Days of Thunder (1990)

“I’m gonna give you an engine low to the ground . . . an extra thick oil pan to cut the wind from underneath you. It’ll give you thirty or forty more horsepower. I’m gonna give you a fuel line that’ll hold an extra gallon of gas. I’m gonna shave half an inch off you and shape you like a bullet. I’ll get you primed, painted and weighed, and you’ll be ready to go out on that racetrack. Hear me? You’re gonna be perfect.”
— Harry Hogge, crew chief and car builder

If only Harry had said, instead of, “You’re gonna be perfect,” said, “You’ll be fast and furious.”

What might have been . . .

Mock poster by R.D Francis/F&F logo property of Universal/typeface overlay via Pic Font

Tom Cruise gets respect in this neck of the Allegheny woods. He wanted to be the next Paul Newman. He wanted to become Steve McQueen. And unlike Quentin Tarantino’s Rick Dalton in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, by golly, Tom Cruise became our generation’s Paul Newman and Steve McQueen. And, as with his idols—car racing enthusiasts who wanted to make their own race car movies—that kid adorned in a pair of Wayfarers that slid across the floor in his socks and into our hearts, wanted to run with the fast and the furious: he wanted to make his own version of Winning and Le Mans. And, and by golly, he did it.

Luckily, for the ticketing-going masses, Tom Cruise reined his “need for speed” (of the four-wheeled variety, anyway) until he broke through and became an official, A-List movie star. For if Cruise would have followed up Risky Business or (to keep it in a “sports” context) All the Right Moves—during the period when he was developing his career and not choosing roles but being cast in roles, like the burgeoning careers of James Caan and James Garner—with a race car flick, he would have been cast in the likes of the lower-budgeted road rallies that were Red Line 7000 and Grand Prix.

And Cruise’s racing endeavors could have been worse.

What if Cruise made a racing flick directly after his first leading man role in Losin’ It (remember in 1983: he made a movie with Shelley Long and Jackie Earle Haley)? We would have gotten the process-shot, rubber burning fiestas that were Fabian and Frankie Avalon’s Fireball 500, The Wild Racers, and Thunder Alley. And thank the celluloid gods of the analog ethers that Cruise didn’t aspire to be a “double threat” and a be singer—and only lip-synched to Bob Seger’s “Old Time Rock ‘n’ Roll”—or we would have ended up with Elvis Presley’s process-shot racing n’ singing extravaganzas Viva Las Vegas, Spinout, and Speedway. (Oh, man. What if Eddie Murphy—considering his skills as a singer and Elvis mimic—did a remake of Richard Pryor’s 1977 NASCAR race car flick, Greased Lightning?)

“We gotta win this race.”

What might have been . . .

When reflecting on how Cruise turned Mission: Impossible into a franchise: If The Fast and the Furious—the franchise we’re paying tribute to this week—had been developed at Paramount Pictures instead of Universal Studios, would we have laid down our coin for Tom Cruise as an illegal road racer?

And if not that ticket, would we have bought a ticket to see him as Frankenstein?

No, not the Universal monster one. The New World Studios one: Tom Cruise optioned Roger Corman to set up a big-budgeted remake of 1975’s Death Race 2000 at Paramount. Sadly, amid scripting problems and the usual executorial testosterone splashing, the deal fell apart and ended up on the Universal lot. Then end result: Instead of (finally!) a dark, brooding tale about a futuristic transcontinental road race—one that jettisoned Paul Bartel’s hokey-satire of the original—that adhered to the serious, sociopolitical insights of Ib Melchoir’s short story . . . we ended up with a bunch of check-the-screenwriting-boxes trope-prisoners racing around in a circle on an island. And who in the hell let Joan Allen on Terminal Island?

. . . And now the Death Race franchise is four films deep—with a different “Frank” (and actors as Frank) for each subsequent (direct-to-video) film that carries an addendum that the film is a prequel, sidequal, etc. to the first film (and that the first film was actually “prequel,” ugh, to the ’75 original, argh!), as it races further and further and further away from Melchoir’s initial vision. The end result—at least for those of us weaned on the video fringes off the teats of Norman Jewison and Roger Corman: Death Race ‘08 was Rollerball ’02 all over again. Neither were Lays emulsified-potato chips like their superior forefathers: once was enough. And thank the analog lords that the Rollerball reboot wasn’t turned into a direct-to-video franchise. (Can you believe that director John McTiernan went to federal prison for making a false statement to an FBI investigator over illegally wiretapping Rollerball’s producers? He went to prison for Rollerball?)

And that brings us back to the film we’re supposed to be reviewing: Days of Thunder. (I know, Sam. I know. At least there won’t be a Seinfeld reference.)

Come, on now. You’ve seen it. We’ve all seen it. (Yes, even you: the underground, VHS-loving indie purveyor who Facebook-hangs with the B&S About Movies crew on Saturday Nights (at 8 P.M on Groovy Doom: shameless plug) to watch double features about worms and Linda Blair being abused.) And even if you didn’t hit the multiplex, you caught Cruise’s race epic via one of Ted Turner’s endless TNT replays as you couch-surfed and channel-grazed on a lazy, Cheetos-dusted Sunday afternoon. And, if you’re financially well-to-do, you watched Days of Thunder on yer fancy, upper-tiered Showtime or HBO subscriptions—as you couch-surfed and channel-grazed on a lazy, Doritos-crumbed Sunday afternoon. So don’t deny it: you embraced the Cruise like the mainstream-everybody else.

While this Tony Scott-directed and Tom Cruise-produced racing epic is vastly superior to the Caan and Garner romps and the bigger-budgeted Newman and McQueen films in all of its related film disciplines, we basically have the same film: a spunky racer with talent, but too much attitude, aspires for NASCAR fame—and finds romance and competition on the asphalted, gladiatorial oval. (For isn’t this all just Charlton Heston in Ben Hur with cars instead of horse-drawn chariots?)

So, speaking of testosterone splashing: Producers Don Simpson (wrote Aloha, Bobby and Rose, Cannonball) and Jerry Bruckheimer (The Rock, Bad Boys) along with director Tony Scott (Tarantino’s True Romance), and sometimes screenwriter Robert Towne, all went Alpha-male over how to set up shots. Fully-built and ready-to-roll sets were torn down and rebuilt because they “weren’t right.” The hormone and anabolic steroid-stew flowed so deep that the long-idling (sorry) crew members accumulated enough overtime pay to go on vacation for a full four months after filming was completed.

What was the end result?

Crtics pounced on the film for its stock plot, two-dimensional characters, and poorly written dialogue and called it out for being a Top Gun clone, sans planes and sky and lots of cars and asphalt. Roger Ebert, while giving the film three out of four stars, still took the film to task, calling it the Tom Cruise Picture, since it resembled the “10 Point Formula” employed in his previous films The Color of Money and Cocktail (it’s actually “9 Points,” but he came to revise it to include the “Dying Friend” trope). Mind you now, we are talking about Robert Towne here: the guy who wrote The Last Detail, Marathon Man, and friggin’ Chinatown. There’s whole chapters in screenwriting books dedicated to Towne’s brilliance. That’s Ebert for you: he takes no prisoners. (Sigh, I miss you Gene and Roger: you and Dr. Who and The Star Hustler made PBS worthwhile.)

And what did “The Q” think: “Days of Thunder is the movie Grand Prix and Le Mans should have been . . . it has the fun of those early AIP movies.”

And will we ever get a Quentin Tarantino racing epic starring a back-on-top Rick Dalton? We wait with Cheetos-stench bated breath.

Uh, oh.

Sorry, Sam. Actress Kathleen McClellan, aka “Good Naked, Bad Naked” girl from Seinfeld (“The Apology”) kissed Tom Cruise in Days of Thunder. (In the “winner’s circle,” I think; she was once the Skyy Vodka Girl <ahem>, Sam.)

It always comes back to Seinfeld. And Vodka-spiked movie-theme drinks. One Thunder Cruise Lemon Squeeze, comin’ up!

About the Author: You can learn more about the writings of R.D Francis on Facebook. He also writes for B&S About Movies.

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