Among non-athletes like myself, there has always been the debate over if NASCAR driving should be considered a sport.
I know to some this may seem like heresy, as there is a tremendous amount of skill and endurance needed to survive the pressure of bobbing and weaving around a circular track for hours at very high speeds, but if you want to be honest about it they really just go round and round without ever making a right turn. I would be more impressed if they actually went somewhere or I’d had some idea who was winning when I watched it with my dad.
With that said, please understand the trepidation I had when sitting down 26 years after the fact to view the Tom Cruise and Tony Scott ode to things that go VRRROOOMMMMM which is Days of Thunder.
Cruise and Scott had worked together to make the military propaganda piece Top Gun two years earlier and teamed up again here to recapture that magic after legend has it Cruise took a ride with acting pal Paul Newman and became hooked on speed (no, not the pills, but the thrill of going faster than nature allows). A couple of Hollywood phone calls later and the idea for Smilin’ Tom to showcase his good looks from under a NASCAR helmet was born.
Days of Thunder tells the story of disparaged Formula One racer Cole Trickle (a character apparently based on driver Tim Richmond, but his name could be a reference to the unfortunately named real-life stock car racer Dick Trickle), who is recruited by slimy NASCAR team owner (Randy Quaid) to race under the watchful eye of veteran crew chief Harry Hogge (Robert Duvall).
The outsider’s entry initially irks hot-shot racer Rowdy Burns (Michael Rooker), but after the two trade paint on the track an uneasy bond of respect is born. The Trickle-Hogge team heats up the competition for the Winston Cup until Cole and Rowdy are involved in a nasty wreck that sends both to the hospital. This allows Cole to fall for his doctor (Nichole Kidman) as she treats to both him and his rival, but the relationship becomes more complicated when it is revealed Rowdy’s injuries require surgery which will end his racing career.
As Cole and his caregiver become closer, a rookie driver (the always-punchable Cary Elwes) enters the picture and replaces our hero on the track, driving his car while he recovers. The duplicitous team owner eventually replaces Cole, but all is not lost when Rowdy asks Cole to take over for him to finish the season, setting up a dramatic final showdown where the protagonist has to face his personal fears and risk his life to win it all.
Days of Thunder is pretty much Top Gun on the race track, It has both the same plot and look of the ’80s aviation movie, but the neon paint job given to ground it in the world of professional racing doesn’t cover the cracks and dents in the new version.
While Duvall’s character has a genuine backstory, it is only halfway through the film that we learn why Cruise’s protagonist is so driven (apparently filming started with only a story outline and the script was often rewritten daily, which may explain why we learn about Trickle’s past involving an embezzling father figure so late in the story).
More laughable is the doctor-patient relationship between Cole and Dr. Claire Lewicki. Cruise handpicked his co-star and later married and divorced her in real life, but it is far too convenient for this physician to be assigned to treat both high-profile drivers at the same time and simultaneously disregard her professional code to enter a relationship with the diminutive motorist.
Maybe it was his bedroom explanation of the physics of racing that sealed the deal:
So yeah, Days of Thunder is pretty implausible in terms of giving insight into the inner world of stock car racing, but it still makes for a decent ride around the track. The action scenes are engaging even if the plot is not, but the real fun for film fans is looking at a younger John C. Riley in a minor role and imagining it as just a blueprint or alias for the far-superior character that will come 16 years later in Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby.
That film is a much better look at the fascination surrounding both the fans and the people who make those technicolor billboards run round and round the oval track, but Days of Thunder is as much a product of its time as it is how Hollywood views NASCAR racing, regardless of if you think it qualifies as a sport or not.
It definitely works as a sportsball movie, though it may not be the best out there – even if Whitesnake’s David Coverdale sings the theme song.
Days of Thunder (1990)
Directed by: Tony Scott
MPAA rating: PG-13 for language and sexual situations
Celluloid Scoreboard: C+: implausible look at the cars that go vroom and Tom Cruise smiling from under a NASCAR helmet is decent fun as long as you don’t expect it to veer too far off road from the Hollywood formula.