The sky always looks like it’s on fire in Tony Scott’s movies. Everything looks like it’s taking place at magic hour, but it’s like the most intense magic hour ever captured and it lasts the entire movie. In DAYS OF THUNDER, the action takes place on raceways which lends to the notion that all the gasoline on the concrete ignited from the sparks given off from the earthbound drama and is burning up the atmosphere.
Not everyone is a Tony Scott fan — too much style, they argue — but I definitely am. [You can read a lot more about the reasons why here.] Honestly though, my Tony Scott fandom doesn’t begin until a year after DAYS OF THUNDER, with 1991’s THE LAST BOY SCOUT. I’m not so into 1983’s THE HUNGER (an anomaly, his only horror movie), 1986’s TOP GUN (not my kind of macho), or 1987’s BEVERLY HILLS COP II (I know, I’m surprised about that too.) There were two Tony Scott movies released in 1990; first the far-lesser-known REVENGE and then DAYS OF THUNDER in the summer. Then he got hold of a Shane Black screenplay, and after that one by Quentin Tarantino, and the rest was action-movie history.
Stylistically, Tony Scott was doing what he did from the very start. He arrived in features fully-formed in that respect. But it could be argued that something resembling a worldview, or thematic preoccupations, didn’t start gelling until later on. What I personally respond to in Tony Scott’s work is a healthy distrust/ disrepect/disregard for authority and bureaucracy and an affinity for outsiders and loners. I suppose that is present in his earlier films, but there (in TOP GUN and DAYS OF THUNDER) it’s coupled with the Tom Cruise machine, which represents something different than Scott’s most frequent muse, Denzel Washington.
I like Tom Cruise as an actor and as a star, but he’s never been anything resembling a favorite. My favorite Cruise performances are in MAGNOLIA and COLLATERAL, both rare instances where he submitted his usual star persona to the whims of a great director. He’s worked with plenty of great directors, of course — Spielberg, Scorsese, DePalma, Stone, Levinson — but usually by coupling his engine to their formidable powers, by partnering with their vision rather than being a part of it. That’s how DAYS OF THUNDER, like TOP GUN before it, works. Tony Scott’s energetic style flatters Tom Cruise, in a way that Tom Cruise himself, as a movie star, is the story being told here. Contrast that to any of the movies Scott made with Denzel, which, whether you enjoyed them as much as I did or not, were more like character pieces. Tony Scott only ever worked with huge stars, but the mechanism is different when you’re talking about the ones he made with Tom Cruise.
DAYS OF THUNDER was written by Robert Towne, from a story by Towne and Cruise. That is the highest possible caliber of screenwriter. This is how Tom Cruise got to his rarified level. He made a point, smartly, of working with the best. You want a script that’ll showcase your starpower? Hire the guy who wrote CHINATOWN! In his review of DAYS OF THUNDER, Roger Ebert picked up on the early Cruise formula, which we now know was very much by design: Cruise plays a super-talented hothead who eventually achieves his goals through the aid of an experienced mentor figure and the love of a beautiful woman. Here he’s untrained but naturally talented racecar driver Cole Trickle (note the TC initials flipped), who links up with a semi-retired pro (Robert Duvall) to conquer the NASCAR circuit. After an early accident, he meets a beautiful doctor (Nicole Kidman) who nurses him back to health. There’s a ton here for armchair psychologists, but I’m not going to go there.
I was never bored by DAYS OF THUNDER (credit there to Tony Scott) but I also didn’t care too much at any point, due to the fact that, as a true-blue Yankee, I don’t really get the appeal of stock car racing. It’s a bunch of cars with advertisements stencilled all over them, driving around really fast in a circle. How is that more fun than reading? Maybe this movie plays better with fans of the sport. Apparently the story is very loosely based on some actual racing professionals, including Dale Earnhardt, and the presence of real-life NASCAR luminaries as announcers and so on (not to mention producer Don Simpson in a creepy cameo) makes the whole thing feel gaudily believable. It also helps that Cruise and Kidman are supported by a murderer’s row of character actors, including John C. Reilly (way before TALLADEGA NIGHTS), Cary Elwes (THE PRINCESS BRIDE) as a surprisingly nasty villain, a surprisingly serious Randy Quaid, and a pre-JUSTIFIED Nick Searcy and Margo Martindale. One of my favorites, Michael Rooker, plays Tom Cruise’s main-rival-turned-BFF (Val Kilmer style) who engages him in a wheelchair race — obviously the single most enjoyable part of the film to a weirdo like me.
The entire thing is held together by Robert Duvall, a bedrock if the movies have ever had one. His unflappability and steadiness provide a nice counterbalance to the typical borderline-scary Cruise self-determination and high-achieving. It does make one wonder, since Cruise once benefitted so much from older co-stars such as Duvall, Jack Nicholson, Dustin Hoffman, and Paul Newman, why he doesn’t seem as inclined to do the same for younger stars, now that he’s hit fifty (!). Cruise’s last three action films — MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: GHOST PROTOCOL, JACK REACHER, and OBLIVION — are moving him further away from his co-stars, and back towards lone-wolf stature. Advancing age suits a guy like Robert Duvall. It didn’t much hurt the appeal of Nicholson, Hoffman, or Newman either. What will it do to Tom Cruise, whose stardom is founded on forward momentum? What’s the guy going to do when he can’t run anymore, and on top of that, they want to restrict his driver’s license?
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