Directed by Tony Scott
Written by Tom Cruise and Robert Towne
Now we arrive at Days of Thunder, Tony Scott's fifth film, his second and final film with Tom Cruise, and his third film for producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer, and there are all the usual angles by which to approach it: the disaster of it; the miracle of it; the absolute shamelessness with which it remakes Scott's first film with Cruise, Simpson, and Bruckheimer, Top Gun. In 2022, we could add its value as a historical document, reminding us that at one point—well within memory for most of us!—America's culture wars seemed to be subsiding, rather than intensifying to an end-times fervor; it's a nearly unimaginable project today, and perhaps the various goons who've called for a legacy sequel on the back of Top Gun: Maverick have not imagined it hard enough. The way I want to approach it, however, is with the ways this Top Gun remake actually differs from Top Gun. No pair of films in Scott's filmography go together so well, that's true; yet no pair better demonstrate the shift he underwent as the 80s ended and he embraced his role as a steward of big-budget action-thrillers. Which of course Top Gun already was, so maybe this all sounds a little silly; but if you promise not to laugh when I say Top Gun was Scott still doing poetry, you might agree that Days of Thunder was Scott turning definitively towards prose. Hey, you promised.
It's treacherous to overemphasize that (Top Gun is the visual poetry of an 80s male puberty, and Days of Thunder is still beautiful, and indeed chiefly concerned with capturing another vulnerably masculine vibe), but in every respect that Top Gun was mysterious and esoteric, Days of Thunder is literal and concrete. The film is almost nothing but parallels to its predecessor, but you can do this with practically every one of them. So: Top Gun's hero has a dead and disgraced father whom he rarely discusses, yet whom he strives to redeem by flying recklessly into heaven; Days of Thunder's hero has an absent and disgraced father, and practically asks the first halfway-friendly old man he meets to become his new dad. Top Gun's hero has a girlfriend who represents knowledge of the technology he must become, who understands and encourages his quest against the sky; Days of Thunder's hero has a girlfriend because he's hot and his doctor is hot, and she must have it explained to her what makes him tick. Top Gun's hero has an antithesis who must be his competitor before he can become a friend; Days of Thunder's hero merely has competitors, who can likewise be friendly when they're not essentially attempting to kill each other. Top Gun was backed by the United States Navy, and it culminates in a mythic battle to the death in the clouds between the champions of nations; Days of Thunder was backed by NASCAR, and it culminates in a car-shaped advertisement for a rancid soft drink going around in a circle for the crucial two hundredth time.
Texture's an issue, but tastier than Mello Yello.
Speaking more formally, Top Gun's virtually a music video. It used pop songs and its 80s score as indispensable structural elements, practically replacements for conventional narrative; Days of Thunder has a solid soundtrack but I don't know if you'd actually know that (personally I really like David Coverdale's "Last Note of Freedom," but it's an end credits song, and while there's a feint at using Joan Jett's "Long Live the Night" like Berlin's "Take My Breath Away," Scott must've finally drawn the line at ripping off his own sex scenes). By the same token, Hans Zimmer's Giorgio Moroder-style score is excellent, evocative of the South, the 80s, and automotive sport, with its electric guitars and synthesized metallic groans, but it isn't made the lifeblood of Days of Thunder, not the way Harold Faltermeyer's Giorgio Moroder-style score was the lifeblood of Top Gun.
At the most simplistic level, Top Gun is about airplanes, and airplanes feel magical even when you're not trying, and Top Gun was trying more than any movie made before or since; Days of Thunder is about cars. They are way cooler than your car, but they're a cool version of a quotidian item, treated as tools of their sport, destroyed and disposed of over and over. There is never quite the same overwhelming feeling of cybernetic union, that the cars are joined to the meat inside. Maybe it's just because they don't move in acrobatics in three-dimensions but stay stuck on a 2-D track, mostly in a single curve; but they also change their colors and their drivers, and while the men get hurt, it's not because they've offended demons in the air. "Rubbing is racing," right?
Which is another thing: Robert Towne's screenplay (developed from a story by Towne and Cruise himself, though for all I know Cruise's contribution amounted to "I would like to consolidate my fame by doing Top Gun again, but now with cars") is extremely literal, sometimes condescending, and constantly expositing its terminology and stating its characters' feelings out loud. Towne tries to force soul and metal to merge, by having his car builder talk to his creations; and while this still works, in Top Gun this had been a function less of script or performance, and more of Scott's advertising-honed ability to break down the categorical barriers between people and inanimate objects. I would not agree that Towne's screenplay is terrible or even bad, but it does have terribleness in it, and it can get bad. It never gets worse than when it slops a monologue onto its lead actress at the beginning of her career (Days of Thunder was practically Nicole Kidman's first "real" movie), and it's a monologue that I doubt she could believably deliver today. It does the same work for Days of Thunder, less effectively, that Scott had done back in Top Gun with a car chase/sex scene. But, you know, the weird thing is that Days of Thunder is still every bit as goofy and unrealistic as Top Gun; probably rather moreso.
For all that, there are advantages to this approach. So, sure: they're Tony Scott's identical twin masterpieces, and both of them masterpieces largely because of Scott. (It is not devoid of poetry, no more than it's devoid of Scott's obsession with the color orange. I do like the half-revering, half-cheeky opening montage, that, besides doing atmosphere, cuts together over the course of three shots the emblems of NASCAR: an American flag, a traitor flag, and what it's all really about, sponsor flags, centered on a red-white-and-blue banner that says "Pepsi.") The immortal question, anyway, is which is better, and frankly I don't think I'm going to resolve that here. It's a tie, and each has its own strengths: Top Gun is about becoming a god amongst other gods, and Days of Thunder is about codes of masculinity and articulable dreams and learning to obey your new gearhead dad, and therefore permits more room for humanity. It's cartoonish, caricatured humanity—elemental humanity, italicized humanity—but perfect for this kind of quintessential blockbuster.
That finally gets us to what Days of Thunder is, which is pretty much just a racing movie, though its status as the racing movie (give or take a Grand Prix) is a richly-earned one. And so we begin with local North Carolina striver and car dealer Tim Daland (Randy Quaid), who wants to try his hand at stock cars, and when he approaches retired (and semi-disgraced) NASCAR legend Harry Hogge (Robert Duvall) to lead his crew, he intimates he already has their driver. Harry is skeptical because not only is Tim a semi-nobody, the season's already started, and thus Harry is not nearly as enthusiastic as we are to meet Cole Trickle (Cruise), nor as enthusiastic as Scott is to introduce us to him, when Cole arrives jacket-clad on the back of a motorcycle and out of a cloud of smoke, confirming that we're in for Top Gun's spiritual sequel. But it turns out Harry's skepticism was at least somewhat misplaced: Cole, though an obscure Californian running from his past in a different motorsport entirely—there's a very unstressed theme of culture clash in Days of Thunder—is fast as hell. Harry, intrigued, agrees to build his car. There is a pronounced learning curve, however, and many hurdles to clear before Cole is real NASCAR material. Meanwhile, he earns the ire of a fellow driver, Rowdy Burns (Michael Rooker), and this becomes a rivalry that eventually puts both men in the hospital. Distancing himself from Cole's reckless troublemaker status, Tim's already fielded another driver, Russ Wheeler (Cary Elwes), and Cole, traumatized by his brush with death as well as the crippling injury he's inflicted upon his fellow driver, progressively loses his nerve till he can scarcely race at all. His insecurities put a torch to all his relationships—with Harry, with Russ, with Tim, with his hot doctor Claire Lewicki (Kidman)—but when Rowdy calls him to his side, and asks him to drive his car in his place, Cole cannot say no.
Those are really solid bones, and while there's very little swerve to any of it, it is a sports movie—there are like three possible sports movie stories, and I may be overcounting (plus most of the characters are inspired by real NASCAR figures, though "Cole Trickle" is based not on Dick Trickle, ha ha, but Tim Richmond)—and there's a lot to love about any movie so generic on paper that winds up with so much personality on the screen, as that's a combination that makes for really superlative popcorn cinema. The cast is strong all around, no one moreso than Duvall (which may have been inevitable), and Duvall really digs into the surrogate father role the screenplay leaves open for him, so that while he spends the entire movie criticizing or challenging or sometimes just exploiting Cole's naievete and ignorance, he always leaves himself open to rejoinder because he wants Cruise to come back at him with proof of the lesson learned; and they have a wonderfully snappy rapport, which tends to bring the best out of Cruise, too, who's playing Cole as Maverick but with a new brittleness, recasting Maverick's search for perfection into something uglier, lonelier, and more desperate. Enter Kidman, who's doing her damnedest with a dubious role as the outsider who thinks this is all bullshit; all the best aspects of Kidman's performance involve the basic horniness of Claire's romance with Cole, so that Days of Thunder demonstrates why Kidman and Cruise got married as readily as Eyes Wide Shut demonstrates why they no longer are, whereas obviously Scott was having fun with Kidman, enjoying how easily she fills the vertical axis of a Panavision frame even in fairly wide shots, and directing love scenes in which the comparatively-petite Cruise was paired with a woman physically capable of more-or-less lifting him off the floor. I'm not exactly sure when Scott stopped emphasizing his femdom kink in his movies, but maybe we lost something there.
Cruise's jaggedness, in any case, is a good fit with the material of this Top Gun remake, which doubles or trebles down on the part of Top Gun's vibe that some found disagreeable, so that while Top Gun is undeniably adolescent, Days of Thunder ratchets that down even further into straight-up childishness. I don't hate this about the film, and value it in its way, because a lot of it feels like Scott going with his instincts to render the melodrama in the most kinetic form he could imagine, even if what he imagined was stupid and impossible, so as groan-inducingly dorky as it is (it's definitely supposed to be funny, but I honestly wonder if it's not actually supposed to be actively critical), I really do adore Cole and Rowdy recapitulating their on-track rivalry in the halls of a hospital in a wheelchair race, literal hours after each one has almost died at the other's hands, as well as the demolition derby they make of a pair of rental cars across Daytona, thereby sealing their new camaraderie. It's wacky, but it's pure masculinity, getting the idea across in the highest-impact terms available, so even when Days of Thunder does go too far, there's an emotional logic to it, even if the emotional logic is that of a six year old and the plot logic doesn't exist. The fraughtest scene between Cole and Claire, where he endangers her very life in a automotive temper tantrum, isn't even the maximum here (even if it's the worst scene because it's the one that requires Kidman to puke out Towne's clunkiest dialogue); the maximum is when Cole's mad he lost a race unfairly, so he takes his car back out on the track and T-bones Russ during the latter's victory lap, which is rad and, also, attempted murder. On the other hand, I get a little choked up with the third act's turn towards true sportsmanship.
But of course this is all scaffolding for what Days of Thunder was actually made for. And it was a difficult thing to make, thanks to too many cooks: Simpson & Bruckheimer were at their all-time most-overbearing on Days of Thunder, interfering with Scott frequently, sometimes on a daily basis (the cocaine-induced stamina of the men is admirable after a fashion, since they had the energy to bother their director and use the film's shooting location in Daytona to establish a sex den), to the extent that the film wound up massively overbudget basically exclusively due to overtime accrued while the principals argued; even Towne got in on this action (the interference, that is, not the procurement and pandering). If the key production anecdote of Top Gun was Scott cutting a check to the Navy to turn an aircraft carrier into the sun, the key production anecdote of Days of Thunder was they forgot to get a shot of Cole crossing the finish line and had to do a pick-up at enormous expense.
I referred to a disaster and a miracle, and the miracle is that you would never even guess from the finished product. Graduating from Scott's chief lighting technician to his DP, Ward Russell did not have a very exciting career ahead of him, and Days of Thunder makes that utterly mystifying: it's a terrific work of photography (it is, plausibly, Scott's single best-looking film). It captures the kaleidoscope of NASCAR through an oily haze, from the shots from wheel-height just barely above the track to the moments when the cars combine into abstracted smears of summertime speed; even the conversation scenes all look fantastic, all mood-enhancing diffusion and shadows and shafts of light. Of course, it's especially a triumph of editing, Scott entrusting to his veterans Billy Weber and Chris Lebenzon an ungodly amount of footage, for Days of Thunder took the unorthodox step of essentially doubling as an actual NASCAR documentary: the reason these cars and races and wrecks are so gloriously tangible and real is that, as with Top Gun before it, they are tangible and real, and Days of Thunder takes that concept even further, with Scott arranging it with NASCAR to allow his cars to simply take part in actual races. The story goes that Scott had more cameras than the TV crews; the Top Gun equivalent would be if Scott had gone to the Gulf of Sidra and asked the USN to pick another fight with Libya.
The narratively-essential beats were staged (obviously the wrecks were, but not with miniatures: the stunt drivers are the absolute heroes of this film), but to a shocking degree Days of Thunder is just direct cinema. (Or almost direct: the sound designers had their work cut out, obviously, and netted Days of Thunder its one Oscar nomination, and for the maximalist, immersive soundscape they built across Weber and Lebenzon's patchwork, surely deserved the win.) Naturally, the same tiny problems that attended Top Gun attend this—continuity errors and reused shots (there's a particular shot of Cole spying a massive pile-up in the distance that seems to be a nexus point in spacetime)—but these are easy to forgive. It's an infinity beyond just watching a NASCAR race, which, with apologies to everyone I grew up with, is boring; it succeeds at putting you inside it.
Even cobbled together out of chaos, there remains an outstanding attention to color as a narrative and emotional guide: if it was an accident of filters, it was an ecstatically happy accident, and all throughout Cole's breakdown, those already-saturated colors feel like they're being pushed even further, the light red livery of his sponsor, Superflo, glowing like the colour out of fucking space, becoming this bizarre eye-searing neon pink-orange, and the typical pairing of Cole's car in these scenes, with Russ's Hardees-sponsored competitor, gives the action a downright hallucinatory cast; it at least looks like the vibrations and reflections are punched up for this section of the film, and "punching up" here means "delirious." (Whereas when Cole regains his purpose, it's inside Rowdy's surprisingly grim, mostly black Mello Yello car. More tritely, maybe, there's a red is stop/green is go thing happening.) My favorite single use of light comes earlier, a brief shot of Cole in his car as he rolls through the smoke to keep his fated appointment with Rowdy, and between the obscuring cloud outside and the checkered pattern of light coruscating off his shaking face and helmet, there is this sensation of Cole alone in the universe, flying through oblivion. But these are all just the highlights film that's gorgeous front to back, that achieves every single thing it sets out to do, and the biggest thing it sets out to do is encase you in two tons of metal going 200mph with dismemberment and death around every curve, and, as any good sports movie must, find exultation and meaning not just in victory, but in the contest.