Days Of Thunder should have been an easy slam dunk. Think about it: Top Gun is an awesome movie, right? So what if we took the star, the director, the producers and the while seconds of the plot and transferred it all to NASCAR racing? Job done, good work, pick yourself out a percentage of the gross profits and take a long weekend. In fact, uber-producer Don Simpson was so convinced the movie couldn’t fail, he took time out of his busy schedule of pissing on hookers and cramming as many illegal substances into his system as was humanly possible to engage in a metaphorical dick swinging contest with Warren Beatty, whose Dick Tracy movie was releasing the same summer (choice messages: Simpson allegedly fired off a message reading “Don’t fuck with the thunder!” while Beatty responded with “You won’t believe the size of my Dick!”). However, Days Of Thunder would eventually cross the finishing line as the 90’s poster child of overconfidence, whose shiny exterior revealed a spluttering engine fueled by excessive ego.
Absurdly named Cole Trickle has his sights set on winning the Indianapolis 500, but despite being supernaturally gifted behind the wheel of a car, he lacks the inner knowledge necessary to be a truly great driver. Paired with Harry Hogge, a crusty car builder/pit crew chief lured out of retirement, the two establish a stormy, antagonistic relationship as the young ego collides with stubborn wisdom like an out of control stock car slamming into a retaining wall. However, even though the two bicker about melting tyres and other car related chicanery, Cole also has time to build up a squint-eyed rivalry with champion driver Rowdy Burns – but eventually the gifted driver starts to see eye to eye with his grizzled mentor and starts to actually win some races.
However, a huge speed bump arises in the form of a massive, mid-race pile up that takes both Cole and Rowdy out of the game with serious injuries, but as he convalesces from a swollen brain, he forms a relationship with Dr. Claire Lewicki, a neurosurgeon who obviously is prone to making atrocious personal decisions as she falls for the driver despite despising motor car racing and the dangers that come with it.
Soon a slightly humbled Cole is back on the track, but not only does he find that he’s been replaced by the even more smug Russ Wheeler, he also contend with the fact that his nerve has gone after experiencing such a scary injury and he struggles to reach his past glories.
But this is a Tom Cruise movie and as we all know, overcoming adversity is like smack to him so its only a matter of time until the love of a good woman, the support of a rival/turned buddy and the guidance of a wrinkly mentor inspires him to get his act together and start winning some fucking races.
To give Days Of Thunder it’s due, you can’t claim that it isn’t entertaining, but it certainly isn’t because Simpson, Bruckheimer, Cruise and Scott managed to turn in a decent movie. Everything about this film is dialed up to the max, the performances, the plotting, everything and it’s an exercise in futility to even try and take anything that occurs in the film even remotely seriously – now, while this wouldn’t necessarily a problem if we were discussing later Bruckheimer productions such as Con Air or The Rock, you feel that everyone involve were actually trying to aim a little higher than glossy camp when trying to duplicate the pumped-up drama of Top Gun.
To be fair, the filmmakers pretty much set themselves up to fail by thinking that copying Cruise’s fighter jet opus wholesale wasn’t anything other that arrogant laziness and are even brazen enough in their confidence to have Cole Trickle (that fucking name!) actually show up on a motorbike as he drives through a particularly cinematic plume of smoke in a pair of shades. The fact that screenwriter Robert Townsend (he of Chinatown fame) came up with such a sustained flow of cartoonishly macho drivel is stunning as he has characters utter such nonsensical garbage as “There’s nothing stock about a stock car!” and “We end up looking like a monkey fuckin’ a football out there!”. It’s not just the dialogue either as the characters are the worst kind of derivative, sports movie archetypes you’ve ever seen. When Pete “Maverick” Mitchell claims that flying a fighter jet is all he has ever known how to do, it reinforces his nature as an impossibly driven human being, utterly justifying his ego and the way he goes about his business – when Cole Trickle says it about NASCAR, he just sounds like a spoilt prick who later admits that his driving prowess doesn’t extend to knowing anything about the actual mechanics of the car! While we try to get our head around the fact that we’re supposed to be cheering our hero as he makes a full bid for gold at the entitled Olympics, Nicole Kidman shows up with a giant tangle of ginger hair and an Aussie accent thicker than Ayers Rock and vainly tries to convince us she’s talented Neurologist which the script instantly torpedoes when Cole unironically describes her as a brilliant brain doctor while in bed with her (would you call a dentist a tooth doctor?).
While Cruise and Kidman struggle to manufacture any type of romantic chemistry (somewhat alarming when you consider they got freakin’ married), everyone else merely coasts by, content to earn a paycheck with their character actor credentials – Robert Duvall, Michael Rooker, Randy Quaid, Cary Elewes and John C. Reilly all willingly lean into the 90’s cheese as the lightning-fast tone of the piece blows past them like they wasn’t even there. The movie contains more than it’s fair share of ludicrous scenes, be it Cole assuming Claire is a stripper only dressed as a Neurologist and forcing her to touch his dick, or the numerous moments where Cole and Rowdy sort out their differences by racing everything from rental cars to wheelchairs; but the relentless pace of the film renders everything as empty as Cole’s reserves of modesty.
However, while the majority of the flick is so overblown it’s practically begging for unintentional laughter to drown out Maria Mckee’s multiple renditions of “Show Me Heaven”, there isn’t a fast-moving vehicle in existence that Tony Scott can’t shoot in a way that’s guaranteed to make your nipples hard and Days Of Thunder manages to claw back a little of its credibility in its furiously edited racing sequences. Of course, there’s nothing here to suggest that driving a car in a loop for 200 laps – even if it’s really, really fast – can any way measure up to flying a fighter jet upside down, pulling a barrel roll and then breaking the sound barrier all within 20 seconds.
Back in the 90’s, Days Of Thunder was trying incredibly hard to be taken seriously and subsequently failed, however, it’s an even more impossible task these days for anyone who’s seen Cars and Talladega Nights. It may not be the filmmakers intention – but treat as a comedy for best results.