At 25: “Days of Thunder”

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June 27, 2015 by billysparrow


Days of Thunder

Released: June 27, 1990

Starring: Tom Cruise, Robert Duvall, Michael Rooker, Randy Quaid, Nicole Kidman, Cary Elwes

Perhaps the summer of 1990 was the time in my life when I decided to explore things I had absolutely no interest in. Or at least explore movies about subjects I had no interest in, because my “Dick Tracy” fever for a movie based on a comic strip I never read was quickly replaced by a passion for “Days of Thunder,” a movie about stock car racing, a sport I never watched or, really, cared about at all.

But, unlike “Dick Tracy,” I was not drawn to “Days of Thunder” by a song featuring the lyric “Nothing like a good spanky.” No, my excitement for “Days of Thunder” likely grew because they made Matchbox cars for the movie. And one of the Matchbox cars had the logo for what was then my favorite soda on the hood.

This was all I needed to go all in on “Days of Thunder.”

Before I go into the movie, which was somehow both better and worse than I remembered, a brief word on how much I loved toy cars, whether they were Matchboxes, Hot Wheels, Corgis or any other knockoff brand (but I was mostly a Matchbox and Corgi kid). Before LJN and Remco created wrestling figures (a true life-changing moment in my childhood that I’ll try to shoehorn into one of these At 25 things someday), toy cars were my life. I tried to get into Star Wars figures, but outside of a Lando Calrissian, a Boba Fett, and a shoddy Millennium Falcon that I think was purchased at a garage sale, that didn’t take. GI Joe held no pull over me, and Transformers and Gobots didn’t dazzle me. I just liked cars.

There was the Matchbox black and silver Hi Ho Silver Bug (my favorite, and I just felt so much warmth overcome me when I saw a picture of it). The Matchbox red Texaco Indy car. The Matchbox Army truck.

And the Corgi cars I would ask my grandmother to buy me at Smiling Sunny’s, often from TV shows and movies I’d never seen or knew anything about, such as Kojak’s Buick Regal, the James Bond Lotus Esprit, Simon and Simon’s ’57 Chevy Bel Air. But there was also the Daily Planet delivery truck, the New York Islanders car, and, second only to the Hi Ho Silver Bug, Starsky and Hutch’s Gran Torino.

I would spend hours racing these cars and smashing them into each other. I had friends who had those tracks where you could send the cars speeding around, but I didn’t need any of that. I just needed my two hands, and my mouth to make screeching and crashing noises.

And so, when I saw those “Days of Thunder” Matchboxes, even though I was, at 13, a few years past playing with cars (but still reluctant to completely set aside wrestling figures, lest you think I had attained some sort of maturity), I was intrigued. And even more intrigued with the car with the Mello Yello logo on it (though I wished it was the old, much cooler one). Sure, I thought, I’ll watch a movie if it somehow involves Mello Yello. (Note to aspiring filmmakers, this probably still holds true.)

So, dazzled by Matchbox cars and Mello Yello, I decided to explore the world of stock car racing for the first time. It will probably be the last time, but who knows what the future holds for me. I mean, other than watching 25-year-old movies for the next few months.

Anyway, I suppose that 600 words in is as good a time as any to actually discuss the movie. If the Matchboxes and Mello Yello didn’t lure you in, let me briefly recap “Days of Thunder” for you. Car owner Tim Daland (Randy Quaid, subdued and underutilized) convinces car builder/crew chief Harry Hogge (Robert Duvall) to return to the world of stock car racing (he left after his driver died in a crash at Daytona that Harry may or may not have been able to prevent) when Cole Trickle (Tom Cruise) takes the wheel. Cole develops a rivalry with Rowdy Burns (the consistently reliable Michael Rooker), they almost kill each other, Cole falls in love with his doctor (Nicole Kidman), and, up until a few days ago, I would’ve sworn someone dies. But no one dies. And guess who wins Daytona?

In rewatching the movie, I was struck by how terrible the movie would be without Robert Duvall. There are a lot of clunky scenes, some bad dialogue, and the Cruise/Kidman thing is a bit of a drag on the movie. But whenever Duvall has a scene, things quickly get better. I’m sure I didn’t appreciate that in 1990, but I do now. And though it’s possible I think Duvall’s so great because I enjoy him so much when he’s on Howard Stern, it may also be possible that he’s just a really good actor.

And let it be noted that it is he who introduces the “rubbin’ is racin'” line into our lives.

Tom Cruise is, I guess, fine for what he is, and slightly less annoying than he was in “Cocktail,” which is a fine movie poster quote if ever there was one. And speaking of the movie poster, “You can’t outrun the thunder” is a terrible tagline. I don’t even know what that means. Thunder seems pretty easy to outrun. I feel like I’ve done that.

Cruise has two main antagonists in the movie, and both are Men Who Would Be Zabka. Michael Rooker, who did a bang-up job making Chick Gandil unlikable in “Eight Men Out,” and later made “Mallrats” better as the conniving dad, once again approaches Zabkaesque levels of on-screen douchebaggery as Rowdy Burns, until, that is, he and Cole become friends after, um, racing rental cars on a beach?

And, according to Rooker (during a Q&A with him I attended at Chiller), he was indirectly responsible for Cruise and Kidman getting together, because he told him that he’d go after her if Cruise didn’t. So there’s that.

Anyway, things go downhill for Rooker’s character after he and Cole buddy up, and he becomes less interesting and less douchebag-y after he becomes a family guy who needs brain surgery in order to survive (he was the guy I was certain died). So, because Cole still needs a rival on the track, enter Russ Wheeler, played by Cary Elwes, who takes over Cole’s car when he’s unable to race after his crash with Burns and eventually usurps Cole as the hot young rookie. Elwes shows here that he easily could’ve followed a Zabka path to being the smarmy, loathsome blond-haired villain. But instead he went the comedy route with the Zucker Brothers and Mel Brooks. It was probably for the best. There can be only one Zabka after all.

I can’t say that I think “Days of Thunder” is a great movie, or even a good movie, but I will say that, for some bizarre reason, I was kind of moved at the end of the movie, when Cole, driving Rowdy’s car, beats Wheeler at Daytona. I think this might be an innate defect I have where I am incapable of feeling nothing at the end of a sports movie. I’m not saying I cried or anything, but I did feel something, which certainly should not have happened. Let’s blame it on Hans Zimmer’s score and leave it at that.

I don’t recall welling up when I saw the movie in the summer of 1990, and, in fact, I’m pretty sure I didn’t have any feeling about it one way or the other (unlike “Dick Tracy,” I don’t think I’ve ever stopped on “Days of Thunder” when I’ve seen it on TV, and I even had to convince myself that it would be worthwhile to watch it again). And, really, the Mello Yello car doesn’t get all that much screen time (it’s only in the last race), so it was a letdown on that front, too. And it certainly didn’t pique my interest in NASCAR.

But, hey, at least I’ve got those Matchbox cars. In my apartment. Right now. Twenty-five years later. So at least something related to “Days of Thunder” has stood the test of time.



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