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Days of Thunder Review

Days of Thunder - Tom Cruise

RATING:
(3 STARS)

The rap against Days of Thunder (or case for it, depending on your speed) over the last 30 years has been that it’s nothing more than a remake of Top Gun with race cars. In Roger Ebert’s review of the film, he outlined all the ways this film fits squarely into then well-established formula that actually started with Top Gun. To summarize: Tom Cruise is cocky but talented. He has a rival with whom he eventually needs to find common ground. There’s a woman and a mentor who make him realize his attitude is what’s holding him back.

This is Days of Thunder … at least on the surface. It’s thrilling as an action film, satisfying as a redemption drama, and mediocre (at best) as a romance. Its soundtrack is aggressively of its era, and it’s packed with parlance in a way that would make Michael Mann proud.

But I think the film does one thing Top Gun doesn’t (because it couldn’t). It’s borderline obscene in the way it romanticizes and mythologizes its star, but it’s something so foreign to the way movies are made today that I found it totally exhilarating.

Cruise plays the spectacularly named Cole Trickle – a totally normal guy who decides one day that he wants to race stock cars professionally, despite never having done so and only having observed the sport on television a few times before making this seemingly consequential life choice. Tim Daland (Randy Quaid) recruits him to join the Chevrolet team after seeing Cole compete in some open-wheel sprint racing. He also recruits retired legend Harry Hogge (Robert Duvall) to manage Cole’s pit crew. Though Hogge is extremely skeptical about Cole’s racing ability, a demonstration behind the wheel of NASCAR star Rowdy Burns’ (Michael Rooker) vehicle makes him a believer, and he gets to work on a car that will help lead Cole to victory at Daytona.

But the road there is bumpy. Cole struggles as Rowdy makes it his mission to “rub” up against Cole in every race they compete him, which tends to knock Cole out of the running. He has a hard time controlling his car because he thinks he knows best and won’t listen to Harry’s advice when he’s told that racing smarter is more important that driving faster.

As the film goes on, Rowdy and Cole are both involved in a major wreck. They both experience brain trauma and are treated by the brilliant and lovely Dr. Claire Lewicki (Nicole Kidman), and Cole is quite taken by her. Cruise and Kidman were married at the time, of course, and this is the first of their three times on screen together (to be followed by Far and Away and Eyes Wide Shut). I guess by default, this is the best chemistry they’ve had together. Far and Away is just sort of whatever, and Eyes Wide Shut was constructed around the idea that these two people didn’t have any chemistry together. That said, these two people don’t have any chemistry together. If Cruise and Kelly McGillis’ romance in Top Gun was a little overcooked, this one came out of the oven still totally raw. The character of Dr. Claire is extremely underwritten, and Kidman just seems annoyed to be on hand simply to glorify her husband.

Much better chemistry is shared between Cruise and Michael Rooker. Days of Thunder would have been 1000% better if their rivalry was able to be turned into a romance. They have a sexy, sun-soaked “meet cute,” and there’s a delightfully pathetic instance of hyper-masculinity when they race wheelchairs against each other in the hospital. Obviously, something like this would never have been palatable for Paramount in 1990, but it’s all there – even more explicitly than any subtext in Top Gun.

I haven’t talked much about Tony Scott’s direction in this film, but I think it might be his best work yet. It all comes back to the way he builds up Cruise. His introduction should be iconic. He rides his hog in as Hans Zimmer’s score swells. He gets off, fluffs his hair in extreme close-up, and immediately starts acting like a total imbecile. And the racing scenes actually make racing look interesting. The screenplay helps in this respect. We get a lot of exposition about what certain tactics involve, and while it tends to make the film very predictable (note Chekhov’s drafting), you sort of know what you’re getting going in anyway, so it’s not a major problem.

I liked Days of Thunder a little more than Top Gun. Both are fairly disposable action films, but watching them now is very refreshing for the way their filmed, the way they celebrate stardom, and the fact that they’re not based on existing IP. This is Cruise and Scott’s last production together, which is a shame. I think late Scott would have done wonders with late Cruise, but they both found new muses down the line, and for each, the best is yet to come.

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