Anyone who hasn’t seen a trailer for writer/director/actor Ben Stiller’s ‘Tropic Thunder’ has either been stranded on a mysterious island eluding smoke monsters or living in a high-altitude Tibetan monastery abstaining from technology altogether. Scratch that… even reclusive Tibetan monks have probably seen Robert Downey Jr. spout the words, “What do you mean, you people?” Unfortunately for some, watching the film’s trailer is akin to watching the entire film -- it gives away the best gags and outlines nearly every aspect of the plot. Fortunately for most, even when the best laughs have already been had and the story becomes distractingly predictable, ‘Tropic Thunder’ still has plenty to offer fans of comedy, satire, and war flicks in general.
Miraculously combining an outrageous farce, a Hollywood satire, and a genre spoof into one cohesive film, ‘Tropic Thunder’ tells the tongue-in-cheek tale of three arrogant and unbalanced actors – action superstar Tugg Speedman (Ben Stiller), low-brow funnyman Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black), and five-time Academy Award winner Kirk Lazarus (the similarly gifted Robert Downey Jr.) -- co-starring in a sprawling Vietnam War epic. Problem is, Speedman is a pompous failure trying to rejuvenate his career, Portnoy is a heroin-addicted attention junkie who has a hard time being taken seriously, and Lazarus is a mentally unstable method actor who undergoes a controversial pigmentation procedure to prepare for his role as an African American.
After the production begins to spiral out of control and a hip-hop lovin’ studio executive named Les Grossman (Tom Cruise) demands results, consultant John Tayback (Nick Nolte), a Vietnam veteran on whose memoirs the film is based, convinces squirrely first-time director Damien Cockburn (Steve Coogan) to take his cast into the jungle, set-up hidden cameras, and shoot the pampered Hollywood elites performing “in the shit.” However, when this guerilla-style shoot goes terribly wrong, the actors are left unsure of what’s real and what’s simply an illusion. Struggling with their identities, fighting to overcome their pasts, and working to make the best war film of all time, Speedman, Portnoy, and Lazarus have to choose between death and action.
For those of you hoping ’Tropic Thunder’ will be a laugh-out-loud juggernaut that will leave you in stitches, you may want to realign your expectations. Sure, there are plenty of gut-busters to be had, but the real source of the film’s comedy comes in the form of grin-inducing wit from the expressions, line delivery, and various interactions of the cast members. As it stands, even the story’s ever-shifting tone, pacing, and atmosphere helps Stiller keep things fresh and entertaining. While the writer/director pulls heavily from both his Zoolander and Focker personas to create Speedman, his actors are continually challenged to parody their own pursuits and respective talents. Black gets a chance to explore the depths of a sad-clown, Cruise (in one of the standout performance of the film) jumps into the shoes of the very executives who seem intent to crucify him in the real world, and Nolte plays the frazzled fraud some have painted him to be. Stiller even includes a hilarious series of industry-skewering cameos from the likes of Danny McBride, Matthew McConaughey, Jason Bateman, Sean Penn, and SNL’s Bill Hader (among many others).
But it’s Robert Downey Jr’s turn as a fumbling Oscar-winner lost in himself that proves the best addition to the film. While the rest of the cast keeps things light by turning a rather sharp spotlight on their own exploits and weaknesses, the would-be Iron Man earns the most laughs, the most sympathy, and takes the time to create the most believable loser of the bunch. From his early appearance in a mock-trailer with Tobey Maguire to his race-bending trifecta near the end of the film, Downey Jr. is in full control of his repertoire, crafting a unique character the likes of which has never been seen. Without him, the movie would be a mediocre heap of one-liners and slapstick action. With him, the film is transformed into a classic, layering truth on top of humor to produce a surreal and witty farce that boasts some truly memorable scenes.
Problems? Sure. The in-fighting amongst the actors wears out its welcome, Black’s role doesn’t effectively peel back the skin of similar comedians, Coogan is disappointingly underused, and a few cameos feel stilted and awkward (Tyra Banks and Lance Bass?). Still, each is a minor detriment that only prevents ‘Tropic Thunder’ from reaching the subtle heights of comedic satires like ‘Wag the Dog’ or ‘State and Main.’ Ultimately, ‘Tropic Thunder’ is a thoroughly entertaining, occasionally riotous comedy that accomplishes most of what it sets out to do.
’Tropic Thunder’ arrives on Blu-ray in a gorgeous 1080p/AVC-encoded wonder that showcases the benefits of high definition from beginning to end. Colors are lush, vibrant, and stable contrast is bright and lively, black levels are incredibly deep, and skintones are convincing and natural. As it stands, comparisons to the film’s concurrently released standard DVD reveal a significant upgrade in image clarity and fine detail, resulting in a remarkably improved picture. Clothing and fabric textures are crisp, tiny smoke tendrils wisp toward the sky, and weathered patches of skin, hair, and wrinkles are flawless. Furthermore, the transfer doesn’t suffer from artifacting, banding, source noise, or edge enhancement. There is a light grain present overtop of the image, but it never becomes a distraction and only serves to increase the filmic qualities of the transfer.
If I have any gripe it’s that contrast comes on a bit strong, resulting in overblown whites, oppressive shadows, and somewhat limited delineation. I think it reflects Stiller’s directorial intention, but it seems to be more of an issue than I remember it being when I saw the film in theaters. Ah well, it’s a small nitpick. Paramount has really stepped up to the plate since they made the switch to Blu-ray earlier this year and ‘Tropic Thunder’ solidifies their reputation as one of the most reliable high-def studios in the industry.
’Tropic Thunder’ definitely won’t win any points for subtlety, but its full-throttle Dolby TrueHD 5.1 surround track will certainly turn heads and wake up any unfortunate soul in your home who’s trying to sleep. Dialogue is clean and distinct, perfectly prioritized amidst the most frenzied firefights and explosions, and nicely distributed throughout the soundfield. Rear speaker support is impressive as well, hurling splintered wood, debris, and ricocheting bullets across the battlefield that quickly sets up shop in your home theater. Ambience is consistent and strong, immersion is a cinch, and most of the effects sound eerily realistic. Better still, the LFE channel makes its presence known, delivering earthy, resonant low-end pulses that add weight to the on-screen chaos, heft to the choppers and soldiers who populate Stiller’s opus, and life to the various songs and music that litter the film. It’s also worth noting that every element of the soundscape is clean, polished, and well defined. Pans are smooth and transparent, and directionality is extremely precise (particularly during the action that erupts in the third act).
Don’t get me wrong, ‘Tropic Thunder’s original sound design isn’t the sort of mix anyone will call a nuanced award winner, but this thoroughly amazing and arguably reference quality TrueHD track will thrill and wow fans of the film.
The Blu-ray edition of ‘Tropic Thunder’ includes all of the special features that are available on standard DVD (although, bizarrely, three features can only be accessed via BD-Live) and presents the large majority of the video content in high definition. It all adds up to an extensive and entertaining supplemental package that helps make this release worth every penny.
’Tropic Thunder’ is a smart and infectious comedy that offers a sharp script, solid laughs, and yet another engaging, award-worthy performance from actor Robert Downey Jr. The Blu-ray edition of the film is even better. Boasting a stunning video transfer, a powerful TrueHD audio track, and an avalanche of special features, this disc is an easy one to love. I highly recommend it.