Days of Thunder (1990)

Directed by Tony Scott

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Days of Thunder is one of those movies you have to really embrace, despite its many faults, in order to have a good time.  It’s so silly and so 80’s, almost like a museum piece celebrating the decade, granted it was released in 1990.  It’s like a movie made about the eighties that didn’t realize it would be about the eighties.

It’s also a movie made by Tony Scott and Tom Cruise, following the success of 1986’s Top Gun.  When this movie was released, it was referred to as some as Top Gun on wheels.  Like that earlier movie, this one was made to be a hit.  There is very little substance in this story, but you never get the idea that there should be.  It’s a movie designed around a marketable poster, trailer and tagline.

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Tom Cruise wasn’t just a movie star by this point in his career, he was a semi-self aware movie star.  Cruise would later form a production company (Cruise/Wagner), but at this point he had already begun to take more control over the projects he would star in, taking a story by credit for Days of Thunder.

It’s not hard to imagine that the initial idea for this movie was some combination of: Top Gun was successful, Tom Cruise is a star, and let’s make another action movie where Tom Cruise is the star.  The rest was pieced in around this.  And like other Cruise movies, including Top Gun and Martin Scorsese’s The Color of Money, there are a few familiar tropes.

First, Tom Cruise plays the young and rambunctious, hard to control protege.  Whether he’s a pilot or a pool player or a driver, Tom has the skill, but he needs to be controlled.  That’s where the mentor comes in, like Paul Newman in The Color of Money and Robert Duvall in Days of Thunder.  Then there’s the love interest whom Roger Ebert noted, in his observations of all these Cruise tropes, is there to tame Cruise’s spirit, much like the mentor is there to tame his talent.

The Cruise character is reckless, and by the end of the story he’s grown up a little bit.  Still, the movies delight in his boyishness, almost making him seem constantly younger than he is.

There’s also the rival who becomes a friend, played here by Michael Rooker as Rowdy Burns, and this friend’s physical suffering (like the pilot friend who dies in Top Gun) is there to remind the Cruise character of the fragility of life, or something like that.  When Rowdy (and Cruise’s Cole Trickle, I mean what a name) gets involved in a car crash, he has long-lasting effects from a head injury he refuses to get looked at.  Cole Trickle, again what a name, convinces him to see a doctor, saving his life.

Part of the theme of Days of Thunder, as well as of the Cruise character, is that he feels invincible.  Part of this movie’s story, though, is Cole recognizing how vulnerable he is.  But this being a slightly cheesy action movie, this doesn’t serve much of a point.  Instead, Cole gets over any fear he might have, and he wins the final race, and we celebrate this accomplishment without really diving deep to analyze his psyche.

I guess I should touch on the movie’s plot, but all you need to know is that Tom Cruise arrives in style like this (excuse the aspect ratio):

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And the movie ends with this freeze frame:

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And boy aren’t they having a good time.

This is a fun movie with some really nice editing, but it’s all just so superficial, and by now, just with the benefit of time, we’ve all seen enough action movies so that this feels like a parody of the genre.  But that style, so soaked in cheese, shows a mastery of that genre, I suppose.

Tony Scott and Tom Cruise know what they’re trying to make, and whether or not they have any self-awareness when it comes to the Cole Trickle character, they make an entertaining as hell movie that might be all the better for the level of cheesiness.  Cruise knew that he wanted to make another hit movie, so he and Scott just copied what worked before.  Whether it’s because they think this is what audiences want or they’re trying to capture lightning in a bottle (no pun intended) a second time, the goal was to let Tom Cruise be Tom Cruise.

It seems like this movie has come at a point in Cruise’s career where he’s on (pun intended?) Cruise control.  This movie is all about Cruise and likely his public persona, after all one of the tag lines is a play on his last name, but there’s nothing here that pushes the genre or challenges the audience in any way.  Scott and Cruise (and Bruckheimer and Robert Towne) knew how to make a movie like this, so they did it again.

Later Cruise would team up with other interesting, innovating directors (De Palma, Paul Thomas Anderson, Spielberg, even Kubrick), occasionally giving away more control, but this movie is all about Tom Cruise being in the driver’s seat (pun definitely intended).

It’s like The Beatles before they made Sgt. Pepper.  They were hugely popular already, but then they started to try something new.  Days of Thunder Tom Cruise is just recycling the greatest hits.  Though he had already begun to branch out, acting in movies like Rain Man and Born on the Fourth of July, this movie is a throwback to the type of Tom Cruise that became increasingly rare to find onscreen.  Yes he would still play leading man roles (seemingly until the day he dies), but his characters as they aged are less boyish.  They become more suave, but as Cruise ages, the hot-headedness of his characters seems to go away.  It’s like Cruise and his directors knew that such reckless behavior wouldn’t be as charming anymore.

But okay, Days of Thunder.  There are plenty of exciting, adrenaline-charged race sequences, and there are certainly moments of joy in the wheelchair race as well as a race between Cole and Rowdy that mostly takes place, somehow, on a beach in broken down, used cars.  It’s such an outlandish moment, but that’s the fun of it.

So yeah, maybe this movie really is self-aware.  Days of Thunder is a popcorn movie, and I found the car races more exciting than Top Gun, which I didn’t particularly enjoy.  This movie is hammy, hilarious, and at a certain point you get past the ridiculousness of every Tom Cruise scene highlighting just how awesome Tom Cruise is.  Maybe you’ll decide that, yeah, he is pretty awesome, but that final freeze frame is a little much.  Or maybe it’s perfect for the tone of the movie, I can’t quite tell.

Oh yeah, Nicole Kidman is in this too, as the love interest, but her character has nothing much to do except for dealing with some light and playful sexual harassment by Tom Cruise before falling in love with Tom Cruise before leaving Tom Cruise because of Scientology, but I guess that came later.

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