Movie review: ‘Days of Thunder’

We are just past the 27th anniversary of the premiere of the Tom Cruise race flick “Days of Thunder.” We’re also just past the annual NASCAR race for the Fourth of July holiday for 2017 (it used to be called the “Firecracker 400” and race is important to the film’s plot). I don’t know how NASCAR took the film back then and I don’t know what it would think when it looks back today at the cars and drivers, but I have to say the film is entertaining, doesn’t make a mockery of the South and that so-Southern tradition of stock car racing and Cruise is solid despite not being your conventional “good ’ol boy.” “Days of Thunder” has really good work by Cruise and Robert Duvall and you really will find this is a good motion picture – not just some action flick with a Hollywood name.

‘Days of Thunder’
(1990; 107 minutes; rated PG-13; directed by Tony Scott and starring Tom Cruise, Robert Duvall and Nicole Kidman)

THE THUNDER IS MORE THAN JUST ON THE TRACK

I’ve written before and I’ll write again that I enjoy Tom Cruise movies. Of course the cash register for his career is proof of this despite his personal vagaries, but not every actor is or will ever be as watchable as Tom – especially when he invades a Southern tradition such as stock car racing. Since Cruise is about as Southern as I’m a Martian, he’s portrayed as a Californian making waves in NASCAR in 1990’s “Days of Thunder” and if you give it a chance, you’ll find a film that exceeds all your expectations.

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I’m not saying that there are not stereotypes and you see just about everything coming and figure it out about two pages ahead of the writers, but “Days of Thunder” is a treat to watch not just because of the visuals and star-power, but because director Tony Scott takes his time telling a story – and the story is not in the action. In today’s CGI-infected films, “Days of Thunder” would just have been made with the acting as nothing more than a bridge to the next chillingly accurate, slow-motion destruction of race cars and bodies.

With “Days of Thunder,” you actually get actors at their craft – and one in particular: Oscar winner Robert Duvall. No, he didn’t get a nomination much less a statue for “Days of Thunder,” but he gives a solid turn here. You’d say his work is way above average if you were judging most actors’ careers, but his is so special that it’s just business as usual with excellence as the norm for this Hollywood icon.

For the record, “Days of Thunder” is the story of Cruise as driver “Cole Trickle.” He’s the outsider being brought into NASCAR by a car dealer who sponsors a car. Cruise is a hotshot open-wheel racer, but isn’t conventional in his driving or listening to his crew chief “Harry Hogge” played by Duvall. The duo clash, begin to win, experience a nasty crash that affects everyone through the rest of the film and ultimately see Cruise triumph over all. Well, as far as the ending, the hero has to triumph, right? Whew! That’s a lot, but there’s even more that I don’t want to take the time to outline for you.

Days of Thunder” has a solid but not large supporting cast, including Cruise’s wife-to-be Nicole Kidman, the ever-underrated John C. Reilly and the eccentric Randy Quaid. All three, plus Fred Dalton Thompson, give the solid foundation that the headliners need to make this movie worth watching.

Here’s a rundown of some of the principal cast of “Days of Thunder” and how they fit into the plot:

  • Three-time Oscar nominee (not for this one) Cruise carries the film. Sure, Duvall does a better job, but there’s no “Days of Thunder” without him. Cruise does what he does best: Make you want to watch him. He’s earnest and can be vulnerable along with his cocky charm here. Cruise’s scenes alone with Duvall are worth the price of admission. He was nominated for “Magnolia,” “Born on the Fourth of July” and “Jerry Maguire.” Frankly, I believe Tom’s best work was in “Rain Man,” where I’m probably alone in saying he deserved the Oscar over Dustin Hoffman (and he wasn’t even nominated for that one).
  • Oscar winner and six-time nominee Duvall does everything right here as the somewhat calculating crew chief. He does one-one-one scenes well; he does group scenes well; he all too easily conveys emotion; and knows when to put emphasis and what kind of emphasis to his lines. He’s especially good in his one-on-one scenes with Cruise. He was nominated earlier in his career for two iconic films (“The Godfather” and “Apocalypse Now”) and went on to impress in such works as “The Great Santini” and most recently in “The Judge.” Duvall won Best Actor for “Tender Mercies.” I also liked him in both Sam Peckinpah’s “The Killer Elite” (click here for my review) and with Clint Eastwood in “Joe Kidd” (click here for my review).
  • The best thing I can say about Oscar winner and three-time nominee (not for this one) Kidman as “Dr. Claire Lewicki” is that she’s smooth. Unlike Duvall, she doesn’t elevate her character and, unlike Cruise, doesn’t project enough watchability or have enough screen time here to elevate it, either. As it is, she’s at best believable. Her on-screen chemistry with Cruise isn’t really much – although the pair would be married in real life by the end of the year “Days of Thunder” came out – but they had to have a love interest for their leading man. I liked Kidman tremendously in the Adam Sandler comedy “Just Go With It” (click here for my review) and she won for “The Hours” and was nominated for “Lion,” “Rabbit Hole” and “Moulin Rouge!
  • Oscar nominee (not for this one) Quaid plays auto dealer and race car owner “Tim Daland” and is pretty much window dressing here. His best is that he is competent being the bridge between all the characters except Cruise and Kidman. Quaid doesn’t distinguish himself or elevate the character, but he doesn’t fumble it, either. Quaid got his nomination early for “The Last Detail” also early is his work in critically-acclaimed films including “The Last Picture Show” (his first credit) and “Paper Moon.” He’d go on to “Kingpin” and has 116 credits through five decades in Hollywood. I like him best as “Cousin Eddie” in the “Vacation” franchise (click here for my review of “Christmas Vacation”).
  • Good ’ol boy Michael Rooker (he’s from Alabama) plays “Rowdy Burns” and is Cruise’s nemesis at first. Then the two become friends. Rooker does a very good job conveying a character that exudes toughness, but without the cruelty you’d think necessary to stay on top in sports. After a solid beginning, his character somewhat takes a step back. All-in-all, a nice casting choice to be “Rowdy.” Just like Quaid, Rooker has 116 credits through the day of the writing of this review, but in a decade shorter time. He’s most recently been in the “Guardians of the Galaxy” films; has done a bunch of TV; and even voiced for “Archer.”
  • Cary Elwes plays bad guy “Russ Wheeler.” He’s the driver brought in while Cruise is injured and manages to elbow a now-shaken Cruise aside. Elwes does much with his relatively small part here, but, sadly, is another actor who doesn’t make his or her character memorable. I’m not sure what to make of Elwes’ ability, but I have liked him in HBO’s “The Pentagon Wars” (click here for my review) as well as a total geek in “Liar Liar” with Jim Carrey (click here for my review).
  • Oscar nominee (not for this one) Reilly was only in his third film with “Days of Thunder.” It’s not a big part, but he manages to get a hit. It might just be a single, but he gets on base with this one as “Buck Bretherton,” who is a crew member that has a past with Duvall. Reilly doesn’t get a chance to elevate his character, but you don’t forget him quickly, either. He received his nomination for “Chicago” and has an eclectic resume from serious drama (“Boogie Nights”) to comedy (“Step Brothers”) to TV (“Rubberhead”) to voicing (“Stone Quackers”). I would have liked to see more of him.
  • Thompson, who throughout his career was hauled out simply for his voice, plays “Big John,” who is a racetrack owner. Ah, so little time on screen, but with his voice, who cares? Thompson manages to pack more in his brief visits than a couple supporting actors do throughout the film. He was in “Barbarians at the Gate” (click here for my review), “The Hunt for Red October” (click here for my review) and was all over TV including the big three branches of the “Law & Order” franchise. Thompson died of cancer in 2015 at the age of 73.

In the end, the guy gets the girl; the guy wins the race; and the guy comes out on top. You expect it; you want it; but it doesn’t insult you doing it.

One cute little Easter egg dropped into the film that many cite as a goof, blooper or continuity error can be found in a scene between Cruise and Duvall as they talk at the window of the race car. As the camera cuts go back and forth to Duvall, the cap he is wearing changes logos from my beloved University of Florida to the University of Georgia. I’ll say it was obviously no error (Duvall alone is too smart and experienced for such a let-down), but an intentional play on the football rivalry between my Gators and the hated Bulldogs. It’s pretty cool to watch the caps change, even though Georgia gets credit along with UF.

By the way, you don’t have to take my amateur word about the watchability of “Days of Thunder,” then look at a quote attributed to Oscar-winning director/writer Quentin Tarantino: “Yeah, yeah, you laugh but seriously I’m a big fan. To me Days of Thunder is the movie Grand Prix and Le Mans should have been. Sure, it had a big budget, big stars and a big director in Tony Scott, but it had the fun of those early AIP movies. I just don’t think it works if you take the whole thing too seriously.”

Days of Thunder” was the certainly not unlucky being the 13th ranked film of 1990 with $82.6 million in ticket sales, according to Box Office Mojo. It was made on a budget of $60 million and earned $157.9 million worldwide, according to Wiki. “Days of Thunder” lagged behind No. 1 “Home Alone” ($285.7 million) and No. 2 “Ghost” ($217.6 million). Here are the other films from 1990 that I’ve reviewed for this blog:

Assorted cast and film notes (via IMDb.com):

  • Days of Thunder” was nominated for an Oscar! No, not for direction; no, not for acting; and no, not for cinematography or costume design. It was for sound. Anyone who enjoys motorsports will understand.
  • Kidman reportedly wanted to study neurosurgery in preparation for her character, but producers apparently said no. I’d say the better response would be, “Really?”
  • Days of Thunder” has a ton of homages to NASCAR and its drivers, owners and crews. Click here for more than a few from Wiki’s page about the film.
  • Directly from  IMDb.com: “The scene where Harry tells Cole to go out and hit the pace car is based on a real life situation with driver Buddy Baker and his crew chief at the time, Harry Hyde, on whom Harry Hogge is based.”
  • Cruise reportedly chose Kidman for the film after seeing her in “Dead Calm.”
  • Directly from  IMDb.com: “According to an article in Car and Driver by Bob Zeller, Bobby Hamilton was paid 14,000-15,000 dollars by Rick Hendrick to drive the camera car. At the time, Hamilton was making about 185 dollars a week driving a wrecker (tow truck). He did so well, that Hendrick hired him on for the next NASCAR race in Phoenix, and the rest of the season.”
  • Days of Thunder” was filmed without a finished script, with some scenes’ writing being finished the day they were filmed.
  • Finally and directly from IMDb.com: “Tom Cruise‘s character, Cole Trickle, was a salute to Dick Trickle. Trickle died May 16, 2013, from an apparent self-inflicted gun shot wound.”

© Chuck Curry and A Gator in Naples, 2017.
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