Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (May 17, 2020)
Every year, Hollywood releases “can’t miss” blockbusters that do miss. In summer 1990, Days of Thunder fell into that category – to a degree, at least.
With a worldwide gross of $157 million off of a $60 million budget, Thunder probably made a little money. However, given that Paramount clearly hoped a then-hotter-than-ever Tom Cruise would deliver Top Gun bucks, this had to be seen as a disappointment.
After Cole Trickle (Cruise) enjoys some racing success at a lower level, used car dealer Tim Daland (Randy Quaid) recruits him for his NASCAR team. Daland also brings back veteran crew chief Harry Hogge (Robert Duvall) to mentor the young driver.
Arrogant and impetuous, Cole shows the raw skills necessary to succeed, but he finds it more difficult to exhibit the discipline necessary to win the big races. Under Harry’s tutelage, he works toward this goal, and he also finds time for a little romance with neurosurgeon Dr. Claire Lewicki (Nicole Kidman) after a serious accident lands Cole in the hospital.
Who among us hasn’t developed a love affair with our beautiful neurosurgeons? No offense to neurosurgeons, as I’m sure there are plenty of attractive doctors out there, but that angle acts as one of many contrived elements found in Thunder.
When I compared it to Top Gun, that wasn’t just the proverbial whistling Dixie. Both came from the production team of Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer, both featured Tony Scott as director and both starred Cruise.
Those factors alone don’t mean Thunder inevitably must resemble Gun, but the similarities don’t stop there. In particular, both cast Cruise as a super-talented but overly cocky hotshot who needs to learn how to rein in his instincts.
Toss in the inevitable romance with a talented specialist and a sense of déjà vu persists. Heck, the Cruise character in both even tools around on a motorcycle! It’s not an overstatement to view Thunder as “Top Gun On Wheels”.
Since I never really liked Top Gun, I can’t consider this to act as a fatal flaw. Still, this leaves Thunder as awfully derivative, and it never manages to find much of an identity of its own.
Thunder does come to life during its racing scenes, as Scott manages to stage those in an effective manner. They provide fun action that keeps us with the movie.
Sort of. Although the driving bits deliver enough momentum to ensure we never totally bail on the movie, the rest of it feels forgettable.
I find it hard to locate anything memorable here, as Thunder follows wholly predictable paths. It develops its story and characters in cliché ways that never threaten to become anything fresh or interesting.
Given how much of Thunder takes us away from the track, this turns into a major liability. If we don’t care about the plot or characters, then we don’t find much reason to invest in the flick.
Thunder does come with a good cast. In addition to Cruise, Duvall, Quaid and Kidman, we find Michael Rooker, Cary Elwes and John C. Reilly.
Thunder offered a fairly early-career outing for both Kidman and Reilly. Because the former started as a teen, she’d already put up a fair number of credits by 1990, but Thunder became her first US film, and it was only Reilly’s fourth flick.
It’s fun to see Reilly, if only because of the way Thunder foreshadowed his career. 16 years later, he’d star in the much more entertaining NASCAR comedy Talladega Nights. He doesn’t have much to do here, but it’s cool to watch him as a young man.
As for Kidman, she’d go on to much better things, but she’s miscast, if just because of her age. Only 22 during the production, she’s clearly far too young to be accepted as a neurosurgeon.
Kidman’s not bad otherwise, but she fails to elevate the role, and the same goes for the rest of the cast. Cruise just does his Tom Cruise Thing, and none of the others break a sweat.
As a piece of early 90s cheese, Days of Thunder doesn’t flop. However, it fails to find a groove outside of some exciting race sequences.