Days of Thunder, which reunited star Tom Cruise, director Tony Scott, and producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer, is such a naked attempt to recapture the lightning-in-a-bottle effect of their previous collaboration, 1986's smash hit Top Gun, that it is impossible to consider it as anything but. Once again we have Cruise playing a youthful hotshot with total confidence and innate ability bumping against an established powerbase. Once again we have a romance with an equally confident and strong-willed professional woman who is ultimately reduced to being his personal cheerleader. Once again we have a plot that centers around a crisis of confidence in which the climactic victory is enthralling not so much because of what has been accomplished, but because Cruise's character has triumphantly reasserted his self-assurance and professionalism. The only real difference is that the film takes place against the backdrop of NASCAR racing rather than naval aviation, and even that allows for lots of interchangeable shots of helmeted professionals with quirky names barking at each other through two-way microphones.
While Cruise's hair is longer and he's a little rougher around the edges, his rookie racecar driver Cole Trickle is essentially an earthbound Maverick. However, the extent to which Cruise had been elevated to worldwide megastar status in the four years since Top Gun is evident in the manner in which Cole is introduced. Riding into frame on a motorcycle, he breaks through a cloud of smoke and literally emerges, as if he is some kind of god coming down from the heavens. It's the first wrong step in the film, as it is such a self-consciously attention-grabbing entrance that it makes it difficult to see the rest of the film as anything more than widescreen ego-tripping (when Cruise's character is called "an infantile egomaniac" to his face, you have to wonder if it even registered in his mind outside the confines of the story). It also plays as a particularly grabby rebuke to the more serious roles Cruise had recently played (and won acclaim for) in Barry Levinson's Rain Man (1988) and Oliver Stone's Born on the Fourth of July (1989).
Although completely untested behind the wheel of a stockcar, Cole has been recruited by Tim Daland (Randy Quaid), a car dealership owner who is trying to put together a NASCAR team. He has already brought on board Harry Hogge (Robert Duvall), a veteran crew chief whose old-school mentality and rigid adherence to the practical realities of automotive mechanics ensure that he will immediately clash with Cole's at times reckless, but always instinctual driving style, which results in many burned-out engines and melted tires. "There's nothing I can't do with a car," Cole declares at one point, essentially asserting his own superiority over the laws of physics.
The screenplay, which was written by the legendary Robert Towne (Chinatown) from a story originally concocted by racing enthusiast Cruise, is somewhat awkward and episodic, which may have been the result of scenes being written on the fly during production (apparently they started shooting without a finished script). Not surprisingly, the film is most comfortable during the racing sequences, many of which were shot during actual NASCAR races and take full advantage of the natural sound and fury produced by dozens of stockcars racing by at 190 mph. Scott and cinematographer Ward Russell (who worked as the chief lighting technician on Top Gun and would go on to lens several of Scott's subsequent films) get their cameras right into the action, and you can feel the raw power as the cars rip around the track, lending some credence to the film's otherwise nonsensical title.
Unfortunately, the story requires interpersonal dynamics, as well, and this is where the wheels start coming off. Most effective is the relationship between Cole and Rowdy Burns (Michael Rooker), a veteran NASCAR driver with whom he strikes up a mutual animosity that gradually turns into mutual admiration and then friendship after they are both injured in a massive wreck that shakes Cole's confidence and leaves Rowdy possibly brain-damaged (the film's one truly inspired scene has them racing in wheelchairs out of the hospital, unable to keep their rivalry on the speedway). With Rowdy out of the way, the film has to generate a new nemesis, so in comes Russ Wheeler (Cary Elwes), who is a jerk for little reason other than the fact that the film needs a jerk with whom Cole can contend. Less successful is the romantic relationship between Cole and Dr. Claire Lewicki (Nicole Kidman), the doctor who sees to him after his wreck. While actual sparks flew off-screen between Cruise and Kidman, who was then a relatively unknown Australian actress, little happens on-screen and their romance feels flat-little more than a required component of the formula.
Had it been released before Top Gun (or even 1986's Color of Money or 1988's Cocktail, both of which feature similar story structures), Days of Thunder might not have felt quite so musty, like warmed-up leftovers. Or, if the filmmakers had tried some unusual narrative angles instead of aping everything from plot devices to the rock-fueled soundtrack (the love ballad even sounds like it's straining to be Berlin's "Take My Breath Away"), perhaps the film would have worked. Unfortunately, the Simpson/Bruckheimer juggernaut, which was reaching its peak at the end of the 1980s, was not so much about innovation and originality as it was about recycling the same themes about the glories of victory and the triumph of professionalism, which Days of Thunder produces in droves, but without any real impact.
Copyright © 2020 James Kendrick
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All images copyright © Paramount Home Entertainment
Overall Rating: (2)
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