Days of Thunder (1990) / Action-Drama
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for language and sexuality
Running Time: 107 min.
Cast: Tom Cruise, Robert Duvall, Nicole Kidman, Michael Rooker, Randy Quaid, Cary Elwes, John C. Reilly, Fred Dalton Thompson
Director: Tony Scott
Screenplay: Robert Towne
Racing footage = good, drama = bad.
This is about as short as the review of Days of Thunder needs to be, in this very disappointing misfire from the crew that brought you Top Gun, producer Jerry Bruckheimer (The Rock, Pearl Harbor), director Tony Scott (Man on Fire, Crimson TIde), and star Tom Cruise (Minority Report, Eyes Wide Shut). With so much money and talent on board, where did thing go wrong? Purely in the story stages, co-conceived by Tom Cruise himself, and bloated to misguided excess by Cruise's favorite screenwriter, Robert Towne (Mission: Impossible 2, The Firm). Not only is there too much drama, it's all bad drama, and an especially lackluster and needless romance that only comes about when structuring your storytelling based on formula rather than necessity.
Cruise plays hotshot race driver Cole Trickle (I love that name, but not as much as that of real-life driver Dick Trickle), who accepts a gig driving NASCAR for a woefully under funded race team, led by the wily veteran coach, Harry Hogge (Duvall, Assassination Tango). The two have completely different philosophies on racing, and their union is initially one disaster after another, but eventually, Trickle adapts to the philosophy of the different sport, and success ensues. A near-death collision has Trickle in laid up in the hospital for a bit, where he meets brain specialist, Dr. Claire Lewicki (Kidman, The Others). Despite her assistance in the physical, Cole is still jumbled up from the crash mentally, and soon he has to face a decision as to whether he will retire from his passion or risk his life for glory.
The first big reason why Days of Thunder doesn't work as an inspirational sports movie comes from the poorly conceived character of Cole Trickle himself. He's an arrogant SOB that cares little about anything but his own ego and desire to be admired, and at no time does he ever come to terms with the hubris of his actions. Although written as some sort of protagonist, Trickle does reckless, borderline criminal acts, such as intentionally crash into another driver's car when in his victory lap, drive carelessly at dangerous speeds in a city street with his would-be girlfriend pleading for her life for him to stop, and another instance where he challenges a rival driver to a high-speed race in public streets for the juvenile pursuit of winning at all costs. At no time during this film do we ever feel that Cole Trickle isn't the biggest jackass on the face of the Earth, so why have a rooting interest in his infantile whining and silly need to win races?
The film starts off decent by staying simple in its story, but quickly degenerates into a very uninteresting diagnosis on concussions and the dangers of the sport, as if we needed assurance that driving into a wall or other driver at 200 mph is a life-threatening thing. Just when the proceedings can't get any less interesting, a mismatched romance forms for no real reason save to have one, and Thunder starts to feel like little more than a light drizzle in intensity.
Then there are the race scenes. These scenes are really the only moments where Scott's brainless film comes to life, but even they are overdone. As depicted here, NASCAR isn't so much a race as a high-speed destruction derby, where the object isn't seeing who can get to the finish line the fastest, but who can be the last car able to be driven across the finish line. It isn't enough for Trickle to want to win this race. He has to have a rival to beat, generally a person who has it in for Cole for reasons never particularly explained in the story. Gathering from the events as they unfold, none of the men want to win so much as to try to kill the other by any means necessary.
Days of Thunder is probably only of interest to racing fanatics, die-hard Tom Cruise fans, and people who have a very low threshold for entertainment. The Top Gun crew plagiarize their own formula into a driving film, and shamefully waste a fine performance by Robert Duvall in the process. With such a lack of vision and need to follow previously successful vehicles for inspiration, they would have been better served using "formula" cars.
©2004 Vince Leo