it’s all just icing on the most delicious of cakes. From the beginning of the film we’re thrown head first into a hilariously overblown battle sequence where all the exploding bodies, spilled intestines, and massive napalm blasts are made redundant by the inability of two delusional superstar midsets and a director just coming to terms with the fact that he’s little more than a glorified hired gun to work together for a simple emotional exchange. Money is being burned on this movie, careers and reputations are at stake, feet are being held to the fire, and its stars couldn’t care less.
Chaotic movie productions, from Apocalypse Now and Heaven’s Gate to more recently Waterworld and Hudson Hawk, have long been fodder for tabloid and entertainment trade junkies to devour like hyperactive toddlers stoned on Pixie Sticks. The negative hype becomes so overwhelming that it ultimately doesn’t matter if the final released product is good or bad. I admit to being a fan of following the problematic filming of many mega-budget event flicks in the past, and if you are too I highly recommend James Robert Parish’s great book Fiasco: A History of Hollywood’s Iconic Flops for even more of what I just mentioned. With the advent of the Internet and the rise of the online movie geek network it’s become easier to digest the ever-leaking on-set reports and sometimes the stuff that trickles in is so absurd that it would seem impossible to lampoon without it being obnoxious.
Stiller, along with co-writers Justin Theroux (also an accomplished actor best known from American Psycho and Inland Empire) and Etan Cohen (Idiocracy), first got the idea for what would become Tropic Thunder while working as an actor on his first film Empire of the Sun and carefully developed that idea over the next two decades while slowly gathering a cast and creative team that would make any director envious. I’m about to spend the next couple of paragraphs alone in praise of the cast, starting with Stiller’s turn as the most hopeless of the movie stars. Tugg Speedman is well aware that his glory days as the action hero of the blockbuster Scorcher franchise have come to an end and he’s desperately trying to refocus his career. Watching Speedman trying for Oscar status with Simple Jack lays waste to the efforts of every movie star’s attempts to secure respect from their peers by playing the mentally disabled, their insulting idea of “connecting” with actual human beings. It leads to one of the funniest dialogue exchanges in the film when Lazarus lectures Tugg on the dangers of going “full retard.” The fact that this sub-plot resulted in the movie drawing protests from actual mental disability action groups makes the humor all the sweeter. Stiller’s clearly doing a parody of out-to-pasture action stars like Sylvester Stallone and Bruce Willis and he delivers on all fronts.
He has plenty of able talent in the cast to keep him company. Jack Black manages to take back a little bit of the high-wire daring that defined his pre-fame days as the junkie and comic actor Jeff Portnoy. Portnoy, willing to sell his talent and his soul in exchange for some quick blow money, brings to mind the great comedians of the past who did just the same with their comic gifts such as Richard Pryor, John Belushi, and Chris Farley. Black is at his funniest in years and his character arc gets a satisfying wrap-up as all the arcs in Tropic Thunder do. Brandon Jackson does a spot-on rip of every rap star, and every popular musician by extent, with grand illusions of expanding their empires into the film industry as the brilliantly named Alpa Chino. Lazarus’ overblown blackface act rankles Alpa and Jackson’s interplay with Downey on the subject provides biting commentary on Hollywood’s eternal indifference to struggling actors of every minority group. Jay Baruchel (Knocked Up) has been funnier than he is here because his character is saddled with the job of being the straight man and keeping the unprepared egomaniacs surrounding him from getting their dumbasses killed, but he’s still really good.
Steve Coogan isn’t in the film for very long so much like Baruchel he doesn’t get much of a chance to show off the comedic chops that has made him a star in his native England but his presence here as the put-upon director Cockburn is much welcome. Dancing around on the outside of the madness is Danny McBride (Pineapple Express) as the explosion-happy Cody and the great Nick Nolte getting one of his best roles in a while as the real Four Leaf Tayback. The two of them make a good team since most of their scenes are together and revolve around a horrible skeleton in Four Leaf’s closet.
This has been a great year for Robert Downey Jr. First he finally reaches the movie star status that has eluded him for many years with the critical and commercial success of Iron Man, and now he gives probably the best comedic performance of his career as the insanely dedicated Kirk Lazarus. Downey’s sheer versatility is in full effect playing beneath an impressive blackface make-up job that would normally be construed as being racist but it pays off constantly throughout the movie because the performance plays on many levels: the psychologically questionable need of supposed Method actors to get completely into character and to stay in character to such a degree that they won’t respond unless referred to by their character’s name; and the reminder that Hollywood likes to pat itself on the back for being ahead of the curve on every major social issue America has ever encountered but it still tends to marginalize actors, writers, directors, and technicians of every skin color other than white unless they’re either superstars or willing to adhere to Hollywood’s demographic-ruled vision of how members of non-white minority groups should act. But first and foremost Downey is incredibly funny and sympathetic in the Lazarus role. Like the other primadonna wannabe soldiers in his group Kirk does manage to come across as flawed but lovable.
Back home in La-La Land the business side of show business in Tropic Thunder is personified by some of the most original casting in the film. Matthew McConaughey shows a gift for comedy that is rarely present even in the actual comedies he does (since he typically falls back on his typical surfer dude screen persona) as Speedman’s devoted cutthroat agent Rick Peck. The single most genius casting has to be Tom Cruise going as far against type as he’s ever done as the demonically devious studio head Les Grossman. Buried under an award-worthy make-up job consisting of a bald cap, egghead horn-rim glasses, a paunch bloated by the fire of his own ego, and enough body hair popping off from his arms and beneath his well-tailored suits to make Robin Williams look like Dr. Evil’s cat, Cruise is given free reign to cut loose and carve out a personality that acts as a black hole of Hollywood greed consuming all who gets in his way. He dominates every scene he’s in with energy and a looseness that I don’t believe has ever been seen in the Cruiser, especially in the movies where he’s basically playing an extension of himself. Best of all the man’s a pretty damn decent dancer when given the right music to dance to. Grossman sure does love his Ludacris. Bill Hader of Saturday Night Live and Superbad gets some hearty laughs as Grossman’s “nutless monkey” of a sycophantic assistant. To top it all of there are cameos abound from Tobey Maguire, Jon Voight, Jennifer Love Hewitt, Lance Bass, and The Mooney Suzuki.
Wanting an epic feel for his madcap action-comedy Stiller tapped the great cinematographer John Toll to give Tropic Thunder a suitably widescreen feel. Toll knows a thing or two about shooting war; his past credits include Braveheart, The Thin Red Line, and The Last Samurai. He gives the wild action scenes a wonderful visual charge. In-demand composer Theodore Shapiro is no stranger to bringing his musical gifts to big-screen comedies such as State and Main, Dodgeball, and Blades of Glory. He provides< em> Tropic Thunder with an appropriately rousing epic score with just the right touch of over-the-top grandeur to get some good laughs by satirizing the overblown orchestral scores ever present in war movies. Jeff Mann‘s production design is stellar, full of gloriously typical Hollywood excess and excruciating detail. Make-up artist Marlene Stewart should most definitely receive some hefty awards recognition for the fantastic work she does on Downey and Cruise alone.
But in the end Tropic Thunder is a marvelous comeback for Ben Stiller. The comeback I speak is not in a sense of success but rather the movie marks Stiller’s return to the brilliantly creative comic genius that has been subdued in the past few years in his own pursuit of movie star greatness in lackluster screen vehicles such as Night at the Museum, The Heartbreak Kid, and Madagascar. It’s understandable that Stiller would want to broaden his acting range and appeal to younger audiences but Stiller only became a star by following his best instincts and being the comic firebrand he first proved himself to be back in the early 1990’s on his criminally-underrated Fox sketch comedy series “The Ben Stiller Show“. With Tropic Thunder Stiller has found the creative fire and sharp comic storytelling that was burning hot on his Fox show and in Zoolander. It’s a brilliant return to form I hope Stiller won’t deprive us of for so long between paycheck kiddie flicks.
DVD Special Features
Dreamworks Home Entertainment has smothered Tropic Thunder with a two-disc special edition overflowing with a wealth of technical and supplemental material. First off the film itself is presented in an unrated director’s cut. Since I never saw the movie in theaters I can’t tell you what’s different in this version but since the story moves fast with enough jokes to choke a Marx brother whatever footage was re-inserted doesn’t make the movie drag. The movie’s 2.35:1 widescreen picture looks great on this disc with the jungle looking mighty green and the fires so warmly orange you can feel the heat in your living room. English, Spanish, and French Dolby 5.1 Surround audio tracks give your soundsystem a healthy workout with the movie’s many gunshots, explosions, and boisterous personalities. Subtitles in English, French, and Spanish are present and accounted for.
The movie comes complete with two feature-length audio commentaries: the first is a filmmakers’ track with star/co-writer/director Ben Stiller joined by co-writer Theroux, producer Stuart Cornfeld, editor Greg Hayden, production designer Mann, and director of photographer Toll that keeps the discussion mostly on the technical side; and the second is a cast commentary with Stiller joined by co-stars Black (who arrives late) and Downey (who, in a move Kirk Lazarus would be proud of, stays in character the entire time) that naturally is a sprawling goof-off. Fun and informative tracks all the way through.
There are also upfront previews for related Dreamworks titles: The Soloist, Eagle Eye, National Lampoon’s Van Wilder, Van Wilder: Freshman Year, and Ghost Town.
The second disc is where the meat of the bonus features is contained.
A series of behind-the-scenes featurettes with interviews by the main cast and crew members kicks off with Before the Thunder (5 minutes), which documents the movie’s story development and pre-production.
The Hot LZ (6 minutes) takes a look at the making of the massive opening battle sequence.
Blowing Shit Up (6 minutes) focuses on the extensive special effects.
Designing the Thunder (7 minutes) is devoted to the film’s production design.
The Cast of Tropic Thunder (22 minutes) consists of seven mini-featurettes devoted to members of the cast: Stiller, Black, Downey, Jackson, Baruchel, McBride, and Nolte.
Rain of Madness (30 minutes) is my personal favorite extra on the set. It’s a mad fucking “mockumentary” about the tumultuous production of the “Tropic Thunder” movie within the movie. Hosted by Werner Herzog-like filmmaker Jan Jurgen (Justin Theroux), Rain is filmed and edited in the manner of great film documentaries like Hearts of Darkness (about the making of Apocalypse Now) and Burden of Dreams (about the making of Fitzcarraldo) and is in turn a hilarious parody of those films.
Featuring lots of additional footage of the cast members in character, particularly a bizarre segment showing the lengths Kirk Lazarus goes to in order to get a feel for his character, and a few more priceless scenes from Simple Jack, Rain, much like the movie itself, is full of big laughs and many chuckle-worthy moments. As a bonus anybody familiar with the Stiller-directed 1999 Fox TV pilot Heat Vision and Jack, which starred Jack Black as an astronaut blessed with super mental abilities and a talking motorcycle voiced by Owen Wilson, will be pleasantly surprised and amused by the appearance of some footage from the pilot presented in Rain as an early example of Jeff Portnoy’s acting work. Rain of Madness is also where you’ll be able to see Steve Coogan actually being funny, which his limited role in the movie didn’t give him much chance to. All in all this is one of the best DVD extras of the year, one that I will definitely watch again.
Dispatches from the Edge of Madness (23 minutes) is a series of additional scenes from Rain of Madness. Funny stuff. Worth a watch or two.
Next we come to the excised material section of the extras with a 2-minute video introduction from Stiller and editor Greg Hayden: there are two deleted scenes, “Water Buffalo Wrestling” and “Speedman Unpacks His Backpack”, with commentary on the latter from Stiller and Hayden; two extended scenes, “Snorkels” and “Eight Minutes in Hell”, both with commentary from Stiller and Hayden; and a 3-minute alternate ending that features a different fate for McConaughey’s character and Tugg Speedman’s cut Oscar speech and unsurprisingly comes with commentary from Stiller and Hayden.
Make-Up Test with Tom Cruise (2 minutes) shows Cruise trying on a slightly different look for his Grossman character and comes with an optional video introduction from Stiller and Hayden.
MTV Movie Awards: Tropic Thunder (4 minutes) is another quick blast of hilarity featuring Stiller pitching an idea for a viral video promotion to his co-stars Downey and Black. There’s a lot of funny packed into these four minutes with the highpoints being Downey reveling in his newfound Iron Man fame and success and Downey wearing an Iron Man mask while beating the hell out of Black, who’s wearing a giant Kung Fu Panda head.
Full Mags (33 minutes) contains four extended improvised scenes: “Cody at Bar,” “Portnoy Tied to Tree,” “Choose a Dude,” and “Laz at Campfire.”
Wrapping up this well-stocked DVD is a three-minute collection of video rehearsals without sound presented with Stiller’s narration.
The best way I can sum up my feelings on Tropic Thunder is that…. it’s a real pleasure from beginning to end. Ben Stiller’s long-nurtured labor of love has been brought to glorious life with the help of the best cast and crew a filmmaker could assemble. Not just one of the best comedies of 2008, but one of this year’s best movies pure and simple.
Have fun. Until next time I remain….”the dude playing a dude disguised as another dude”….a.k.a. BAADASSSSS!