Days of Thunder Is Like Top Gun, With Racecars
top gun is a once-in-a-generation movie. In the three decades since it was released, fans and critics have debated the film’s intentionality. Is it sincere? Is it tongue in cheek? Does top gun lionize the military, or satirize it? Is it ripe with toxic masculinity, or is there a latent homosexual subtext? The only thing that isn’t up for debate is how top gun stands within the popular culture landscape. It is one of the defining films of the 1980s, for better or worse.
Tony Scott was a uniquely talented filmmaker. Although some dismissed Scott at the time for his preference for loud, noisy summer blockbusters, we’d be lucky to find a modern filmmaker who is so skilled at crafting mainstream entertainment. Directors like Michael Bay, Roland Emmerich, Paul WS Anderson, other Len Wiseman have shown what cynical blockbusters look like, but Scott never got lost in the spectacle. His films are simple, straightforward adventures that don’t have to connect to a larger universe or franchise. top gun is among his crowning achievements.
top gun launched the career of Tom Cruise, movie star. Cruise had shown that he was more than just an average heartthrob with 1983’s risky businessbut top gun solidified the fact that he could do pretty much anything. Maverick is a romantic lead, an action hero, the comic relief, and an emotional character all at once. Cruise has certainly given better performances, but there’s not another film in his career that was quite as important.
Cruise owed a lot to Scott, and they collaborated four years later on another big summer tent pole, the 1990 NASCAR racing drama Days of Thunder. Days of Thunder contains many of the hallmarks of their first joint effort; it’s playfully melodramatic, hyper stylized, frantically paced, and surprisingly romantic. Cruise’s Days of Thunder character (who is hilariously named Cole Trickle) is essentially Maverick, if he decided to swap his military plane for a NASCAR vehicle. Days of Thunder is essentially top gun-lite, which means it’s still pretty awesome.
Cole Trickle is a young, highly confident NASCAR driver who has gained a solid reputation from his experience in the World of Outlaws championship races. Trickle has his sights set on the NASCAR Winston Cup Series and the Indianapolis 500. Cruise’s introduction in Days of Thunder makes top gun‘s volleyball matches look subtle in comparison. He approaches his crew as Hans Zimmer‘s score blares in the background, and Scott does his best to make Trickle look like a golden god. Even if Cruise wasn’t already the biggest actor in the world at the time, Days of Thunder makes it clear that he was a movie star.
Trickle’s head crew member Harry Hogge (Robert Duval) returns from retirement to construct a new Chevrolet Lumina. Trickle and Hogge’s relationship is somewhat similar to that of Maverick and Goose (Anthony Edwards); although Hogge is also his mentor, their playful sparring has the same casual humor that Maverick and Goose had. Hogge enjoys toying with his young protégé, and Trickle inspires him to gain confidence in his abilities. Duvall is clearly having a blast; he was in the midst of a series of critically acclaimed films in the late 1980s and 1990s, so Days of Thunder gave him a chance to just have fun.
Days of Thunder also has its own version of Iceman (Val Kilmer) with Michael Rooker‘s character Rowdy Burns (one of the greatest character names ever). Burns is the reigning Winston Cup Champion, and he’s not about to give up his title to some smirking new kid like Trickle. Burns is just as fiercely committed to winning as Trickle is, but he’s willing to use dirty tactics to do so. Although their rivalry grows throughout the season, Burns is put out of commission after a serious crash. His maturity, and friendship with Trickle, is surprisingly nuanced. Both drivers agree to set aside dishonest practices. In the beginning of the climax, Burns insists that Trickle take his car. It’s a more emotional version of Cruise and Kilmer’s final hug.
As with top gunthe film is grounded by the romantic subplot. Days of Thunder was the first film to pair Cruise alongside his future wife Nicole Kidman before Far And Away other Eyes Wide Shut. Kidman is clearly overqualified for the role of the lovesick neurosurgeon Dr. Claire Lewicki, but she’s just as committed to the camp as the rest of the cast. Claire and Trickle’s extended passionate embraces tow the line of the PG-13 rating in the same way that top gun‘s love scenes did. It also provides the same emotional groundwork; Claire gives Trickle a reason to survive, and her empathy forces him to ground himself as he recovers from his injuries.
Nothing could be quite as iconic as Top Gun’s use of “Danger Zone,” but Days of Thunder‘s score certainly gives it a run for its money. Hans Zimmer’s prominent theme isn’t particularly complex, but it’s the sort of rousing tune that helps heighten the emotion. The same basic theme is endlessly repeated, and just like the iconic Kenny Loggins tune, it’s impossible to get it out of your head.
Tom Cruise has two films in his career where he’s listed as a participating writer. one is Days of Thunder, a movie where he stars as the coolest race car driver in the world, who gets the girl, wins the race, and silences his doubters. The other is a currently untitled project that he plans to shoot in space with Elon Musk. Cruise certainly knows what he wants, and we’d be helpless to say that we don’t want to see the same thing. If you’re looking for a cool double feature with top gun, Days of Thunder fits the bill.
Days of Thunder is streaming on HBO Max.
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