Comparisons with Robert Altman’s “The Player” are inevitable, and, sure enough, Robert Downey, Jr. engages in one during the bonus features on this two-disc set, but “Tropic Thunder” owes more to “Saturday Night Live” and Ben Stiller’s early 90s TV show than anything else. Sure, it skewers Hollywood, but rather than use the stab-and-twist in the gut that Altman employed, writer/director/star Ben Stiller opts for the hack-and-slash style of broad caricature, as if to say: “Hey, don’t we take ourselves way too seriously in Hollywood? But please don’t f**k up anyone’s career over this movie; we’re just goofing here.” As a result, everyone can join in the laugh, even the executives, producers, directors, and stars whose enormous egos are being deflated in the process. (An interesting aside: The movie-within-the-movie doesn’t seem to have a screenwriter. Is that Hollywood slighting writers again, or are even the most obnoxiously egotistical scribes not worth mocking?)
“Tropic Thunder” is also the name of the movie-within-a-movie, whose cast includes washed-up action star Tugg Speedman (Stiller), hot-headed method actor Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey, Jr.), comedian Jeff “Fats” Portnoy (Jack Black), rapper-turned-actor Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson), and unknown guy Kevin Sandusky (Jay Baruchel), who was alone in reading the script and attending the pre-production boot camp. Steve Coogan plays Damien Cockburn, a director who is in over his head, and Tom Cruise gets into a fat suit for Les Grossman, an overbearing executive who is not above ordering the key grip to punch Cockburn in the face for doing a poor job.
Cruise turns in a stellar ego-deflating performance, but Downey steals the movie as Lazarus, who gets a skin-darkening procedure to play his role and who stays in character even when the cameras aren’t rolling. True to form, Downey participates in one of the commentary tracks in character as an in-character Lazarus. It’s the audio equivalent of putting two mirrors opposite each other and standing between them.
Cockburn decides to get his movie under control by placing his actors in the jungle and pulling a “Blair Witch Project” on them. As you can imagine, the situation quickly goes awry and the cast members find themselves on the turf of a heroin operation. Speedman, knowing this is his last chance to revive a flagging career, becomes separated from the others and believes that everything happening to him is part of Cockburn’s plan, while the rest of the platoon soon figures out what is really going on and tries to rescue him. There are plenty of obvious references to such movies as “Platoon” and “Apocalypse Now” along the way, as well as a little character growth and a lot of laughs. “Tropic Thunder” may be a navel-gazing movie, but it pulls off the conceit well. It certainly succeeds in accomplishing its goal of mocking self-important Hollywood folks.
One of the commentary tracks on disc one includes Downey, Stiller, and Black. As with a lot of group commentaries, it veers off course quite a bit, and Black’s presence means plenty of jokes and distractions. Downey is funny in his in-character Lazarus persona, although it gets tiresome after a while; I found myself wishing he would finally break character, since Lazarus does so for the DVD commentary, as he says in the movie. The other commentary track is also led by Stiller, and it features producer Stuart Cornfeld, writer/producer Justin Theroux, editor Greg Hayden, cinematographer John Toll, and production designer Jeff Mann. It’s the better track, with fewer distractions and more information about the making of the movie. Since this DVD includes the unrated director’s cut, Stiller also makes sure to point out which footage is new to this version.
Over on disc two, we have 100 minutes of making-of material — including nearly an hour of featurettes that pretend the movie-within-the-movie is real — as well as a skit for the MTV Movie Awards, four improvisational sequences, Cruise’s original makeup test, a pair of video rehearsals, and a handful of deleted footage. The cut scenes include commentary from Stiller and Hayden, although it’s mostly introductory remarks at the beginning. Stiller talks a little more over the original ending, which reveals the fate of Speedman’s agent and which I thought would have been a funny coda, even if it had been placed after the credits. The rest of the deleted footage was better left on the cutting room floor, except the part where Speedman rummages through his backpack for survival equipment, which consists of the stuff his agent sent to him in a gift basket — it’s funny and sets up a later scene.
The making-of material covers the usual subjects: the inspiration for “Tropic Thunder,” the three weeks it took to shoot the movie’s opening battle sequence, how the special effects were pulled off, and why and how they shot the film in Hawaii. Each main cast member also receives a three- or four-minute biography. The fake featurettes, “Rain of Madness” and “Dispatches From the Edge of Madness,” star Theroux as the German filmmaker Jan Jurgen, who chronicled the making of the movie-within-the-movie for a documentary in a “Hearts of Darkness” vein. It’s funny stuff that’s easily the highlight of the bonus features.