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There’s nothing stock about a stock car.

Days of Thunder
(1990)

(SPOILERS) The summer of 1990 was beset with box office underperformers. Sure-thing sequels – Another 48Hrs, Robocop 2, Gremlins 2: The New Batch, The Exorcist III, even Back to the Future Part III – either belly flopped or failed to hit the hoped for highs, while franchise hopefuls – Dick Tracy, Arachnophobia – most certainly did not ascend to the stratospheric levels of the previous year’s Batman. Even the big hitters, Total Recall and Die Hard 2: Die Harder, were somewhat offset by costing a fortune in the first place. Price-tag-wise, Days of Thunder, a thematic sequel to the phenomenon that was Top Gun, was in their category. Business-wise, it was definitely in the former. Tom Cruise didn’t quite suffer his first misfire since Legend – he’d made charmed choices ever since playing Maverick – but it was a close-run thing.

This was a reunion of Top Gun personnel too – producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer, director Tony Scott, in a production nicknamed Top Car. Premiere magazine had it vouchsafed as the Number One hit of the summer – it should have packed houses and brought home $140m or so (Top Gun made $180m). Instead, Days of Thunder spluttered to $83m, at a cost of $60m+, a symptom of producer power run amok (it was budgeted at $35m). Following Scott’s death, Slate ran a piece in 2012 asserting that it changed the way the then vogue in producer-led productions spiralling out of control were handled, which is to some extent true (Peter Guber and Jon Peters still went on to the abortive Superman Lives! though). Although, Simpson dying and the relatively moderate Bruckheimer going from strength to strength also had an effect; it would be five years before they had another hit, Bad Boys.

But Slate does Scott a disservice by suggesting his work with them was made to order (“jangly necklaces of MTV-like rock video sequences interspersed with feats of, well, fill-in-the-blank… To make such a movie one need not hire Serge Eisenstein”). The visuals he offered their ‘80s productions were entirely his own, and they’re consistent throughout his more critically approved subsequent work, just often with all-important decent screenplays also attached. If the Simpson/Bruckheimer Flashdance has a similar sheen, it’s because the producers picked English ad men to call the shots; you won’t find the same look in their Beverly Hills Cop, and there’s precious little else to reference during that period; of their six productions to 1990, three of them were Scott directed, so who was influencing whom? Now, content is another matter; Scott’s aesthetic simply suited their flashy vacuity.

And the content on this occasion was unmitigated slop. It led to Simpson and Bruckheimer parting ways with Paramount (soon after signing a deal worth $300m) amid mutual acrimony; the studio blamed overspending, they blamed the rush to hit a release date. The studio asked for $9m back from them for losses made, and also under-budgeted Beverly Hills Cop III – and look what happened with that one when it eventually appeared. The producer duo moved to Disney where, not long after their first successes began appearing, Bruckheimer finally had enough of his partner’s drug-fuelled excesses, severing their relationship (Simpson died of drug-related heart failure in 1996). Simpson’s delusionary thinking during Top Car even led to him requesting the purpose-written role of driver Aldo Bennedetti (most of which ended up on the cutting room floor). Producer spending ran rampant and there were also frequent delays due to arguments over how to shoot (despite this, Scott would work with Bruckheimer three more times; it probably seemed like a breeze after having to deal with Bruce Willis and Joel Silver on the subsequent Last Boy Scout).

How does Tom Cruise fit in to all this? He was their golden boy, and had by far his biggest hit with them. He fancied following in Paul Newman’s racing footsteps – the movie was reputedly conceived when he and Newman tested one of NASCAR team owner Rick Hendrick’s race cars – but rather like his character in the movie, he was over-aggressive on the track. The dare-devil speed freak formula seemed like a no-brainer, and Cruise duly brought in Robert Towne to thrash out a screenplay (Cruise gets a story credit, tellingly the only such occasion). It was not one of Towne’s better for-hire affairs, although there are admittedly quite a few to choose from in that category, and was constantly being revised on set.

In essence, Days of Thunder follows the Cruise template of the period, something Roger Ebert (who liked the movie) etched out in convincing form, and you might argue that the formulaic nature could be a virtue, if it actually followed it successfully. All the elements are there – Cruise’s cocky kid just needing to apply himself when guided by a fine mentor (Robert Duvall), sparring with a rival he eventually becomes chums with (Michael Rooker), falling for a hot professional (Nicole Kidman, coming off the lauded Dead Calm, handed the thinnest of parts), coming a cropper and needing to recover his confidence, a real rival (Cary Elwes, who might at one point have had a more substantial role; as it is, he barely qualifies as villainous) whom he bests in the final triumphant race – but the approach that made Top Gun such a hit is entirely less fleet-footed here. Scott puts together some solid race footage during the first half, but then the movie stops dead for what seems like an age, as Cruise’s Cole Trickle – a name that sounds like a urinary complaint ­– engages in a tepid romance and Rooker’s Rowdy gets crook.

There’s also the fatal problem that the movie assumes you like Cole because you like Tom, but there’s absolutely nothing here to back that up. There’s an added layer of the excruciating too, with Cruise flashing his trademark pearly whites as Trickle indulges his teammates laddishly larky – sexist, exploitative – behaviour but entirely fails to convince that he’s up for this kind of thing or that he’s part of this crowd.

Duvall, in contrast, has his role down pat, a salt-of-the-earth type with homespun wisdom who has no pretensions about men being men and women being women. He almost single-handedly imbues the movie with verisimilitude that’s otherwise entirely absent. Cruise was clearly canny enough at this point to recognise he could bolster his credibility by sparking off a seasoned pro, but whereas previously (Newman in The Color of Money, Hoffman in Rain Man) it reaped dividends, and would so again (Hackman in The Firm, Nicholson in A Few Good Men), here he finds himself caught in an uncomfortable holding pattern. He’d come a long way since Top Gun, to the tune of an Oscar nomination earlier that year, so this really represented a backslide, a miscalculation of his cachet and career direction. He’d follow it with another stumble (Far and Away), before rallying in a manner that enabled him to plough through the rest of the decade on top of the world, but his only return to franchise fare, his Mission: Impossible baby, notably saw him eschewing his popular ‘80s persona for a kind of non-descript action man (which he did extremely well).

Cole’s boast “There’s nothing I can’t do with a race car” is reliant on the audience being wowed, but racing has proved a genre singularly resistant to cinematic success (if we ignore the only nominally related Fast and Furious franchise) Comedies have fared better, but the likes of Le Mans, Rush, Driven, Winning, Bobby Deerfield, even Speed Racer, all tanked (Grand Prix did okay). Le Mans '66Ford v Ferrari will doubtless follow suit. The rivalry/camaraderie with Rowdy never takes off despite wheelchair and rental car races, and Cruise’s chemistry with Kidman is as tepid as in their other on-screen pairings (at least in Eyes Wide Shut that plays to the material). But then, Cruise has rarely been a convincing romantic lead. There’s amenable support from John C Reilly and Randy Quaid (it was also Margo Martindale’s big screen debut), but it’s only Duvall who actually fools you into thinking there’s something worth caring about here.

For empty froth like this to succeed, it needs to flash by, but Days of Thunder is stuck in the pits whenever there isn’t a race on, which is most of the time. There are some compensations; Ward Russell’s cinematography is the real star turn (he’s now a stills photographer), while Hans Zimmer’s bombastic, aspirational, sun-kissed score may have become over familiar through repetition, but back then, he was still quite fresh, with only Black Rain and Rain Man broadcasting his name. The soundtrack was no Top Gun either; Maria McKee’s Show Me Heaven was a UK number one, but didn’t even reach Billboard’s Hot 100.

When Bruckheimer regrouped a few years later, his success formula required sparky screenplays to compliment the visuals, hence the run of Bad Boys, Crimson TideThe Rock, Con Air, Enemy of the State and, er, Armageddon. Scott, in his own way, followed a similar train of thought. Cruise realised he needed to capitalise on his clout by making choices that were simultaneously commercial and not exactly what he’d always done (no easy thing, but he succeeded admirably for another decade). As for 1990, the biggest four for the year weren’t on anyone’s must-see list at the beginning (Pretty Woman, Ghost, Dances with Wolves, Home Alone). No one proclaims Days of Thunder an unsung masterpiece (except maybe Tarantino, but he’s weird like that – his latest pic of choice is Crawl), but studios are still willing to periodically test that assumed viewer aversion to racing movies. Good luck on that one.


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