DAYS OF THUNDER

PG-13, 1990, 107 minutes, closed-captioned, Paramount, $91.95.

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, character, style -- that "Thunder" could almost qualify as a sequel. But there are important differences too. 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 substance. 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 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. It comes at you like an explosion of color and sound; in that sense, it's potently cinematic. 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. -- Hal Hinson

DARKMAN

R, 1990, 96 minutes, closed-captioned, MCA/Universal, $91.95.

Many a monster has left his imprint on Sam Raimi's "Darkman," a horrifically stylish journey that links the classics of transfiguration to the terrors of our times. The Fly, the Hulk, the Mummy and the Beast haunt this film's creepy nooks and shadowed alleys, the unseen inspiration for Raimi's new-age phantom -- a handsome physician who becomes a homeless victim of medical technology and uncommon greed. Liam Neeson stars as Dr. Peyton Westlake, a brilliant scientist who is on the verge of making synthetic skin when he is brutally attacked and left for dead in the ashes of his lab. Burned and mangled beyond recognition, Westlake winds up in a city hospital where, to spare him pain, the doctors snip a vital nerve (the procedure's side effects are superhuman strength and uncontrollable rage). And so the phoenix rises, a blackened and crippled superman whose pitiable attempts to recapture his former life result in darkly mirthful mayhem. After first rebuilding a laboratory, a jury-rigged affair in an abandoned factory, Westlake manages to re-create the synthetic skin, a flawless but unstable material that disintegrates after more than 100 minutes in the light. Then wearing a mask of his former face, he attempts a reunion with his girlfriend (Frances McDormand), a go-getting attorney whose dealings with an unethical tycoon (Colin Friels) brought upon him this cruel fate. Like Beauty, she is unafraid of her beast revealed, because she believes him to be the same gentle man on the inside. But Raimi is exploring the notion that violence creates not only external pain but inner ugliness. So Westlake is lost, as the civilization around him is lost to cruelty and avarice. Be warned that Raimi, who made a name for himself chopping up teens in cult films, doesn't spare the splatters in this night of the soul. -- Rita Kempley

MR. FROST

R, 1990, 100 minutes, SVS, $89.95.

Nothing that Jeff Goldblum does in "Mr. Frost" is commonplace or expected. Every line has a bizarre kink in it, every gesture a gloriously weird bit of filigree. A blissfully eccentric actor, Goldblum inhabits an off-kilter world all his own, and, considering the character he plays here, the rococo shadings are perfectly appropriate. Written and directed by Philip Setborn, this stiflingly lamebrain film tells the story of an English gentleman (Goldblum) whose sprawling country estate is discovered to be the final resting ground for 24 mutilated corpses, all of whom were tortured and killed by this mysteriously laconic figure. Nothing is known about Mr. Frost; there's no record of a date or place of birth, no school or government records, no one knows even his first name. Frost, it seems, is no mere psycho; he's evil incarnate. After two years in prison -- during which time he has defied the psychoanalytic efforts of Europe's leading headshrinkers by refusing to utter a single word -- he's transferred to a posh clinic in the country, where he decides to reveal himself to Sarah Day (Kathy Baker), a brash young psychiatrist on staff. Frost has come back to us, it seems, with a mission. He's angry with science, he says, for replacing faith with facts. So long as there was a struggle between good and evil, people paid attention to him. Now everyone ignores him; he's a nobody and he's not happy about it. What's needed, Frost figures, is a victory over science. If he can get Day to kill him, then she will have admitted her impotence; she will have believed in him. The movie is nonsense from start to finish. But then there is Goldblum. Thousands of actors have played Lucifer, but none has ever given him this particular charismatic brand of idiosyncratic loopiness. -- Hal Hinson

SHORT TIME

PG-13, 1990, 100 minutes, closed-captioned, Live, $89.95.

"Short Time" is a cracked-up compendium of new apple pie-isms inspired by the philosophy of the flower folks and clarified by running shoe advertisements. A cop action comedy on the slurpy side, it reminds us to "go for it." Dabney Coleman, a career detective one week shy of retirement, learns these and other smell-the-roses-buy-now-save-later-type lessons in another law-and-order romp. Though noted for his insensitive grouses, Coleman is warm as a freshly crisped Tater Tot in the role of Burt Simpson, a prudent police officer who throws caution to the wind when he is mistakenly diagnosed as having two weeks to live. Before, Burt was the kind of cop who wore two bulletproof vests and chased perps over the rooftops, the kind of husband who couldn't say "I love you" to his wife (Teri Garr) and the kind of father who raised his young son (Kaj-Erik Erikson) to be a Harvard man. But suddenly he becomes a middle-aged lethal weapon to the chagrin of Matt Frewer, as his stock cop buddy Ernie, an easygoing, disheveled junk food fan. Little does Ernie know that Burt is determined to die in the line of duty so his family can cash in on his insurance policy. Gregg Champion, son of Marge and Gower, makes his directorial debut with "Short Time," a standard issue comedy that wants to play "Feelings" on our heartstrings. -- Rita Kempley