Most children of the 1980s grew up with a “Top Gun” poster on their wall, a VHS copy of the film on their shelf, the “Top Gun” soundtrack (on tape) and an urge to declare a “need for speed” at any provocation.
I get it.
Whether you were a big fan or had just a passing familiarity with the 1986 smash, easily one of the most influential summer movies ever, there was no escaping its presence in pop culture. Nor the presence it still has as an ’80s artifact that infiltrated the modern zeitgeist.
Undoubtedly the trailer for the upcoming (?) “Top Gun: Maverick” has something to do with this, though the original film’s beloved soundtrack, flashy visual thrills and its reputation as the best unofficial military recruitment film ever made might have something to do that as well.
Yes, there is no escaping the timeless appeal of “Top Gun,” but I’m here to tell you that “Days of Thunder,” made by the same production team, director and star of “Top Gun” is a much better film.
“Days of Thunder” begins with a shot of a racing arena that gives it the kind of grandeur you’d expect from a movie about gladiators in a Roman coliseum. Likewise, Hans Zimmer’s exciting score which, if you listen closely, is actually a sped-up variation on his music for “Driving Miss Daisy.”
We meet Harry Hogge (Robert Duvall), who is talked into nursing the career of an up and coming racer by a former colleague (Randy Quaid). The racer in question is Cole Trickle (Tom Cruise), whose dazzling performance on the racetrack somewhat makes up for his reckless behavior and unwillingness to collaborate when he’s out of the car.
Hogge and Trickle, initially at odds, eventually bond and find a shorthand between them that makes Cole a better man on and off the track.
The plot is set up in a series of exposition-heavy monologues. One character is given a backstory with, “I didn’t avoid an investigation,” setting up a subplot the film only sort-of follows through on. Then, when we meet our hero, Cruise’s Cole Trickle (the name is a nod to the late Dick Trickle), he gives the camera one of his sexy sideways looks and says, “You build me a car and I’ll win Daytona next year.”
Considering that Robert Towne, the Oscar-winning creator of “Chinatown,” is the film’s author (though Cruise gets a story credit), the slapped together aspects of the screenplay surprise.
What’s more important is that, from the establishing frames, Tony Scott is directing the hell out of this movie.
A prime example is Cruise’s first appearance, which is, no kidding around, the greatest movie star entrance I’ve seen: someone asks, “Who is this driver?” and Quaid (great at playing a corporate stooge) looks offscreen as though he were awaiting the arrival of Zeus.
Then, out of a cloud of smoke, we see Cruise, driving his motorcycle through the fog and into the view of the camera -- his hair, leather jacket and Ray Bans sunglasses, all perfect.
When Cruise slowly turns to Duvall for the first time and their eyes lock, you half expect him to flinch from Cruise’s gorgeous close-up. It’s pretty shameless but it absolutely works, as Scott establishes that we’re witnessing a story of mythic proportions.
It’s coming from mega-producers Jerry Bruckheimer and Don Simpson, once touted as “The Visionary Alliance,” so why not?
The film looks and sounds amazing, with cinematographer Ward Russell (who would later shoot Scott’s “The Last Boy Scout”) giving the imagery gloss, texture and beauty. While Towne’s premise is full of formula one clichés you can see coming, the film hits its stride when our hero’s career nearly ends in a horrific wreck.
The second act, in which Cole recovers from the trauma, pursues his child-like crush on his doctor (Nicole Kidman) and engages in a testy rivalry and bitter friendship with another injured driver (Michael Rooker), is especially compelling.
For a movie so cocky and slick, it’s actually an actor’s film (Duvall, Quaid and especially Rooker are excellent) and not the extended music video that “Top Gun” was. Both very of-its-day and made during MTV’s heyday, “Top Gun” plays like a series of music videos ready for rotation amidst the likes of Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer” and Madonna’s “Open Your Heart.”
That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but if “Top Gun” comes across like its own music video, then “Days of Thunder” feels more like a real movie. There’s a music montage early on, set to Spencer Davis groups’ 1966 hit “Gimme Some Lovin,” showing Cole’s multiple failures on the track. This sequence is brief and pushes forward the plot, not the soundtrack album.
FAST FACT: “Days of Thunder” earned a solid, not spectacular $82 million at the U.S. box office in 1990.
Towne’s script is oddly malnourished and somehow still overwritten, with a subplot featuring Cary Elwes, playing a threat to Cole’s career who competes for his mantle: Elwes is a good sport but it appears his character was dropped into the third act to give the movie a villain.
Then there’s Kidman, coming off her striking debut in “Dead Calm” (1989); as Dr. Lewicki, Kidman starts off strong, until the script dumbs her down. Note the scene where she’s at work and on the phone with Cole and a colleague enters, telling her, “There’s a trauma in the ER.”
There’s at least two more minutes of chatting up her love interest before she finally hangs up(!).
Kidman finally redeems herself late in the film, where Dr. Lewicki gives Cole a much-needed dressing down (“There is no control!”). The other moment where the dialog stands out is Quaid’s hilarious (and unprintable) speech in which he describes Cole and Hogge’s initial working relationship -- it gets the movie’s sole F-bomb.
On the other hand, too much is made of the late “Buddy,” a character who is never shown, whose death lingers over the main characters and whose son, played by John C. Reilly, is on Cole’s pit crew (yes, Reilly’s participation makes this a “Talladega Nights” prequel).
Because there’s no CGI and very little special effects of any kind, the racing footage puts this above any movie of its kind pre-“Ford V. Ferrari.” John Frankenheimer’s “Grand Prix” is still the king of these movies, though Scott’s ability to give the races coherence and excitement puts this above a wannabe like Sylvester Stallone’s “Driven” (2001).
As a “Top Gun” redux, “Days of Thunder” stands out for humanizing the man behind the wheel; while Cruise has indulged in too many movie star roles (eclipsing his reputation as a solid actor who often takes calculated risks), he willingly makes Cole vulnerable.
At one point, he confesses to Hogge that “I’m an idiot, I don’t have the vocabulary.” Later, he declares “I’m more afraid of being nothing than I am of being hurt.” This is a star vehicle for Cruise, to be sure, but the character is interesting.
Cole is far more insecure than Maverick. This is the portrait of a man who will eventually burn himself out, which is why the big finale doesn’t feel like an entirely happy ending.
By the way, the racing film’s title means absolutely nothing. “Days of Thunder” would better serve a movie about a weatherman, but it doesn’t seem like the title they had in mind all along. The phrase “victory lane” comes up enough that it might have been the film’s moniker at some point; note the oft-mentioned sequence where Cole demonstrates to Dr. Lewicki his method for winning the big race (indeed, it foreshadows the climax) by racing two sugar packets up her bare thigh.
Presumably, Cruise and company had second thoughts about naming the film after Cole’s euphemism for Dr. Lewicki’s vagina.
Speaking of human anatomy, let’s end with a recollection of an infamous industry tale.
Months before “Days of Thunder” opened, its filmmakers staged a playful war of words with their competition, Disney’s “Dick Tracy,” via fax machine messages.
As the rumor goes, someone at Paramount faxed the “Dick Tracy” crew the tagline to their movie: “You Can’t Outrun the Thunder.” Not to be outdone, someone at the Mouse House faxed this message to Paramount: “Our Dick is bigger than your Thunder.”
Clearly, both studios had their eye on victory lane.