If "Top Gun" was a stylish bimbo of a movie, all cleavage, white teeth and aerodynamic flash, then "Days of Thunder" is its paradoxical twin -- a bimbo with brains.
Muscular, loud and ravishingly handsome, the movie is solidly in the same family as its predecessor, and precisely what you'd expect from the reunion of producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer ("Flashdance" and "Top Gun"), director Tony Scott ("Top Gun") and their star, Tom Cruise. There are enough similarities in the two films -- in plot and character and style -- that this new movie could almost qualify as a sequel. But there are differences too, and they're important ones. The addition of screenwriter Robert Towne ("Chinatown" and "Shampoo") to the team has made a subtle but essential improvement. The flash is still there, but Towne has added a layer of substance underneath, and in generous enough helpings that you can let the picture vamp you, ravage you, without hating yourself afterward.
This is by no means the highest praise; the picture isn't nearly substantial enough for that and it sells itself too hard. But it has enough easy pleasures -- it's thrillingly photographed (with high-impact velocity by cinematographer Ward Russell), has a couple of actors giving big, generous star performances, and works in enough cleverness and wit between the big narrative boulders -- to keep you hooked.
The film, which deals with the fireballing career of stock car driver Cole Trickle, pulls us in with a combination of machismo and old movie glamour. In terms of sound and fury and testosterone, it certainly delivers. It comes at you like an explosion of color and sound; in that sense, it's potently cinematic. Everything in the film is overwrought -- too bright, too insistent, too emphatic. And at the beginning, when Cruise makes his entrance, rolling his motorcycle into the frame, you titter at the shameless bravado with which the filmmakers proffer their star.
But there's genuine excitement in the moment too. Cruise is a bona fide star, and it's fun to see him get the full treatment. Cruise is more of a big screen presence here than he's ever been. As an actor, he has tremendous limitations, and in movies like "Rain Man" and "Born on the Fourth of July," we're always aware of the strain that goes into pushing his characters' emotions across. But the part Towne has written for Cruise allows him to play right out of the center of his appeal. As a result, he's never been more relaxed or more assured onscreen.
Cole is a rookie on the circuit with a load of raw talent and no idea how to use it. His situation is similar to that of the character Cruise played in "The Color of Money," and to a great extent the film's themes are similar as well. "Days of Thunder" is about youth and experience; it's about the difference between having natural gifts and using them. Cole's guide here -- the man who teaches him how to drive within the limits of the car, how to drive to win -- is one of those good-ole-boy clod-kickers who turn out to be geniuses at cars. The character's name is Harry and, as Robert Duvall plays him, he's foursquare about people and passionate about racing. He knows it as only someone who's been in it for a lifetime can know it -- in his guts.
As Harry, Duvall has scaled his performance big, unlocking all his hammy energy. It's easy to forget how flamboyantly entertaining an actor he can be. Because it gives him a chance to play to the balcony, to bellow and strut his stuff, this is a great role for Duvall. I loved him in it.
In a sense, Harry is the movie's real hero -- or at least he's the one who represents Towne's ideal of professionalism, of having a job and doing it well. On the surface, "Days of Thunder" is a conventionally told Hollywood narrative, with all its story points (somewhat obviously and uninterestingly) in place. Deeper down, though, it's a character piece about, as Cole puts it, "controlling something that's out of control." The subject is car racing, but in actual fact it could be just about anything that requires dedication and character and skill. Cole's remark fits just as well as a description of moviemaking as it does of car racing, and perhaps it's the figure of Harry, the old campaigner, scarred from years on the circuit but still a pro, who serves as the veteran writer's alter ego.
Towne's screenplays are always rich in character parts, and there are some plums here for the supporting cast. Randy Quaid can be a revivifying, showoffy actor, and he has a few moments here (though not enough) as the man who commissions Harry to build a car and hires Cole to drive it. Michael Rooker is an eccentric choice for the role of Rowdy, the circuit's star driver and Cole's arch rival in the movie's first half. He's a moody, curiously aloof actor whose line readings are full of scratchy emotions, and in the movie's last half, after he and Cole have cracked up their cars, injuring both and forcing Rowdy to withdraw from the circuit, his broken spirits are genuinely affecting.
The transition in Cole and Rowdy from foes to friends isn't fully enough developed; we sort of have to take it for granted. But the conflict between them was largely a contrivance to begin with, as are most of the other conflicts in the film. In this respect, the film's dramatic structure follows something other than the classical verities; it isn't so much Aristotelian as it is orgasmic. The scenes all build to climaxes along the way to the big, final climax. The cars themselves have a deep, sensuous growl, and Scott bombs the bass in the race scenes, filling our guts with the rumble of big engines. And if the drama doesn't work on its own dramatic merits, through character or story, there's always the swirling guitar, the pelvic-grind editing and the thunderous drum machine.
What's fascinating is that, in a movie with such a sexual subtext, actual sex plays almost no role at all. Everything of importance is between the men. (There's even a father-son theme percolating beneath the relationship between Cole and Harry.) Women -- in particular, Nicole Kidman, who plays the brain specialist who supervises Cole's recovery after his crackup and eventually becomes his lover -- are used for decorative purposes only, like hood ornaments. It's a man's world that's been created here or, better, a boy's world. Women aren't even in the race.
Days of Thunder, at area theaters, is rated PG-13.