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Remember that cool little action movie about fast-moving vehicles starring Tom Cruise, directed by Tony Scott, produced by the team of Jerry Bruckheimer and Don Simpson, and released by Paramount? No, not TOP GUN. The other one. The 1990 NASCAR flick DAYS OF THUNDER. One of the most underappreciated of all the testosterone films of its era.
Sure, this film is cut from a similar mold as its predecessor, but like the old cliche says, "If it ain't broke...". Like TOP GUN, it features a young hotshot piloting a piece of fast-moving machinery. In this case, though, it's a high-powered Chevy Lumina instead of an F-14 Tomcat. Much like in TOP GUN (as well as the majority of his other movied from the era), he's got a mentor. He's got a romantic interest with a woman who is much more down-to-Earth than he. And he's got an early rival who he develops a kinship with. At first glance, this movie may just seem like TOP GUN with cars, but it's actually a more mature movie. Really. That's not a typo.
TOP GUN, as much as it's adored by those of my generation, is really a bad movie. It's chock full of cliches, has some of the worst dialogue this side of a porno flick, and is heavily dated. Oh sure, it's a helluvalotta fun, and It takes a spatula to pry me off the couch if I ever catch it playing on the Superstation, but it's really not a good movie. Not that DANCES WITH WOLVES was in any danger of being upset by DAYS OF THUNDER for Best Picture honors that year or anything, but DAYS is a bit more well-rounded. Somewhere amidst all the engines revving and tires screeching lies a movie that holds up much better to this day. However, for some odd reason, people tend to pass over this film and still hold its fighter-plane predecessor as sacred.
DAYS OF THUNDER is the story of Cole Trickle, the racer played by Cruise, who is recruited as a rookie by a stock car owner played by Randy Quaid. He's hotheaded, inexperienced, and reckless, but man, he sure can drive a race car. Cole develops an early rivalry with a racer named Rowdy Burns (Michael Rooker) with whom he is involved in a tragic accident at one of the races. Both wind up in the Emergency room together, where they are attended to by an attractive Australian nurse named Claire (played by Nicole Kidman, in her first role alongside then-beau Cruise) who eventually falls for Cole. Meanwhile, their time together causes Cole and Rowdy's relationship to go from a rivalry to a friendship, and while Cole's medical conditions seem to be easily resolved, Rowdy's take a turn for the worse. In the meantime, Cole's car is driven by a young upstart driver named Russ Wheeler (Cary Elwes), who turns out to be an eventual thorn in Cole's side once he returns to the circuit. At Cole's urging, Rowdy goes back in to the hospital for treatment, but asks Cole for one favor: to take his place driving his car in the Superbowl of NASCAR, the Daytona 500.
If there's one thing I've learned from watching DAYS OF THUNDER, it's that Rubbin's Racin'. Such is the lesson that Trickle learns early on. There's a whole lot of life lessons that Trickle learns while driving fast and turning left, which can only be summed up to that's racing.
This is part of the story's heart. It's actually bold enough to make metaphors out of NASCAR scenarios, and gets away with it. Trickle, communicating with his mentor/coach Harry Hogge (Robert Duvall, stealing the show here), is guided through the intricacies of pushing his stock car through the rigors of the track, gets taught some valuable lessons about believing in himself and trusting instincts and all that, all the while growing as a character. Here's why the movie is so good: It doesn't shove any kind of message down your throat, it doesn't preach, but it does have the substance. It's got something more than just fast cars and slick action shots.
However, there's certainly no shortage in those elements. The racing scenes are unbelievable, and even if you're no fan of the sport (can't really say that I am, for instance) you'll be sucked in by some of the intense scenes of Cole and Rowdy rubbin', you'll be on the edge of your seat as they try to avoid deadly accidents, you'll cringe as cars go flying through the air. Shot by cinematographer Ward Russell, who worked on TOP GUN as well, and helmed by one of the finest action directors of our time in Scott, the movie's an exhilirating thrill ride. While most other movies on the subject of auto racing seem to fall flat, this one truly captures what it needs to and gives you some nice story to work with.
And if there's a real ringer that gives this movie what it needs to get to the finish line, it's the cast. Tom Cruise, like he often does, plays a terrific Tom Cruise. The difference here is the supporting players. Michael Rooker has shown time and time again how great of a character actor he is, and his ability to go from a villainous rival to a sympathetic friend in this movie is exemplary of that. Robert Duvall turns in an enjoyable performance as Harry, Randy Quaid fills his role of the franchise owner Tim Daland perfectly, and in a diamond-in-the-rough turn, John C. Reilly foreshadows his later Oscar-nominated performance as the head of Cole's pit crew, Buck Bretherton. Oh, and Nicole Kidman is there too, but she's just more or less there for eye candy.
Cruise cowrote the story of DAYS along with Robert Towne, the man responsible for CHINATOWN and SHAMPOO, as well as being a noted script doctor on such fare as FRANTIC, MARATHON MAN, and BONNIE AND CLYDE. So you can kind of tell where the maturity of the script comes from. Cruise apparently had this as a pet project for a while, and I'm sure it turned out far better than even he had imagined it. In keeping with the NASCAR spirit, the character names are quite colorful and pretty well reflect the names you might expect to hear on the racetrack. I kind of have to wince, though, at the name Cole Trickle. I mean, how many people named Trickle can you name, and what occupation does that one person have? Seems a little forced, but a character name does not a movie ruin.
As I said, this movie is often passed over by the same fans that loved previous Tom Cruise vehicles (pun not intended) even though it's a lot better movie than they might envision. I know that whenever I encounter an important life dilemma, when ever someone pushed me in the wrong way, I remember the immortal words of Harry Hogge:
"No, no, he didn't slam into you, he didn't bump you, he didn't nudge you...he RUBBED you. And rubbin, son, is racin'."
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