Release Date(s)2008 (October 18, 2022)
Studio(s)DreamWorks/Paramount (Kino Lorber Studio Classics)
- Film/Program Grade: C+
- Video Grade: A-
- Audio Grade: A-
- Extras Grade: A-
Tropic Thunder was the brainchild of Ben Stiller and Justin Theroux, who developed the story for many years before finally bringing the film to life in 2008 with Stiller at the helm. It’s an action-comedy that tries to poke fun of the war movie genre in general, and Vietnam movies in particular. The final script from Theroux, Stiller, and Etan Cohen follows the disastrous production of a film based on the memoirs of Vietnam veteran Four Leaf Tayback (Nick Nolte). Pampered actors Tugg Speedman (Ben Stiller), Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr.), Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black), Kevin Sandusky (Jay Baruchel), and Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson) are sent into the real jungle by their director (Steve Coogan) in order to capture some guerrilla-style filmmaking. Unfortunately, the cast and crew encounter some very real guerrillas, and so they have to fight for their lives while trying to finish the film in their own way. The eclectic cast of Tropic Thunder also includes Danny McBride, Tom Cruise, Bill Hader, and Matthew McConaughey, as well as cameos from the likes of John Voight, Jennifer Love Hewitt, Alicia Silverstone, and others.
In many ways, Tropic Thunder is a film at war with itself. It wants to satirize some very valid targets, but it also wants to be transgressive for transgression’s sake. Those two elements are often at tension with each other. That’s most readily apparent in the two most notorious story elements: Kirk Lazarus’ blackface surgery, and Tugg Speedman’s attempts to play a mentally handicapped character in Simple Jack. The excesses undergone by method actors is ripe for satire, as is the way that actors create Oscar bait by playing characters with disabilities. The trouble is that any valid satirical points on display here are overwhelmed by the glee with which the film revels in its own naughtiness by having Robert Downey Jr. in blackface, and Ben Stiller playing a grossly exaggerated mental handicap. The politically incorrect jokes tend to become an end unto themselves, and so they overwhelm the whole point of lampooning the egotism of actors who would do these kinds of things in the first place.
Something similar happens with the scatological humor in Tropic Thunder, which opens with a series of parody ads and trailers. One of them is for Jeff Portnoy’s new movie The Fatties: Fart 2, which is an obvious shot at Eddie Murphy’s The Nutty Professor films. Yet all that it does is put Jack Black in various fat suits and have him pass gas repeatedly—there’s no real jokes or parody involved. Eddie Murphy already did the same thing and called it The Klumps. There’s certainly plenty of room to satirize that kind of humor, but imitation isn’t parody. Of course, if Tropic Thunder was more consistently funny, none of that would matter. Mel Brooks and Richard Pryor proved conclusively in Blazing Saddles that satire doesn’t have to always hit its targets as long as the jokes work. Nonstop laughter covers over a multitude of sins. Tropic Thunder does indeed have some very funny parts, but there’s a bit too much time in between those parts to think about whether or not it’s really hitting its own intended targets.
The one bit of satire that Tropic Thunder does land with a vengeance is Tom Cruise’s portrayal of abusive producer Les Grossman. It’s a thinly-veiled shot at Scott Rudin, who has been notorious for his temperamental treatment of employees. Yet it’s also transgressive in another way, as it mocks Cruise’s own image by having him play violently against type. Cruise’s wildly uninhibited performance is the best part of Tropic Thunder, and fortunately the film goes out on a high note by featuring him front and center for the closing credits, doing—well, if you haven’t seen Tropic Thunder yet, it’s best that you find out for yourself. It’s a one-man highlight reel.
Cinematographer John Toll shot Tropic Thunder on 35 mm film (in Super-35 format) using Arriflex 435 ES, Panavision Panaflex Millennium XL, and Panavision Panaflex Platinum cameras, all with Panavision Primo spherical lenses. It was finished as a 2K Digital Intermediate, framed at 2.35:1 for its theatrical release. It’s not clear whether or not that the entire 2K DI was upscaled to 4K for Paramount’s new master, or if any of the non-composite shots were re-scanned in native 4K, but the image is sharp and clear either way. There’s a nice amount of fine detail visible, and while the grain varies a bit at times, it looks natural throughout. (Paramount has been guilty at times of scrubbing the grain clean and then replacing it with a layer of artificial grain, but the variance here may indicate that it's the real thing.) The new grade in high dynamic range was supervised and approved by Ben Stiller, with both Dolby Vision and HDR10 being included on the disc. Tropic Thunder has always been a vibrant looking film, but the colors now appear more saturated than they did before—the differences are subtle, but they’re still visible. The lush greens during the opening helicopter ride into the jungle really stand out, as do the vivid oranges from the explosions. The contrast range is intensified, with deep, deep blacks and brighter highlights, some of which border on being blown out (like during Stiller’s nighttime encounter with a “wild” animal). That’s still the intended look for the film, however. It’s supposed to be a larger-than-life experience, and this new 4K presentation delivers on that.
Audio is offered in English 5.1 and 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio, with optional English subtitles. The 5.1 mix is a lively one, with bullets, empty shells, and severed heads flying around the viewer in all directions. There’s plenty of dynamic impact from the explosions and similar effects, as well as an appropriate quantity of deep bass when it’s called for. The depth of the bass extends to the music as well, both in the score by Theodore Shapiro and the various songs that pepper the soundtrack—you’ll want to crank it when Cruise busts a move for the closing credits. Tropic Thunder isn’t a subtle film, so an in-your-face audio mix like this one serves it well.
Kino Lorber’s 4K Ultra HD release of Tropic Thunder is a two-disc set that includes the theatrical cut in 2160p on UHD, and the director’s cut in 1080p on Blu-ray, as well as a slipcover featuring alternate artwork. The extras duplicate most of the content from the previous Blu-ray releases, with one commentary track on the first disc, and a second commentary plus the rest of the extras on disc two:
DISC ONE: UHD (THEATRICAL VERSION)
- Audio Commentary by Ben Stiller, Jack Black, and Robert Downey, Jr.
DISC TWO: BD (DIRECTOR’S CUT)
- Audio Commentary by Ben Stiller, Stuart Cornfeld, Jeff Mann, Justin Theroux, John Toll, and Greg Hayden
- Before the Thunder (HD – 4:55)
- The Hot LZ (HD – 6:26)
- Blowing Shit Up (HD – 6:19)
- Designing the Thunder (HD – 7:32)
- The Cast of Tropic Thunder (HD – 22:13, 7 in all)
- Make-Up Test with Introduction (HD – 1:13 + 1:35)
- Full Mags with Introduction (HD – :54 + 11:15)
- MTV Movie Awards – Tropic Thunder (SD – 4:06)
- Deleted Scene: Water Buffalo Wrestling (HD – 1:56 + 1:36)
- Deleted Scene: Speedman Unpacking (HD – 1:45)
- Extended Scene: Snorkels (HD – 3:31)
- Extended Scene: Eight Minutes in Hell (HD – 8:04)
- Alternate Ending (HD – 3:30)
- Rain of Madness (HD – 30:01)
- Trailer #1 (HD – 2:29)
- Trailer #2 (HD – 1:58)
The commentary tracks are specific to each version of the film, so they’re only available on their respective discs. The theatrical version features a cast commentary with Ben Stiller, Jack Black, and Robert Downey Jr. They originally recorded it the day that Tropic Thunder premiered, and true to Downey’s line in the film about not dropping character until he's done the commentary for the DVD, he does just that and stays in form as Kirk Lazarus and/or Lincoln Osiris until the closing credits start to roll. That pretty much defines the commentary as a whole, which isn't a serious look at the film. Instead, it's three actors who had a good time making a movie, having a good time talking about making the movie. If you loved Tropic Thunder, you’ll probably love this track.
The director’s cut features a crew commentary that includes Stiller, Justin Theroux, John Toll, producer Stuart Cornfeld, production designer Jeff Man, and editor Greg Hayden. Appropriately enough, it’s more focused on the actual making of Tropic Thunder, though with a group this large, it tends to be all over the place. Fortunately, they don’t talk over each other, but they do jump around a lot. There’s still more detail here about the production, including thoughts about why they chose to eliminate various pieces that are included in this longer version—it may be called the director’s cut, but Stiller makes it pretty clear that the theatrical version is his own final cut.
The first five extras are all brief EPK-style featurettes that include interviews with appropriate members of the cast and crew. None of them are particularly substantial, but there’s still some interesting material here. Before the Thunder provides the background for Tropic Thunder, with Stiller explaining that its origins went back to 1987 when he had a small role in Empire of the Sun. The wave of Vietnam movies at that time had actors going through bootcamps to learn how to play soldiers, so that was his first inspiration for Tropic Thunder, and the story developed from there over the next couple of decades. The Hot LZ covers the design and construction of the war movie set that opens the film, including the previz animated storyboards that were used to help plan it. Blowing Shit Up is self-explanatory, as it covers the practical special effects that were created on set, from explosions to squibs. Designing the Thunder looks at the locations and the sets. Stiller explains that Toll was crucial to the location scouting, since he helped them to understand where the sets would need to be constructed in order to capture the best lighting. The Cast of Tropic Thunder is a collection of profiles for lead cast members Ben Stiller, Jack Black, Robert Downey, Jr., Brandon T. Jackson, Jay Baruchel, Danny McBride, and Nick Nolte. They can be played individually, or as a group.
The Make-Up Test, Full Mags, and the Deleted Scenes all include optional introductions from Stiller and Greg Hayden. The Make-Up Test is a camera test of an early makeup design for Tom Cruise that ended up not being used in the final film, but Cruise suddenly started dancing while they were shooting, and Stiller loved it so much that he found a use for it. Full Mags is a split-screen of presentation of Stiller and Robert Downey Jr. improvising together. They let the cameras roll for a full magazine while the two tried variations of a single scene, and chose the parts that worked best during the editorial process. The introduction for the Deleted Scenes, Extended Scenes, and Alternate Ending actually only applies to the first one, Water Buffalo Wrestling, while the rest can be played with optional commentary with Stiller and Hayden. None of it is essential viewing, but the Alternate Ending does feature an interesting variation for the fate of Matthew McConaughey’s character.
MTV Movie Awards is a segment that was produced for their 2008 show that features Stiller, Black, and Downey Jr. supposedly shooting a viral video to promote Tropic Thunder. This may well be the single best extra in the set—not only is it funnier than the average MTV segment, but it’s arguably more consistently funny than Tropic Thunder itself. Rain of Madness is a mockumentary about the production of Tropic Thunder—the Tropic Thunder inside of Tropic Thunder, that is. If the title wasn’t clear enough, it was inspired by the Apocalypse Now documentary Hearts of Darkness. Created by Steve Coogan and Justin Theroux, it’s a mock expose of what “really” happened on set. Several of the actors return as their characters, joined by Janeane Garofalo. Rain of Madness was originally released online during the theatrical run of Tropic Thunder as a promotional item, and while it may be only fitfully amusing, it’s nice to have it included with the set.
The only things that are missing from previous versions are the BD-Live extras Dispatches from the Edge of Madness, More Full Mags, and Video Rehearsals. Yet given the utter failure that BD-Live proved to be, it’s doubtful that many people ever accessed them in the first place. With or without them, this is still a great collection of extras, and needless to say, the new 4K HDR transfer speaks for itself. Tropic Thunder won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but it looks and sounds as good here as it possibly can. Some people will be disappointed that the director’s cut isn’t available in 4K as well, but frankly, Tropic Thunder is long enough in its theatrical version. Adding more material to it doesn’t make an already uneven film any less uneven. It’s still nice to have it included, but just think of it as another extra to go along with all of the rest. The theatrical cut is the star of the show, and it looks and sounds spectacular here.
- Stephen Bjork