Blu-ray Review: Days of Thunder (1990)

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Much has been written about the big budget blockbusters of the 1980s with particular attention being given to super producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer along with one of the decade's biggest stars, Mr. Tom Cruise. On one hand, they were dubbed "high concept" films that repackaged gay culture's "conflation of fashion, movies, disco, and advertising" for straight audiences which "were star vehicles comprised of little more than a series of movie moments set to a pounding score," by author Peter Biskind in Easy Riders, Raging Bulls (pg. 494). On another, they were simply attributed with raising "formula films to a science" by Rolling Stone critic Peter Travers. Yet, whichever way you slice it, the bottom line is they knew how to capture an audience.

Ultimately it was this science which was analyzed by Roger Ebert in his witty and surprisingly highly complimentary review of Days of Thunder as a quintessential "Tom Cruise Picture," which blends together "most of the same elements that worked in 'Top Gun,' 'The Color of Money' and 'Cocktail'" as the critic describes this set-up with numerical and alphabetical labeling step-by-step along the way.

Of course, for brevity sake, the main man for this was Travers who wrote it best in that you take "the producers' top gun, Tom Cruise-- mix in fast planes, bikes, cars, or anything that makes a deafening noise, add a sexy woman, a few fights, a few laughs, a rock soundtrack (flashdance, what a feeling), and presto, you've got a critic-proof blockbuster."

Hoping to cash in on even a fraction of the astronomical success experienced by the producers, director Tony Scott and star Tom Cruise with the one of the decade's oft-quoted and most definitive films-- Top Gun-- Cruise used his own interest in automobile racing as fodder for this tale of an impulsive, young and wild, naturally gifted racer who learns that you can't simply take the fast lane to NASCAR victory.

Collaborating with Chinatown screenwriter Robert Towne whose antihero pictures of the '70s which as he shared were "about revealing the disparity between what the country said it was, and what the filmmakers perceived it to be," had left audiences with an appetite for "steroided-out superheroes... [where characters] would re-fight the Vietnam war, and win... [and ultimately where we] needed a fantasy where [our country] was not impotent, where it was as strong as Arnold, as invulnerable as Robocop," (Towne as quoted by Biskind, 495).

And of course, the ideal thing about Tom Cruise was that as handsome as he was and still is with that instant charm, insanely appealing smile, and conversational ease-- he offered us a superman we not only believed in but felt that we would actually be friends with, date, or with the right dentist and plastic surgeon could possibly be ourselves-- of course, without all that wacky Scientology nonsense.

On the surface, it's fairly easy to label-- as countless critics and audience members have-- Days of Thunder as simply "Top Gun in a car." This is especially the case considering the similarities in roles as we have Nicole Kidman filling in for Kelly McGillis (and taking over for Mimi Rogers as Cruise's wife in real life), his eventual buddy Michael Rooker filling in for Anthony Edwards' Goose, the shady villain Cary Elwes trying to fill the homoerotic shoes of Val Kilmer who repeatedly bumps Cruise's car instead of delivering that creepy line about being his wingman along with Randy Quaid and Robert Duvall taking the spot of his Gun mentor Tom Skerritt.

Although they were apparently sizzling off-screen, the noticeable lack of chemistry between the very young and poorly written female brain surgeon character played by Nicole Kidman and Cruise's impetuous, temper-ridden, Peter Pan like driver Colt Trickle (dig that phallic name that of course calls attention to his ahem... stick shift) is a major detraction from the film but the romances in the Simpson and Bruckheimer blockbusters were never the highlight. For they packed so much "bromance" in them that in the end they're all about male bonding and brotherly love.

Duvall has some terrific scenes with Cruise as his racing team leader and stock car designer which finds him as that venerable older and wiser worldly enigma we first were introduced to with Cruise in Martin Scorsese's great Paul Newman and Cruise film, The Color of Money.

As I'm completely out of my element in the world of racing, I was oblivious to the amount of factual overlapping and ESPN personalities and NASCAR drivers involved in the film shoot but was especially fascinated to learn more about the oft-cited inspirations for the main leads including the late Tim Richmond (for Cruise's Trickle), Harry Hyde (Duvall), Rick Hendrick (Quaid), Dale Earnhardt (Rooker) and Rusty Wallace (Elwes).

Initially released as a thunderous summer blockbuster in late June of 1990, it's since developed a steady following of Cruise and racing enthusiasts, despite its inferiority to many of the actor's other films of that particular era. Moreover, it perhaps gained even greater interest after Will Ferrell and Adam McKay lampooned the world of racing in their hilarious take Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby which shares numerous plot-points, the "slingshot" technique, and even costar John C. Reilly in common with Thunder.

Recently released onto Blu-ray by Paramount with zero bonus features, I was prepared to be blown away by the roar of the engine of the Oscar nominated sound and speed of the cinematography yet was extremely unimpressed by the technical quality of the transfer which seemed on par with the DVD release. Perhaps in its next Blu release, it won't be as rushed as Cole Trickle always was and the studio will deliver a more solid digital transfer, but overall, the look of the film was surprisingly grainy with poor flesh tones, lackluster special effects (comparatively speaking for the Blu-ray format) and negligible difference from watching it on cable or DVD.

While ultimately, the need for speed to get Cruise's biggest hits to new owners of Blu-ray players this holiday season probably prompted its rush for a post-Christmas and Hanukkah December 30 release when gift cards will be burning a hole in men's wallets probably, I'd take a cue from the tried and true worldly Cruise mentors like Newman and Duvall that you should hold off and slow down, as hopefully better things will come to those who wait. Plus, unlike Cruise who got busted for going 85 in a 55 zone while working on Thunder, you'll be able to avoid a senseless speeding ticket.

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