Four years after Top Gun and The Color of Money hit theatres, producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer were thinking about how to squeeze more money out of a proven formula, and Tom Cruise was wondering how he could be more like his Color of Money co-star Paul Newman. Answer: Tony Scott's Days of Thunder, a NASCAR racing melodrama that remains a low-rent cultural touchstone and guilty pleasure. It also marks the moment of convergence for Cruise and Nicole Kidman, married soon thereafter.
An unofficial "sideways sequel" to Top Gun, then, except with national treasure Robert Duvall in the role of crusty mentor, Days of Thunder is preposterous and noisy, but certainly unpretentious (in case anyone misses the connection to Top Gun, also directed by Scott, Cruise makes his entrance wearing Ray-Bans and atop a motorcycle that emerges in slo-mo from a haze of smoke). Cruise plays gifted "kamikaze driver" Cole Trickle (can't you just hear Cruise yelling, "Give me a Paul Newman name!"?), a hotshot NASCAR rookie who needs some schooling from Harry Hogge, Duvall's deep-fried Southern mechanic/ace crew chief/stock car whisperer. When Trickle and professional rival Rowdy Burns (Michael Rooker) flame out on the track, they meet leggy neurosurgeon Dr. Claire Lewicki (Kidman), who can't help herself from taking a shine to Cole. As Cole recovers, car owner Tim Daland (Randy Quaid) turns to Russ Wheeler (Cary Elwes), an aggressive driver that nearly proves Cole's match, but before long Cole will be back on track, setting the stage for a Daytona 500 climax.
The racing scenes suit Scott, a stylist better suited to testosterone than brain power: the track sequences prove clear, kinetic and brilliantly edited. As for the story, Cruise himself co-wrote it with Robert Towne, who's slumming in this kind of summer-blockbuster territory (and no doubt dreaming of future sports movie Without Limits, the running biopic originally intended for Cruise). It's no wonder, then, that Towne's script plays so thoroughly into Cruise's bombastic star instincts. Despite their best efforts, Cole never seems like much of a character, but Towne gives Duvall some nice ripe dialogue and devises interesting enough competitive narrative for each race. The rest is all sports-movie formula, outlined by a hackneyed romance and scored by Hans Zimmer with cheesy rock guitar.
Towne gives a bit of extra juice to the requisite psychoanalyzation, which comes from both Claire's corner and Harry's. "There's nothing I can't do with a race car," Cole insists. "Oh, he can drive," Harry responds. "He can drive beyond the limits of the tires, the engine, the car or anything else. If the sum' bitch listened to me, we wouldn't hardly ever lose a race!" For Claire's part, control freak Cole is a slave to his fear and denial. To win, Cole must learn to accept that he's not in control: first by surrendering to Harry's sage advice and then by learning to accept that fate hasn't ceded control to him, as death potentially lurks around every bend. On a frivolous note, Talladega Nights fans will enjoy seeing John C. Reilly in the role of a likeable lug on Harry's team, and eagle-eyed movie buffs will recognize the late Don Simpson in the cameo role of racer Aldo Benedetti.
Paramount keeps "cruising like thunder" through the back catalog, this time with a Blu-ray of Days of Thunder. Despite some distracting, worrying blemishes (dirt, dust, and hair, some seemingly endemic to the source material), the transfer quickly establishes itself as impressively steady. The film looks to me as it always has (a good thing: the colors match my memory of the film on screen and on video), but from the detail is consistently head ans shoulders above DVD, and from time to time the image will leap to life. Despite inconsistency and some prominent edge enhancement in at least one scene, it's fair to say the transfer is leaps and bounds over any previous home-video issue. The same can be said for the definitive hi-res audio, presented in "thunderous" Dolby TrueHD 5.1 that demonstrates excellent separation and immersion, especially in the all-important racing scenes.
The Blu-ray, like the DVD, has no bonus features aside from a "Theatrical Trailer" (2:29), here presented in HD, but fans of the film will want to upgrade with this nice-priced catalog reissue.
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