There is a cynical view of filmmaking (be it Hollywood or foreign fare) which suggests that as long as films adhere to a specific formula – “x” number of laughs, “y” number of big stars, “z” number of actions sequences, etc. – success is ensured. It is a view of the motion picture world that is both in encapsulated in and blown away by Ben Stiller's summer hit and recent Blu-ray release, Tropic Thunder.
The film, helmed by and starring Stiller as well as Robert Downey Jr., Jack Black, Jay Baruchel and Brandon T. Jackson among others purports to follow the making of a blockbuster film, which is in turn based on a true story. The making of the film, also titled Tropic Thunder, goes horribly awry as the massive personalities of the stars involved tank the project. Stiller's Tugg Speedman, an over-the-hill, dumb as bricks, action star leads that charge, though drugged-out low-brow comedian Jeff Portnoy (Black) comes in a close second, and hip-hop artist Alpa Chino (Jackson) is clearly far more interested in shilling his new drink and energy bar than working on his serious role in the film. Even ultra-serious and committed multiple Oscar winner Kirk Lazarus (Downey Jr.) can't seem to focus on the film being shot for all the shenanigans taking place around him.
With the film within the film clearly in trouble, Thunder's director, Damien Cockburn (Steve Coogan), fearing for his job takes some bad advice and moves his film's stars away from the comforts of the set and into a war zone. Things take one bad turn after another, and the actors find themselves re-enacting moments of the script in order to actually save the day.
Tropic Thunder overtly plays on Apocalypse Now and Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse, which recounts the filmmaking the war epic to great effect. Stiller has expanded the story beyond those two pieces to mock Hollywood filmmaking, executives, and stars, but the roots of Tropic Thunder are all to be found in the Coppolas' works.
In his career Stiller has managed to careen wildly between low-brow single-note comedy and far more wise, intelligent fare. Very happily, Tropic Thunder is far more the latter than the former. It does have its share of easy jokes and utter foolishness, and the majority of the characters are one dimensional, but more often than not, much like Kirk Lazarus, it manages to rise above it all.
It is in fact Robert Downey Jr.'s Kirk Lazarus – an actor who always fully becomes his characters because he truly is nothing but an empty vessel – who manages to steal the show. Lazarus, a white Australian actor, portrays Lincoln Osiris an African-American, and, in order to add to the authenticity of his portray undergoes surgery to darken his skin. Lazarus is both over-the-top funny and the only real heart the film itself has.
The biggest problem with Tropic Thunder is that it both mocks and reaffirms common Hollywood tropes at the same time; it acknowledges and makes fun of the need for “x” number of laughs, “y” number of big stars and “z” number of actions sequences and then throws all of those things into the film just the same. A recurring joke in Tropic Thunder has Speedman's agent Rick Peck (Matthew McConaughey) fighting for his client to have a TiVo on location. It is meant to show the audience the foolish things that stars want (or that agents convince stars that they want), and yet watching the film one is utterly convinced that at least one of the actual stars of Tropic Thunder demanded something equally foolish.
The film also contains good work by many of the secondary and tertiary actors involved, including, most notably, Nick Nolte and Tom Cruise. Nolte plays the war vet who wrote the book Tropic Thunder which the film within the film is based on, and does a fantastic job as the gritty, hard-nosed Four Leaf Tayback. Cruise, in a good deal of make-up, takes on the role of Les Grossman, the head of the studio making the film. Cruise, every time he appears, is both hysterical and truly charismatic.
The Blu-ray release of Tropic Thunder is an unrated director's cut (as all things seem to be these days) and contains the usual assortment of behind-the-scenes features, the vast majority of which are in high-definition. It does however go one step beyond that however, with Rain of Madness, which is a fictional behind-the-scenes documentary with Justin Theroux (one of the co-writers of Tropic Thunder) starring as the documentarian and focusing on the making of the fictional Tropic Thunder. It runs for approximately a half-hour, and while funny, pairing it with the actual making-of features and having the real film have the same name as the fictional film is enough to make someone slightly dizzy. Additionally, there is an alternate ending to the film which falls completely flat and makes one very happy that it is only an “alternate” ending and not the real one and some deleted/expanded scenes.
Tropic Thunder also features an assortment of “BD-Live” features including video rehearsal footage, additional looks at some of the improvisation that went on during filming, and extra pieces of interviews that could have been worked into Rain of Madness. While all the pieces are, to varying degrees amusing, the download times (even with a high-speed connection) are a little too long when compared to the brevity of the clips.
Though it is occasionally a little too self-obsessed and a little too willing to play into the stereotypes it makes fun of, Tropic Thunder, still manages to hit its mark far more often than it misses and certainly makes for enjoyable viewing. On Blu-ray the film both looks and sounds outstanding (which is exactly what one would expect of a big-budget new release). Criticisms could be levied at the film for its potential to offend a vast array of different groups of people, but Tropic Thunder makes offensive jokes more often to mock the making of such jokes than out of ignorance. It may not excuse the nature of the jokes entirely, but it certainly mitigates the offense.
As for me, I only wish that there was an actual unofficial Rain of Madness/Hearts of Darkness-type documentary that allowed the viewer to actually see what took place during filming. That would be truly fascinating.