DVD Review: Tropic Thunder-- 2 Disc Director's Cut

Hitting DVD & Blu-Ray on November 18

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In honor of November 18th's DVD & Blu-ray release of the Ben Stiller's summer comedy Tropic Thunder, I'm offering you an insider's view of the DVD that DreamWorks and Paramount Pictures Home Entertainment were kind enough to send my way. However, before I go into the DVD features, first I'll serve up the first four paragraphs of my original theatrical review of Tropic Thunder, originally published on August 13, 2008.

Tropic Thunder


Ben Stiller

Former highbrow theatrical director turned filmmaker Damien Cockburn (Steve Coogan) is in trouble. When the explosives expert (Pineapple Express scene stealer Danny McBride) working on his big budget Vietnam epic film debut misinterprets Cockburn’s temper tantrum for a cue, four million dollars in explosives are wasted, everything is blown to smithereens, and the worst thing is that the camera wasn’t even rolling. Unable to control the actors on his set and already one month behind schedule after just five days of shooting, the British thespian is soon punched in the face very hard by a grip, upon orders shouted via webcam by sleazy studio boss Les Grossman (a hilarious and nearly unrecognizable Tom Cruise).

Out of desperation, he turns to Nick Nolte’s Four Leaf Tayback, the former Vietnam soldier who wrote the book they are adapting — not to mention the type soldier who may not have gotten the memo that the war is over. Visibly relishing his role, Nolte’s Tayback is often framed in a corner spouting off sentence fragments and irrational, obscenity-laced anecdotes that frighten and amuse all at the same time. Advising the mild-mannered Brit to get the actors “off the f***in’ grid” and into “the s***,” Cockburn heeds Tayback’s advice. With the hope that improvisational filmmaking will get the movie back on track, he sets up his “own little personal slice of ‘Nam.”

However, shortly after depositing his cast of five diverse leads deep into the heart of the jungle in order to show his pampered actors he’s really running the show, things go terribly, shockingly wrong. And soon enough the cast find themselves in a real life mini-war of their own when instead of guerilla filmmaking, the men become the target of heroin-trafficking guerillas who’ve mistaken them for DEA soldiers (yeah, I didn’t get that either). Obviously, this proves to be much more than the actors can handle, as they’d signed on with their contractual clauses for perks like gift baskets, TiVo, and luxury items, only to find themselves dodging bullets instead.

Heading up the group is Tropic Thunder’s director and co-writer Ben Stiller as Tugg Speedman, a has-been, Rambo-styled action star whose most recent film wherein he played a mentally challenged character — Simple Jack — not only ruined his career but was also named one of the worst films of all time. With his barefooted agent (Matthew McConaughey) behind him, Speedman tries to get back into Hollywood’s spotlight but is worried he’ll be upstaged by his costar, the five time Oscar winner Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr. channeling Russell Crowe), an Australian method actor so committed to his craft that he underwent skin pigmentation surgery in order to play an African-American for Cockburn’s film..."

Click Here to Read the Entire Review

The 2-Disc Director's Cut DVD

Although it's dubbed the "director's cut," I couldn't honestly tell a distinct difference between the theatrical version of Tropic Thunder with the feature film presented on the first disc of this set. Yet, for true fans of the movie and those interested in filmmaking in general, the 2-Disc set is ideal with Stiller providing enough added hilarity and down and dirty, gritty behind-the-scenes movie-making 101 examples to make it a terrific investment.

Offering audiences the chance to watch the film with two different commentary tracks including one consisting of the more creative and technical side from the filmmakers of Thunder-- the second track is the more free-wheeling DVD commentary offered up by the cast, including Downey who joked in the film that he doesn't break character until he's recorded the DVD commentary.

Also, perhaps to answer the bad press the movie received shortly before its premiere regarding the "Simple Jack" controversy as Stiller's action movie character Tugg Speedman had recently played a mentally challenged man resulting in a few instances in the film where the word "retarded" is bantered about (more to poke fun at Hollywood ego and industry exploitation than anything else)), there is a quality Public Service Announcement added onto Disc 1 wherein the tagline promises that the only "R" word those with intellectual disabilities deserve is "respect." While it feels a bit forced, it's a worthwhile sentiment and actually should've possibly played before the film as one of the many commercials or trailers as opposed to being buried in a separate menu of Thunder's first disc.

However, fans can rejoice in Thunder mania that fills the entirety of the second disc as we discover co-writer, director and star Ben Stiller's passion for his screenplay that dates back twenty years. In "Before the Thunder," Stiller notes that while he was busy making one of his first and most important screen appearances in a bit part in Spielberg's Empire of the Sun, most of his friends were auditioning for the war movies that were incredibly popular in the late 80's such as Platoon and Hamburger Hill. Noting the ridiculousness of actors who shared with him that their two week boot camp really helped them get into character and bond, Stiller became inspired by the absurdity of pampered actors not realizing how very different it is to actually be in a war as opposed to a movie about war and initially toyed with the premise of a group of actors returning from movie boot camp with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Upon realizing that he just couldn't find away to make it work comically, he set it aside until ten years later when he and actor Justin Theroux (Charlies Angels 2, Mulholland Drive) began e-mailing back and forth various scenes they wrote in the hopes of keeping each other laughing. It's easy to get caught up in Stiller's twenty year passion with Thunder's excellently packaged DVD set as we go into each and every extra which run the gamut from standard "pat each other on the back" electronic press kit generic enthusiasm to some truly hilarious and inventive additions including a fake Apocalypse Now/Heart of Darkness styled documentary called "Rain of Madness" which chronicles the fake "movie within the movie" and another similar bonus dubbed "Dispatches from the Edge of Madness."

In numerous candid behind-the-scenes interviews and clips including original videotapes from the auditions and various tests, we discover just how damn funny the film's straight man played by Jay Baruchel actually is as we glimpse the film's epic table reading and the way that Downey managed to just launch into his character head-first in a way that made Baruchel share that, "I hadn't laughed this much since Dick Cheney shot that guy in the face." With Downey admitting that they aren't satirizing Hollywood on the same level as Altman's brilliant Player by joking that "we're kind of destroying any leg [we have] to stand on in the future," in Stiller's lampoon styled "love letter to what we do," we realize just how much effort was put into making the comical film look so professional.

In "The Hot LZ," "Blowing Shit Up," "Designing the Thunder," and more, we witness some of the epic undertakings by Stiller and company, whether it's creating a cinematic compilation mix tape of their favorite war scenes for the epic opening sequence which took three weeks and fifty stuntmen to shoot or gauging the level of explosion offered up by the special effects man who Stiller says may be "slightly insane but in a good way," during the incredibly complicated shoot by veteran 2-time Oscar winning cinematographer John Toll (Legends of the Fall, Braveheart, Thin Red Line).

In an entertaining special feature dedicated to "The Cast of the Thunder" which is broken down by the last name of each actor, the cast members riff on their own characters as well as their cast-mates discussing what must have been a creatively freeing shoot filled with improvisation and laughter as well as interesting surprises as the American Humane Association handler for Bertha the water buffalo that carries Jack Black unexpectedly delivered a baby that they named after the comedic actor.

Also including deleted and extended scenes as well as "full mags," to illustrate the number of choices that were made by Stiller and his editor, we finally discover just what happens to Matthew McConaughey's character at the end of the film and learn that the scene stealing dance by a nearly unrecognizable Tom Cruise was the brainchild of Cruise himself, who impulsively started dancing without music during a makeup test.

Featuring promotional material as well-- one amusing bonus consisted of a great MTV Movie Awards promotional spoof as Stiller, Black and Downey all toy with each other's egos by trying to figure out the best way to sell their movie. While it's nearly impossible to absorb the plethora of features included on the disc or listen to all of the available and optional commentary, the 2-Disc Director's Cut really makes one appreciate Thunder on an entirely different level.

Moreover, it makes one realize just how easy it is to overlook the master craftsmanship behind everything as we're far too busy laughing at the performances to fully appreciate the effects, production design and stunning cinematography that makes it seem nearly as authentic as the films it references, even so much as to set up the DVD menus as though we were getting ready to watch Platoon or Apocalypse Now. Of course, once the movie begins with fake ads for "The Fatties" and "Booty Sweat," we realize we aren't exactly in Oliver Stone territory... but it's always nice to escape the realities of war by laughing at men rushing out to go fake one.