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Ben Stiller
Ben Stiller, Robert Downey Jr., Jack Black, Jeff Kahn, Anthony Ruivivar, Nick Nolte, Steve Coogan, Jeff Kahn, Brandon T. Jackson, Tom Cruise
Writing Credits:
Ben Stiller (and story), Justin Theroux (and story), Etan Cohen

The movie they think they're making ... isn't a movie anymore.

Ben Stiller, Jack Black and Robert Downey Jr. lead an ensemble cast in Tropic Thunder, an action comedy about a group of self-absorbed actors who set out to make the most expensive war film. After ballooning costs force the studio to cancel the movie, the frustrated director refuses to stop shooting, leading his cast into the jungles of Southeast Asia, where they enoucter real bad guys.

Box Office:
$92 million.
Opening Weekend
$25.812 million on 3319 screens.
Domestic Gross
$110.416 million.

Rated NR

Widescreen 2.35:1/16x9
English Dolby Digital 5.1
Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1
French Dolby Digital 5.1
Supplements Subtitles:

Runtime: 120 min.
Price: $34.98
Release Date: 11/18/2008

DVD One:
• Audio Commentary with Writer/Actor/Director Ben Stiller, Executive Producer Justin Theroux, Producer Stuart Cornfeld, Production Designer Jeff Mann, Director of Photography John Toll, and Editor Greg Hayden
• Audio Commentary with Writer/Actor/Director Ben Stiller and Actors Robert Downey, Jr. and Jack Black
• Previews
DVD Two:
• “Before the Thunder” Featurette
• “The Hot LZ” Featurette
• “Blowing Shit Up” Featurette
• “Designing the Thunder” Featurette
• “The Cast of Tropic Thunder” Featurette
• “Rain of Madness” Featurette
• “Dispatches from the Edge of Madness” Featurette
• Deleted Scenes/Extended Sequences/Alternate Ending
• Make-Up Test With Tom Cruise
• MTV Music Awards
• “Full Mags”
• Video Rehearsals


Panasonic 50" TH-50PZ77U 1080p Plasma Monitor; Harman/Kardon DPR 2005 7.1 Channel Receiver; Toshiba A-30 HD-DVD/1080p Upconverting DVD Player using HDMI outputs; Michael Green Revolution Cinema 6i Speakers (all five); Kenwood 1050SW 150-watt Subwoofer.


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Tropic Thunder: Director's Cut (2008)

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (November 17, 2008)

With Ben Stiller, Robert Downey, Jr. and Jack Black in the lead roles, Tropic Thunder looked like it could become a cinematic dynamo. However, the movie never quite ignited with audiences. It earned a decent $110 million, so it did fine, but it failed to live up to its billing.

Which is probably about right, as the film never quite entertains as much as it should. Tropic Thunder takes us to the set of a flick called… Tropic Thunder. Based on the memoirs of a vet named Four Leaf Tayback (Nick Nolte), director Damien Cockburn (Steve Coogan) stages a big Vietnam War-based drama. Unfortunately, he encounters plenty of problems, most of which connect to his actors. He has to deal with the egos of fading action star Tugg Speedman (Ben Stiller), drug-addled low-brow comic Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black), and Oscar-winning Australian Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey, Jr.), an actor so “method” that he undergoes skin treatments to play a black character.

With his movie over-budget and flailing, Damien takes a radical approach. Inspired by Tayback’s mumblings, he creates an immersive jungle setting and drops the actors in the middle of it. Damien plans to use hidden cameras to shoot the action as it occurs, with his actors away from civilization and their usual perks.

Matters don’t go quite as planned for Damien, mainly since he steps on an old land mine and explodes. Speedman thinks this is just a stunt, though, and he continues to attempt to follow the script. The flick traces the actors’ antics as they deal with their situation.

When a movie includes such a famous cast, inevitably it comes with high expectations. That’s why it can be good to see such a flick twice, since the second screening allows you to take the movie on its own merits without the elevated expectations.

Because of that, I hoped to enjoy Thunder more on DVD. I saw it theatrically and thought it was moderately enjoyable, but it didn’t do a whole lot for me. I figured I might better absorb its pleasures when I saw it a second time.

Did I? Nope, not really. I found the same strengths and weaknesses during both screenings, so I didn’t feel it opened up new nuances when I watched it again. For better or for worse, I liked it about the same both times I watched it.

I don’t want to leave the impression I dislike Thunder, as I actually think it’s reasonably entertaining. The movie works best during its first act. The various movie parodies – especially those in the fake trailers that open the film – are quite good, and Thunder offers a neat spoof of Vietnam flicks as it goes. Granted, we’ve seen that kind of material in the past, but Thunder creates a clever twist on the subject.

The cast sure doesn’t hurt. Downey came under some scrutiny for his blackface routine, though I actually thought he’d suffer from more criticism. I suspect that’s because Thunder mocks the super-“method” actor, so it’s clear Downey isn’t a white guy playing a black character; he’s a white guy playing a white guy playing a black role. With a serious nod toward Russell Crowe, Downey’s Lazarus is the best thing about the movie, as his absurd refusal to break character creates many amusing moments.

While the others don’t stand out to the same degree, they do well. Actually, when I mentioned earlier that my opinion of Thunder didn’t change after my second viewing, that wasn’t totally true. Jack Black’s performance came across better to me when I saw the flick again. He doesn’t exactly stretch his legs as the tacky comic, but he amuses more than usual. At times he seems to get a bit lost in the film, and that’s why he stands out a bit more during a second go-round.

On the negative side, I’m not wild about the Tom Cruise cameo. He didn’t seem to get the message that he’s in a comedy, so he plays the studio head with an odd intensity. Maybe he does know that Thunder is a comedy but just lacks the right comic style – it’s hard to tell. All I know is that the flick grinds to a halt when he appears on screen; he’s close to creepy than he is to funny.

Thunder also suffers from diminishing returns as it progresses. The first half fares substantially better than the second hour does. It splits up some of the actors and goes off onto a tangent with some Asian drug smugglers. When the movie concentrates on the actors’ attempts to make their flick, it does pretty well, but the plot twist just doesn’t work. The pace slows and gets bogged down in material that fails to do much for me.

That leaves Tropic Thunder as half of a good movie. Yeah, some funny bits emerge during the second hour, but the best parts are front-loaded, and the piece runs too long as well; at two hours, it wears out its welcome quite a while before it ends. Thunder entertains to a reasonable degree, though. As inconsistent as it may be, it still has a fair amount of laughs.

Note that this DVD provides an extended unrated cut of Thunder that adds about 13 minutes to the theatrical flick’s 107-minute running time. I don’t know the original well enough to determine all the changes, though I noticed a few minor extensions to existing scenes. I don’t think any significant completely new segments occur; instead, we just find little bits and pieces scattered all over the place. Overall, the extended cut works about the same as the theatrical version; I don’t see one as superior to the other.

The DVD Grades: Picture B/ Audio A-/ Bonus A

Tropic Thunder appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 2.35:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. The movie featured an acceptable transfer.

Sharpness usually appeared acceptably accurate and detailed. At times, however, I found the image to come across as a little fuzzy and soft, with lesser definition seen in some of the wide shots. Nonetheless, most of the movie appeared clear and appropriately focused. Moiré effects and jagged edges presented no concerns, but I noticed some light edge enhancement at times. No print flaws materialized; the film remained clean and fresh, though I saw a bit more grain than expected.

In terms of colors, the flick went with a moderately subdued set of tones. Hues stayed on the natural side, with a mild golden tint to things as well as some heavy greens. Within those parameters, the tones looked fine. Blacks were dark and firm, while shadows appeared clear and well-developed. The image didn’t really excel, but it was good.

Because of its emphasis on war scenes, Tropic Thunder boasted a track that proved much more active than the usual “comedy mix”. Quite a lot of material cropped up from all five channels. The action tended to fly hot and heavy as bullets, artillery and other military elements zipped all around the soundfield. The elements seemed appropriately located and they blended together nicely. The surrounds added a fair amount of unique information and meshed together neatly. The results didn’t match Saving Private Ryan levels, but they seemed positive, and they certainly exceeded what we’d normally get from a comedy.

Audio quality appeared positive. Dialogue came across as natural and warm, as speech showed no signs of edginess or problems related to intelligibility. Music seemed bright and vibrant, as the score presented clear highs and tight low-end. Effects packed a serious punch. Those elements appeared distinct and vivid. They lacked problems related to distortion, and they demonstrated deep and rich bass response. Overall, the soundtrack of Thunder worked very well.

Plenty of extras appear in this two-disc set. On DVD One, we find two separate audio commentaries. Called the “Filmmaker Commentary”, the first comes from writer/director/actor Ben Stiller, executive producer Justin Theroux, producer Stuart Cornfeld, production designer Jeff Mann, director of photography John Toll, and editor Greg Hayden. They discuss the movie’s origins and script development, cinematography and visual design, sets and locations, stunts and effects, cast and performances, editing, influences, and changes for the unrated cut.

This proves to be a competent commentary. We get a pretty good look at the various aspects of the production and learn a reasonable amount about the flick’s creation. The track sags a bit at times and never quite becomes fascinating, but it turns into something worthwhile.

For the “Cast Commentary”, we get notes from writer/director/actor Ben Stiller and actors Robert Downey, Jr. and Jack Black. All three sit together for this running, screen-specific discussion. They chat about the experiences during the shoot, acting choices, and changes for the extended cut.

Sometimes I gripe because commentaries aren’t informative enough, but this time I wanted the track to focus less on filmmaking information. Not that it throws out a ton of facts; Stiller tries pretty hard to concentrate on the flick, but Downey and Black are more inclined to joke.

And that’s fine with me, since that’s really what I want from this commentary. To extend a gag from the movie, Downey does his entire track in the voice he used for his part; he doesn’t do the commentary in character, but he features the same vocal intonations. It’s a goofy choice but a fun one, and it adds zest to the piece.

Overall, the guys mix together well and produce a funny commentary. Downey carries most of the load. Perhaps the use of the alternate voice frees him up to be goofier than usual, so he makes many amusingly caustic remarks. Though the track never quite becomes as hilarious as we might expect, it still entertains.

A few ads open DVD One. We get clips for The Soloist, Eagle Eye, National Lampoon’s Van Wilder, Van Wilder: Freshman Year, and Ghost Town. These also appear in the Previews area as well as promos for The Foot Fist Way and the restored Godfather trilogy. A “DreamWorks Public Service Announcement” shows up to promote the cause of those with intellectual disabilities; it’s here to compensate for the controversial reference to “going full retard” in the movie.

Over on DVD Two, we find scads of featurettes. To start, Before the Thunder goes for four minutes, 50 seconds, and includes notes from Stiller, Black, Downey, Cornfeld, writer Justin Theroux, and actors Jay Baruchel and Steve Coogan. We learn a little about the film’s extended development as well as its take on its topic matter. Some interesting notes emerge, but the show’s too short to be very valuable. I’d have liked to know more about the script’s changes over time.

Next comes the six-minute and 24-second The Hot LZ. It includes Stiller, Cornfeld, Baruchel, Black, Jeff Mann, stunt coordinator Brad Martin, and aerial coordinator Alan D. Purwin. “LZ” looks at the work performed to create the movie’s opening war sequence. Like its predecessor, it’s rather short, but it gives us a pretty good look at the elements of this segment.

For a look at practical effects, we move to Blowing Shit Up. In this six-minute and 17-second piece, we hear from Stiller, Cornfeld, Mann, Baruchel, special effects supervisor Michael Meinardus, producer Eric McLeod and special effects general foreman Anthony Simonaitis. Here we learn about the various practical effects, with an obvious emphasis on explosions. It follows the same path as “LZ” in the way it provides a decent examination of the subject matter.

Visual schemes come to the forefront during Designing the Thunder. It fills seven minutes, 30 seconds with statements from Cornfeld, Mann, Stiller, McLeod, Downey, Theroux, and actors Danny McBride, and Nick Nolte. During this piece, we get info about the locations used for the film as well as some production design. Expect another interesting piece, though as usual, I wish it ran longer.

We check out the actors via the 22-minute and three-second The Cast of Tropic Thunder. It features Stiller, Black, Downey, Nolte, Cornfeld, Coogan, McBride, Theroux, Baruchel, the American Humane Association’s Tonya Obeso, and actor Brandon T. Jackson. The show covers the actors and their performances. Lots of fluff emerges, but we also get some cool shots from the set and test material.

Some unusual pieces come next. Rain of Madness runs 29 minutes, 58 seconds, while Dispatches from the Edge of Madness takes up 22 minutes, 56 seconds. With some nods in the direction of Hearts of Darkness and other programs, “Rain” provides a “documentary” about the making of the Tropic Thunder set within Tropic Thunder. (That statement makes some sense if you’ve seen the flick.) “Dispatches” features “outtakes” from the documentary.

Both are a real treat. We see plenty more fake behind the scenes material related to cast and crew, and we even get a good cameo from Janeane Garofalo. Honestly, “Rain” and “Dispatches” might be funnier than the feature film itself.

Next comes an area with Deleted Scenes/Extended Sequences/Alternate Ending. All together, they occupy a total of 18 minutes, 24 seconds. The “Deleted Scenes” include “Water Buffalo Wrestling” (1:35) and “Speedman Unpacking His Backpack” (1:44), while the “Extended Sequences” feature “Snorkels” (3:33) and “Eight Minutes in Hell” (8:03). Finally, the “Alternate Ending” goes for three minutes, 29 seconds. Most of these seem pretty superfluous. “Buffalo” is mildly amusing, and the “Alternate Ending” lets us see what happened to Tugg’s agent. “Hell” also has some decent Colonel Kurtz-style meandering from Tugg, though it runs too long. “Backpack” and “Snorkels” are pretty forgettable. None of these are great clips, in any case.

We find optional commentary from Stiller and Hayden for all the clips except “Buffalo”; they also offer a one-minute, 55-second introduction that tells us a little about the “Buffalo” sequence. As for the commentary, they discuss the scenes as well as why they cut them. They provide some nice notes about the scenes, though they usually don’t tell us a whole lot; for most of the clips, they clam up pretty quickly.

Some planning material arrives via a Make-Up Test With Tom Cruise. It goes for one minute, 40 seconds and it starts with a one-minute, 11-second intro from Stiller and Hayden. They give background and then we see Cruise dance while in fat/bald makeup. It’s moderately interesting for archival purposes.

After this we find a four-minute and six-second excerpt from the MTV Music Awards. The clip shows Stiller, Downey and Black as they work on the viral marketing campaign for Thunder. It’s not great, but it’s reasonably amusing.

For some raw footage, we head to Full Mags. After another 52-second intro from Stiller and Hayden, this presents 33 minutes, 18 seconds of uncut takes. These include scenes that focus on McBride, Black, Downey/Stiller together, and Downey solo. The snippets provide many alternate improvised lines and they give us a fun look at the creative process.

Finally, we get three minutes and four seconds of Video Rehearsals. They let us see some rough footage shot essentially as “video storyboards”. Stiller and Hayden narrate the clips and give them some perspective. In addition, we can compare them to the shots from the final flick; the end footage shows up in the bottom right of the screen. This becomes another cool glimpse of the movie’s creation.

Due to its clever premise and strong cast, Tropic Thunder ends up as a moderate disappointment; it just doesn’t quite live up to expectations. That said, it still entertains much of the time and deserves a look. The DVD offers generally good picture, surprisingly strong audio, and a terrific roster of supplements. Thunder is too inconsistent to earn an enthusiastic endorsement, but I still enjoy it enough to recommend it.

Viewer Film Ratings: 3.3181 Stars Number of Votes: 22
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Review Archive:  # | A-C | D-F | G-I | J-L | M-O | P-R | S-U | V-Z | Viewer Ratings | Main