Tuesday, November 25, 2008

DVD of the Week: Tropic Thunder: 2-Disc Director's Cut

For the last few years, Ben Stiller has been coasting on his patented, one-note neurotic doormat shtick in films like Night at the Museum (2006), The Heartbreak Kid (2007), and others. What happened to the guy who could play a self-destructive junkie screenwriter in Permanent Midnight (1998) and a dorky romantic in There’s Something About Mary (1998)? Stiller, at times, is more interesting behind the camera as director of the Generation X comedy Reality Bites (1994), the black comedy about stalking and television, The Cable Guy (1996), and the hilarious fashion world satire Zoolander (2001).

Stiller is back behind the camera (and also in front of it) and this time he’s taking on the Vietnam War sub-genre with Tropic Thunder (2008). In an odd way, we have Oliver Stone to thank for this film. Not just because he made Platoon (1986), which really popularized the sub-genre, but he also rejected Stiller when he auditioned for a role in the film. Stiller never forgot it and now he’s parlayed those feelings of rejection into a film that not only lampoons war films but Hollywood in general.

Tugg Speedman (Ben Stiller) is an action film star on the decline, still flogging his Scorcher franchise – films that resemble a cross between something Tom Cruise might do and Roland Emmerich’s brain-dead special effects epics. Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black) stars in low-brow comedies filled with fart jokes that allow him to play multiple characters a la Eddie Murphy (Norbit, anyone?). Australian actor Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr.) is a five-time Academy Award winner who appears in “serious” films that win all of the important awards just like Russell Crowe.

They are all starring in a Vietnam War movie called Tropic Thunder that is currently being made on location in South Vietnam. The production is on the verge of being in the kind of trouble that almost consumed Apocalypse Now (1979) as Lazarus is upstaging Speedman. First-time director Damien Cockburn (Steve Coogan) can’t control his actors, which is causing the movie to go behind schedule, much to the chagrin of Les Grossman (Tom Cruise), the blustery, Harvey Weinstein-esque head of the studio.

In an effort to save the movie, Cockburn takes the five main actors to a remote jungle area to shoot a bunch of scenes guerrilla-style only to stumble across a rag-tag group of Vietnamese drug runners who assume that the clueless movie stars are actually DEA agents. At first, Speedman and his co-stars think that this is all part of the production but they (except for Speedman) quickly realize that this is for real.

It’s not too hard to figure out the real-life Hollywood power players that Stiller’s film satirizes with Cruise’s Grossman channeling the abusive reputation of the aforementioned Weinstein and Downey poking fun at the way-too serious on-and-off-screen antics of Crowe. Unlike all of those Scary Movie spoofs, Stiller understands that a good satire plays it straight on the surface. Admittedly, he’s got a much bigger budget to play with ($100 million+) than any two of those dime-a-dozen spoof movies so he’s able to hire the likes of A-list cinematographer John (The Thin Red Line) Toll and cast marquee name actors like Robert Downey Jr. and Jack Black instead of C-listers like Carmen Electra to make Tropic Thunder look like the slick war films he is sending up. Of course, the danger in doing this is to become the very thing you’re trying to parody, but fortunately Stiller doesn’t fall into this trap.

Every generation needs a Mel Brooks and Stiller takes up where the legendary comedian left off – before he became irrelevant and painfully unfunny. Stiller goes after the usual suspects of the genre: Platoon, Apocalypse Now, The Deer Hunter (1978), and even a sly reference to a scene from Predator (1987), but Tropic Thunder is more than a game of spot-the-reference that spoof movies tend to devolve into. It actually has something to say other than Hollywood is excessive. This is Stiller’s most ambitious film to date and demonstrates that he can play in the same big leagues that fellow comedian-turned-filmmaker Jon Favreau has also graduated to with Iron Man (2008). They both started off with very modest films and have shown a very definite learning curve with each subsequent film they’ve helmed. Tropic Thunder has everything you’d want from a big budget, R-rated comedy and it should be interesting to see where Stiller goes from here as a director.

Special Features:

Disc One features two audio commentaries. The first one is by director Ben Stiller, co-screenwriter Justin Theroux, producer Stuart Cornfeld, production designer Jeff Mann, cinematographer John Toll, and editor Greg Hayden. Cornfeld talks briefly about the genesis of the project – Stiller and Theroux had worked on the screenplay piecemeal over several years. Toll talks about the look of the film while Mann speaks about finding the best locations for various scenes. Stiller keeps things going by asking everyone questions.

The second commentary sees Stiller joined by Jack Black and Robert Downey Jr. Black and Stiller attempt to stay on topic while Downey stays in character much in the same fashion as his character in the film. In other words, for most of it he’s Lincoln Osiris and then, in the film when he reverts to Kirk Lazarus so does Downey until finally he becomes himself by the closing credits. It really is something to behold and is just another amazing performance by this brilliant actor. Stiller points out all of the extra material that was put back in for the Director’s Cut but mainly riffs off of his co-stars on this very funny track.

Disc Two starts off with “Before the Thunder,” which takes a look at the origins of the film – from 1986 when Stiller had a small part in Empire of the Sun (1986) and noticed that many of his fellow actors were trying out for all kinds of Vietnam War films which were in vogue at the time.

“The Hot LZ” examines the exciting battle sequence that starts the film. Stiller wanted to rely on as many practical effects as possible in attempt to emulate the Vietnam War films that inspired his film.

“Blowing Shit Up” takes a look at the pyrotechnics of the film, from simple gunshot wounds to massive explosions. We see test footage for some of the explosions.

“Designing the Thunder” examines the impressive production design of the film, including beautiful locations all over Hawaii. We see Stiller and his crew scouting various locations.

“The Casting of Tropic Thunder” features the main cast members talking about working with each other. It’s a big ol’ love fest as they gush about each other’s talent.

“Rain of Madness” is a spoof of the documentary Hearts of Darkness (1991), which chronicled the troubled production of Apocalypse Now. Justin Theroux plays the doc. filmmaker examining the equally troubled production of Tropic Thunder. This is very funny stuff.

Want more? “Dispatches from the Edge of Madness” features 22 additional minutes of footage and outtakes from Rain of Madness. There are some funny bits here even if it all seems like a little too much.

Also included are two deleted scenes, two extended scenes, and alternate ending all with optional commentary by Stiller and Hayden. The put this footage in context with the rest of the film and talk about why they were cut. The alternate ending goes into a little more detail about what happened to Speedman’s agent.

“Make-Up Test with Tom Cruise” features footage of the make-up that transformed Tom Cruise into Les Grossman. It was at this point that he improvised the dance his character does in the final film.

“MTV Movie Awards – Tropic Thunder” is the comedic skit that Stiller, Black and Downey did for MTV as they plan a viral video to market Tropic Thunder – pretty funny stuff.

“Full Mags” features four scenes from the film with no edits in order to show how the actors improvised with some stuff that was good enough to keep in the film and material that was cut.

Finally, there are “Video Rehearsals,” footage with no sound of the actors on location running through a scene.

4 comments:

  1. I really enjoyed your write-up on this film. I never got a chance to see at the theater. I never plan to see it. I always thought it looked really awesome. I do think Ben Stiller's been coasting along for awhile now. I thought this seemed like a needed change for him. I've really intrigued to see Robert Downey Jr.'s performance. I've heard both pro and con about it. This was will definitely be tops in my Netflix queue.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Although I'm not a fan of Stiller, I'll be sure to check this one out after reading your post.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I thought this was an extraordinary film and i can't wait to get the DVD...thanks for the great post (and for giving judos to both Permanent Midnight and Zoolander, two personal favorites of mine that aren't mentioned enough.)

    ReplyDelete
  4. Keith:

    Thanks for the kind words. I have to say, I was pleasantly surprised by this one. I figured it would be one of those films that had all the funny bits in the trailer but not so. And yeah, Downey easily steals the show. Big surprise, there.


    Steve Langton:

    Thanks! Yeah, I'm not a huge Stiller fan either but he's good in this one.


    Jeremy Richey said...

    I couldn't agree with you more, re: PERMANENT MIDNIGHT and ZOOLANDER. The TROPIC THUNDER SE DVD is excellent. Loaded with extras and the longer, unrated cut is quite good. Thanks for stopping by!

    ReplyDelete