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Days of Thunder (1990)::rating::3::rating::3

Days of Thunder has the engine of an old B-movie and the chassis of an expensive summer blockbuster.  The result is a strange hybrid–a cacophonous soap opera on wheels.  Thunder is a beautiful disaster, in which stilted dialogue and melodramatic story beats swirl by in a visual poem of twisted, smoking wreckage.  After thirty years, this film supplies a miracle on two fronts:  That it was somehow made, and that it remains a perversely gripping experience.

To say that Thunder‘s plot is derivative of Top Gun doesn’t do it justice.  I’ll borrow a Friends metaphor and call this movie Russ to Top Gun‘s Ross–an unfortunate, ungainly clone.  Tom Cruise plays Cole Trickle, a cocky-but-talented stock car driver.  He rides into the movie on a Harley, squinting through slow-motion fog.  Cole could be the best of the best, but he’s just so damn reckless.

Enter Harry Hogge (Robert Duvall).  He’s a legendary crew chief, albeit with a few jumpsuited skeletons in the closet.  Harry is a lovable, fuzzy ol’ coot, replete with backwoods aphorisms and mesh trucker hats.  He reluctantly agrees to oversee Cole’s pit crew, but with the knowledge that his new driver is a wild stallion–a broncing Mustang who might resist the crop and saddle at all costs.

Let’s keep the clichés a-comin’ shall we?  Rowdy Burns (Michael Rooker) is Cole’s alpha dog teammate.  They start off as frenemies, before evolving into bromance besties.  Russ Wheeler (Cary Elwes) is the snarky rookie–the blonde badass out to prove he‘s the hottest shit.  Team owner Tim Daland (Randy Quaid) is the rich asshole who puts all these bulls in a china shop, and then complains about all the breakage.

No trope list would be complete without the Love Interest.  Claire (Nicole Kidman) is the whole deal:  She’s the ER doc who treats Cole after a crash at the track.  (If her MRI had shown the inside of Cole’s skill to be two chinchillas playing Uno, I would’ve added two full stars to this review.)  Claire is brilliant, level-headed, and beautiful.  She shouldn’t fall for an untamed spirit like Cole.  She couldn’t.  But…ohmigod, you guys.  He’s just so wild and free and dreamy.  Claire comes to fear how much she loves him.  And vice versa.

If you’ve seen Top Gun, or Rocky, or really just about sports movie, you can guess where Thunder rolls from here.  Director Tony Scott and screenwriter Robert Towne (who co-concocted this hooey with Cruise himself) paint strictly by the numbers.  The story’s ups and downs are so predictable, they’re almost comforting.

That goes for the performances, as well.  Cruise is, well…he’s Tom Cruise.  Cole Trickle is just a riff on Maverick, or that pool shark in The Color of Money.  He’s all immaculate bravado:  Grinning, swaggering, and with just a touch of that wild-eyed couch-jumping zealotry that will puncture his career a few years later.  Cruise is all-in for everything all the time, and your enjoyment of this junk food movie will largely depend on your tolerance for him.

Thankfully, we also get Duvall, who is forced to act as emotional ballast for all this goofiness.  His grizzled character looks how Copenhagen smells, maybe with a hint of burnt rubber, as well.  Harry’s main function in the story is to growl grandfatherly pearls of wisdom, all in the hopes that his new protege won’t end up as a greasy splotch on the track.  Duvall is an old pro, and his presence elevates the entire film.

The other key figure in this overblown nonsense is Kidman.  A supremely talented actress, Kidman finds herself stuck in a thankless role.  Claire serves two functions in the film:  One, she coolly recites medical gobbledegook to illustrate how much Cole is destroying his body and mind.  For the other, she’s the tense girlfriend, fearfully watching Cole on the sideline.  This was her breakout role in the States, but Kidman has much bigger and better things on the horizon than this undernourished character.

This has been a fairly dismissive review, so you’re probably surprised to see three stars at the top of the page.  My reasoning is simple:  In its own loud, dumb, screwy way, Days of Thunder never ceases to entertain.  It may have the brains of a B-movie and the heart of a blockbuster, but it perfectly showcases both.

108 min.  PG-13.  HBOMax.

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