There have been many films about the Vietnam War. Some have been epic. Some have been emotional. Some have even been very bad, but now comes one that is absolutely funny. Are we ready for this kind of a send up? That might be the overriding question, but I think that we are. Tropic Thunder took the chance that the public was ready to accept such a film and be able to enjoy it. To soften the blow, it was likely a good idea that the film doesn’t address the war in itself. The film takes aim at movies about the war, and in an extension of that theme it pokes a lot of fun at Hollywood. It’s just possible that that kind of indirectness is what makes this film a bit easier to take. It’s likely the next evolutionary step towards being able to have a little fun with such a serious and tragic time.
In the Winter of 1969 an elite force of the U.S. Army was sent on a top secret assignment in South East Vietnam. The objective: rescue Sgt. Four Leaf Tayback from a heavily guarded NVA Prison Camp. The mission was considered near suicide. Of the 10 men sent, 4 returned. Of those 4, 3 wrote books about what happened. Of those 3, 2 were published. Of those 2, just one got a movie deal. This is the story of the men who attempted to make that movie:
British director Damien Cockburn (Coogan) is a first time feature director. His film is based on the book by a Vietnam vet “Fourleaf” Tayback, the lone survivor of a war offensive. His first problem is that he’s saddled with three stars who act like children. Kirk Lazarus (Downey, Jr.) is an Australian method actor. He’s playing a black soldier, so he underwent pigmentation surgery to get black skin. He also refuses to abandon his character whether he’s on camera or not. So, he walks around spitting out dialog you would expect from a 1970’s black exploitation film. He’s got multiple awards and considers himself far more talented than anyone around him. Jeff Portney (Black) is a heroin addict. He’s usually a comedic actor and is famous for a series of “Fat” movies where he plays multiple characters, ala Eddie Murphy, in fat suits that spend a lot of time just farting. Alpa Chino (Jackson) is a young hip hop artist trying to cross over into films. He carries the usual entourage of ladies and body guards and wears more than his share of bling. Tug Speedman (Stiller) has appeared in a ton of sci-fi tough guy roles. He was overlooked for an Oscar when he played a Forrest Gump clone and has a lot to prove here. Together with an incompetent crew, the film gets a month behind schedule and now studio head Les Grossman (Cruise) is on his butt to get the film made. All hope appears lost until Fourleaf comes up with an idea. He convinces Cockburn to drop the cast deep in the jungle with hidden cameras and make it all appear real to them. Unfortunately, it does get real. The cast confronts a heroin cartel that thinks they are DEA, but the ignorant cast thinks it’s all just a movie.
The cast makes this thing work. Watching Robert Downey, Jr. in black face talking like a 70’s film character is an extremely good guilty pleasure. Sure, you feel bad laughing at it, but it really is that good. Because he is almost totally unrecognizable under the makeup, he’s free to totally take on the part and Downey takes full advantage of that liberty. You’ll find that he steals the movie. Stiller’s pretty much the straight man in the group, but he drives a lot of the better moments. He adds a lot of balance to the other characters who are pretty much over the top the entire time. The truth is that everything is over the top here. From the first scene in the film you have a head wound spurting out blood like a Vegas water fountain. There are also some tremendous makeup effects here. Downey is nearly unrecognizable, as is Tom Cruise. For Cruise it’s a bald head and a ton of cheek prosthetics. I could do without the dance moves. Matthew Conaughey has a minor but important role as Speedman’s agent. The film was made in Hawaii to gorgeous vistas and wonderful cinematography, so there’s a lot for the eyes to take in here.
Some of this review also appears on my Blu-ray review at Intotheblu.com
Tropic Thunder is presented in its original aspect ratio of 2.35:1. Some of the best images are the wide vista shots of Hawaii subbing for Vietnam. There is one in particular where the air has just a hint of mist and diffused sunlight. It looks absolutely beautiful here. Another good image reproduction are the fireballs. The red orange flames come at you in such brilliance you might get your eyelashes singed if you lean in too close to the screen. Colors in these flesh tones are picture perfect reference. Black levels are pretty solid, and you’ll need them for the kind of shadow detail this film often offers. Greens look the best, and in these jungles they need to.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 track delivers about everything you could want here. There are a lot of bullets and explosions going on here, and they fly around your theater in impressive style. The dialog is clear, but there were moments I could not understand Downey. He kind of mumbles at times but I think the unintelligible aspect was intentional. The sub range is not as solid as the BD lossless track, but it delivers.
There are 2 Audio Commentaries. The first features crew from the film and is not very entertaining. The second is a cast affair with Stiller, Black, and Downey. This thing is almost as funny as the movie. Downey stays in character, so you know that’s gonna be hilarious.
The film also features about 13 minutes of added footage. I missed it in the box office, so I can’t tell you exactly what was added. Disc 1 contains the film and commentaries. Disc 2 contains the extras.
Before The Thunder: It appears this was once a totally different film, and you’ll get some insight into what those plans were. Cast and crew talk about the evolution of the story. There’s some footage of an early read through where you can tell the cast are having a great time. It’s a short 5 minutes but a lot of fun.
The Hot LZ: Cast and crew talk about the opening battle scene. There’s a huge focus on the choppers during this 6 minute feature.
Blowing Shit Up: Is that a great feature name, or what? Stiller opens with the axiom that things can get blown up and still be very funny. I thought everybody knew that. You get a 6 minute look into how the explosions were rigged. They used a lot of fuel here.
Designing The Thunder: Sets and locations are the focus of this 7 and a half minute feature. From building roads to shipping in mud from Mexico, it’s all here.
The Cast Of Tropic Thunder: This interactive feature allows you to select a character/actor and get clips relating to them.
Rain Of Madness: This is one of the longer features, clocking it at about a half hour. This is some funny stuff. It’s a mock documentary of the making of the film. It reminds me of an old Martin Sheen skit for Saturday Night Live where Sheen’s character is sent to the Apocalypse Now set to shut it down in much the way his film character was sent to shut down the Brando character. It’s a total farce, and the best of the extras by a green mile.
Make-Up Test With Tom Cruise: Okay this thing is totally bogus. It’s got nothing to do with the makeup. It’s Tom doing 2 minutes of his dance moves.
Deleted Scenes: This section is made up of three sections. You can watch an optional intro with Ben Stiller. There is 1 Deleted Scene, 2 Extended Scenes, and an Alternative Ending, which I liked better than the way the film actually ended.
Full Mags: The title refers to a filming technology of film magazines. You get some of the Stiller/Downey confrontation with a split screen allowing for close-ups on both actors.
MTV Movie Awards: This was a funny skit performed by Stiller, Black, and Downey for the MTV awards that had Iron Man kicking the crap out of Kung Fu Panda.
I was a little nervous going in. The subject matter could have been testy. The first good decision was to start the film with fake trailers showing the main characters’ latest films. It gets you laughing before the Vietnam stuff, and it sets up the characters for you. It actually fooled me for a second, and I thought I was going to have to sit through trailers after selecting play film. Everybody does a great job on this film. You’re left feeling entertained. “I just want to give the guys a Hawaiian High Five.”