A combo of action movie and hysterical Hollywood satire, "Tropic Thunder" sees Ben Stiller (along with co-writer Justin Theroux) attempting to poke fun at big-budget blockbusters in the same way they did with the fashion industry in 2001's "Zoolander". While "Thunder" doesn't reach the comedic heights of "Zoolander", it's still one of the funnier pictures I've seen in quite a while.
The film focuses on a series of actors who are trying to place their bets on a comeback in a Vietnam war film ("Tropic Thunder"), only to find the production turning into an utter disaster. Speedman (Ben Stiller) is an insecure (when an interviewer talks about something someone close to him said, all he can say is, sadly, ""somebody said they were close to me?"), washed-up action star. There's also heroin-addicted comedian Jeff Portnoy (whose previous credit is "Fatties: Fart 2") (Jack Black), Oscar winner Kirk Lazarus (who has surgically altered his skin pigmentation for the role) (Robert Downey Jr.), rapper Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson), and newcomer Kevin Sandusky (Jay Baruchel).
When first-time director Damien (Steve Coogan) finds himself in the midst of one crisis after another (including having the most expensive scene in the movie go wrong and having the producer - played by Tom Cruise under a ton of make-up - yell at him), the decision is eventually made to try and go for utter realism: take the actors away from the comforts of modern moviemaking and drop them deep into the middle of the actual Vietnamese jungle in order to get a more realistic, gritty picture.
Soon enough, actual drug lords (who think the actors are DEA agents) are lurking in the jungle and ready for a fight with the band of actors who - despite a few big, obvious indications that they are in very, very serious trouble - they continue to believe that they are in the midst of a movie and that everything is all part of the picture and they're being filmed by hidden cameras.
When Speedman gets captured by local forces and held for ransom, it's up to the other actors to try and save him. Meanwhile, back at home his agent (Matthew McConaughey) fights with the producer, who would be happy to leave Speedman be and not spend the $100M. This is the most demented performance that Cruise has given since the infamous couch-jumping incident, and it's actually kind of welcome, as the actor manages a few laughs in his bizarrely amusing scenes.
Stiller, Black and Downey are also highlights, and it's nice to see Stiller dialing down his performance a little after going so slapstick in films like "Night at the Museum". If there's an issue with the film, it's that the middle of the picture seems awfully aimless (beautifully filmed aimlessness though, courtesy of cinematographer John Toll) at times. It largely revolves around the bunch wandering through the jungle and while there are certainly some funny scenes, it all begins to feel a little repetitive. Things get rolling in the last third as the actors have to run from the local drug lords in a series of fairly well-done action scenes. Before the movie, we get a series of amusing trailers of other movies the characters in the film have starred in.
Overall, "Tropic Thunder" starts to lose steam at times, but it's a funny goof on Hollywood and provides solid performances from the cast.
VIDEO: "Tropic Thunder" is presented by Dreamworks in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen. The film's cinematographer is no less than John Toll ("Braveheart", "Thin Red Line", "Legends of the Fall" and "Almost Famous") and - despite the fact that this is a comedy, this is actually a beautifully filmed comedy. The presentation certainly does justice to the film's visuals, which look consistently crisp and detailed.
The presentation only suffered from a couple of tiny traces of pixelation. Otherwise, no edge enhancement, print flaws or other concerns were seen on this smooth, pristine presentation. Colors looked rich and vibrant, with bold tones. Black level remained strong, and flesh tones looked accurate. Overall, I'd have to say this is certainly one of the better DVD transfers I've seen in a while.
SOUND: The film's Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is terrifically entertaining, with the surrounds employed frequently for gunfire, jungle ambiance and other details. Audio quality is first-rate, with thunderous bass accompanying the action and crisp, clear sound effects. Dialogue also remained clean and clear throughout.
EXTRAS: Ben Stiller, Jack Black and Robert Downey, Jr. offer a commentary for the picture. Downey stays in character for much of the commentary, and the three manage to offer a pretty solid blend of production issues with behind-the-scenes stories and wisecracks (when Black asks if panda references are any relation to his film, Stiller replies, "Everything doesn't revolve around 'Kung Fu Panda.'") The other, more technical filmmaker commentary comes from Stiller, cinematographer John Toll, co-writer Justin Theroux, producer Stuart Cornfeld, editor Greg Hayden and production designer Jeff Mann..
The second disc offers a series of additional extras, starting with "Rain of Darkness", a 30-minute fake "making of" documentary that is the film's hilarious take on "Hearts of Darkness". We hear more about the fictional past of the characters in the film (the famed cult TV pilot that Black & Stiller did years ago called "Heat Vision and Jack" is shown as a past effort from Black's character), as well as the growing insanity that director Damien is suffering from. Overall, this is a pretty amusing (and sometimes hysterical) take on the usual "making of" documentary. "Dispatches From the Edge of Madness" is another 22 minutes worth of short pieces (there is, thankfully, a play all option) that play out like extensions of "Rain of Darkness", poking fun as the "making of" format while looking further into various aspects of the production.
"Before the Thunder" is a 5-minute look at pre-production - developing the idea, casting and the start of production. "The Hot LZ" is a 6-1/2 minute look at the making (pre-vis, effects, etc.) of the major battle sequence at the start of the movie. "Blowing Sh** Up" is a 6-minute look at creating the explosions in the action sequences. "Designing the Thunder" is a 7-1/2 minute look at the remarkable task of scouting the stunning locations and creating the sets. A pair of deleted scenes (1 w/commentary), a pair of extended scenes (both w/commentary) and an alternate ending (w/commentary) are included, and the section offers an intro.
We also get a "Meet the Cast" featurette, MTV awards "Tropic Thunder" skit, Tom Cruise make-up test, video rehearsals and extended takes for four scenes.
Final Thoughts: Although it has a stretch in the middle that feels somewhat unfocused, "Tropic Thunder" is often hysterical, with terrific performances from the three leads (as well as some of the supporting players.) The DVD edition boasts excellent video & audio quality, as well as a ton of extras. Recommended.
The Film B+