The Blu-Ray release of TROPIC THUNDER on January 26th presents me with a monumental dilemma- should I watch my beloved Robert Downey Junior on rip-roaring form, or should I swerve away from it, thanks to the ominous presence of Ben Stiller and Jack Black. Stiller continues to vex me. He is made of proper comedy stock- it should be in his genes- yet he still sees successful comic acting as a mix of flailing limbs and over-the-top aggression. What frustrates the most- and this rings true for Black as well- is that he was once good. Just as Black hit his comedic heights in HIGH FIDELITY, and to a lesser extent in SCHOOL OF ROCK, Stiller was excellent in THERES SOMETHING ABOUT MARY, and the hilarious MTV Movie Award skit with Tom Cruise. But since then, something horrible has happened and both men seem to have forgotten the twin pillars of self-effacing subtlety or situation (let the comedy happen to you) and timing and gone instead with the painful goofball characterisations that dont deserve DVD buyers attentions. Slap-stick is one thing, and intellectual idiocy, as mastered by Leslie Nielsen another, but the two should never be mixed: the key to slap-stick is that the victim must retain a sense of ridiculous composure and a delusion of grace- think Peter Sellers PINK PANTHER. So being an idiot and falling over is neither big nor clever: take heed Mr Stiller and MR Black; we are more intelligent than that. What makes the fact even more poignant is that both Black and Stiller seem to recognise their own flaws- their characters in TROPIC THUNDER heavily riff on their own current careers (Blacks attraction to the grotesque and Stillers one-dimension)- as does Downeys pedantic method actor Kirk Lazarus. So Ill grant them the fact that they are self-aware, and willing to parody themselves, but surely this awareness means that they are choosing films to work on in full knowledge that they are robbing their audiences of comic diversity and entertainment. What Id give for the Jack Black of old- his recent career is breaking my heart- I thought his appearance in I STILL KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST SUMMER as that murder-inspiring white Jamaican was a joke, but sadly thats about the best we can hope for at the minute. You only need to watch the end of the movie for validation of Stillers potential; he manages to display talent for both humour and acting when he goes all APOCALYPSE NOW Brando and broods menacingly in his bamboo prison. Those ten minutes or so made me laugh more than any Stiller role since the MTV Awards, and I was genuinely pleased to have the opportunity to laugh. Black offered no such glimmer of hope. And so from the ridiculous to the sublime- I would happily watch Robert Downey Junior in anything- three hours of him picking his nose would be, in my eyes, more worthy of Oscar fever than any sentimental Hollywood endorsed dross. He was the first actor I ever watched and decided to go out and immediately buy everything he has ever been in- from the highs of CHAPLIN and the self-deprecating chaos of his drug abuse- WONDERBOYS particularly seems to have benefitted from the effect of the White Horse- to the horrifying lows and whys of BOWFINGER and ALLY MCBEAL. Okay, so the last two are cameos, and the legend of him being fired from the latter and hastily written out of the show more than makes up for his decision to be in it- and I mean come on, Crack costs a lot of money! To see him alongside Stiller and Black was initially quite jarring (although I secretly hoped he would have a good effect on the latter of the two). What fears I had were quickly allayed when I heard the nature of his role- and since pre-production began I had waited with baited breath to see his Kirk Lazarus. I was suitably amused- although my enjoyment was spoiled somewhat by the horrific sound mix on the Blu-Ray which made understanding his heavy accent nigh-on impossible at the start of the film. Honestly, its a simple thing, but when it goes wrong you feel like your ears have popped and youre missing all the juicy dialogue. Theres something nagging me. Im sure Ive seen this film before- well the same idea anyway- and one precursory glance through my DVD stockpile confirms my suspicions. THE THREE AMIGOS did essentially the same thing- putting three unsuspecting movie stars (albeit silent ones) in real conflict (as did GALAXY QUEST) - the location is different, and TROPIC THUNDER is far more of a riff on the process of big-budget film-making, but the fundamentals are unnervingly similar. The amigos themselves were supposedly high comedy stock- Steve Martin, Chevy Chase and Martin Short, who subsequently went on to pretty much press the career self-destruct button. It doesnt exactly bode well for Jack Black and Ben Stiller, considering the same accusations levelled at Steve Martin and Chevy Chase- the formers bad film choices (apart from the delightful BABY MAMA) and the latters painful lack of diversity- are already applicable to them. So, RDJ has been nominated for Best Supporting Actor for his Lazarus. Its not that Im shocked; I think the performance warrants acclaim- his observation is perfect, and the transformation he has undergone is shockingly good. His work on RAIN OF MADNESS, the mockumentary in the Extras, is equally good- especially his insistence that the real Kirk Lazarus family be flown to stay with him for his intense method preparation (which leads to a hilarious hostage situation). In all honesty I could have just watched a whole movie of RDJ as Lazarus, concentrating on his obsessive desire to capture exactly his character. Now that I would have loved. I suppose my point is simply this: can you really see the beauty of a rose when its up to its petals in shite? Of course Robert Downey Juniors Lazarus is not the only good thing about the movie- there are little bits and pieces of evidence that the film was a good idea, its just they are swamped by the dirge. Some of the Hollywood riffs are quite well observed, but the spoofery just isnt intelligent enough to make them excellent. An example: Tom Cruises cameo also is admittedly funny (as his fellow cast members almost fall over themselves to tell us), but only for about two minutes. What should have been a sparingly used character- limited to one appearance to preserve the shock factor, is thrust upon us, as Stiller seemingly panders to the Hollywood mega-star. Subsequent interviews with Cruise have confirmed that very fact- Cruise demanded that he should have fat hands, and that he should dance (turning what could have been a powerful and grotesque allegory of the ugly venomous side of Hollywood producers into a freak show of limited success). It all smacks a bit of that syndrome that seems to be going around whereby established serious A-listers feel the need to prove just how zany and funny they can be. Most guilty of this before Cruise shook his padded arse around to the beat was none other than Robert De Niro, whose grotesque gay stereotype almost spoiled STARDUST for me. It isnt big and it isnt clever, so cut it out and stick to what you know. In the end TROPIC THUNDER fails simply because it takes a really good idea (probably why it isnt original), slaps it around a little bit and just plain fails in the execution. Extras I think it is a shame that no reviews of TROPIC THUNDER have concentrated on the Extras in any kind of detail, as the approach on show is one that should really be the model for how a DVD distributor should put together their product. Its got to be about more than just the film- a fact wonderfully evoked by the fact that the feature itself in this case is enormously surpassed by its Extras. In fact, on the strength of its Extras alone, this DVD release can be counted as one of the best of 2009, if not ever- and I should know, my DVD collection is ludicrously swollen and beefed out even further by special editions, themselves bloated with delicious Extras. Its a fantastic refreshing change from the Extras on some DVDs- cobbled together bits of TV spots and trailers with a half-arsed commentary. I always feel a delicious satisfaction when Im given some extra juicy information in the Extra Features, and have been known to buy a number of different versions of the same film because of the different Extras available (I have six different versions of THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS, rather obscenely). So to be given hours of meaningful, insightful and hilarious footage was just heavenly- if I hadnt already known, Id have eaten up Robert Downey Juniors sneaky admittance that IRON MAN will be a trilogy with the familiar joy that only someone who religiously trawls through Extras minutely can know. So, to a few of the highlights. Firstly, and most widely acclaimed is TROPIC THUNDER: RAIN OF MADNESS- a making of the Hollywood nightmare sort of mockumentary, furnishing the universe of the film with unbelievably intricate context. It may even be justifiable to suggest that RAIN OF MADNESS would have made a better film than TROPIC THUNDER did- a fact ironically confirmed by the film when Stillers Tugg Speedman wins his Oscar for his own behind the scenes documentary. The second high-point is the MTV Awards skit- continuing Ben Stillers weird tendency to create his best work for an Awards VT. RDJs self-parody is hilarious and immaculate, as is Jack Blacks happily- even Stiller manages a measured and funny turn as a success-hungry version of himself, seeking validation of his coolness from his emo, disenchanted nephew. The lengths the actors are willing to go to in order to ensure healthy box-office turnover are ridiculous, but it never descends into the kind of unintelligent buffoonery that Black and Stiller are often guilty of. Now if only someone could convince Stiller to just stick to making these annual skits, Ill be a happy reviewer. Now Im probably in the minority here, but I actually thought Robert Downey Juniors insistence on remaining in character for the cast commentary was a little misplaced. Okay, so its an admirable adherence to his own assertion made in the film that he would do it, but with Black and Stiller alongside him out of character it just made no sense to me. The commentary itself is pant-wettingly good in places, but I just wish all three had gone the whole-hog, preserving the otherwise perfectly observed and unpolluted trio of levels that the film universe works on. To fit in, Id have preferred a film-makers commentary, a character commentary (Lazarus should not have been the only one allowed a voice) and also a cast one. Stillers best moments on film, apart from his descent into madness, are those when hes with RDJ, so its a shame they dont repeat the dynamic on what would have surely have been a hilarious commentary. The only problem with the Extras (besides the commentary short-fall) is that they are a little too good- there is a lot in the extra footage, shot primarily for the excellent mockumentary RAIN OF MADNESS, that suggests that the characters could have been much funnier and more complex. High on the list of these characters are Steve Coogans unfit and unhinged director, Jay Baruchels Sandusky and Brandon T Jacksons deluded, closeted rapper Alpa Chino, but more than any other, Danny Mcbrides Cody Underwood. During the film itself Underwood made my skin crawl- embodying everything I hate about modern American comedy: endlessly and unimaginatively swearing for the sake of it and being crude with no iota of redeeming quality. I dont understand it- the power of the word fuck comes when it is unexpected and infrequent, so composing a characters dialogue entirely of variations of it just seems ill-conceived. I found myself thinking, if McBride is supposed to be the Next Big Thing in American comic cinema, then God help us all. But then McBride somehow redeems himself with some hilarious, self-effacing improv work, making the version of his character that made it into the film pale in comparison- I laughed genuinely and heartily at the unedited Underwood and then wept at his depiction in the feature film. The editing process was obviously just wrong- taking some excellent composite parts and making sure they never got to see the light of day until the Extras landed, a fact that enriches those Extras wonderfully, but to the ultimate detriment of the movie. The real irony of TROPIC THUNDER then is that it isnt just the tale of a big budget turkey; its that, if it wasnt for the excellent DVD Extras, I would have totally dismissed it as just another expensive Hollywood flop.