The JOE-DOWN Reviews ‘Days Of Thunder’

This is an installment for a series on this blog where Joe Brown, Sports Editor for the Red Wing Republican Eagle, and I have a back-and-forth review of a movie. We will take turns selecting a movie — any movie we want — and review it here. For this installment, Brown picked “Days of Thunder.”

The info:

The Movie: “Days of Thunder” (1990)

Starring: Tom Cruise, Robert Duvall, Nicole Kidman

Director: Tony Scott

Plot Summary: (From IMDB) A young hot-shot stock car driver gets his chance to compete at the top level.

Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 39 percent

Our take:

Brown: A week ago, we dealt with the insanity of a group of super villains fighting crime in “Suicide Squad.” And this week, we are dealing with another brand of insanity: The Don Simpson/Jerry Bruckheimer variety. The producers of “Days of Thunder” have been involved in such movies as “Flashdance,” “Top Gun” and “The Rock.” All good, but not critically acclaimed.

Along with their insanity, it was about time we got to Tom Cruise, whose career is… enigmatic, I would say? Case in point: We just watched a movie of his about NASCAR drivers.

Before we rev this up, what were your expectations going into this film, Froemming?

Froemming: I had seen this when it came out, as a little kid, and remembered nothing of it. When I saw Simpson/Bruckheimer’s name at the start, I knew, at the very least, there was not going to be a lot of dull moments.

Now, I will admit I was a little lost during the first 20 minutes of this film, because I know nothing about cars or racing. Then something magical happens. Tom Cruise’s character, Cole Trickle, admits to Robert Duvall’s character, Harry Hogge, that he knows nothing about cars. At all. For that brief scene, Cole was my avatar.

Brown: I also know very little about cars. All I know about racing is there is a lot of left-hand turns and crashes. Because of that, I feel like a NASCAR expert.

What I was not prepared for was this movie’s opening, which featured three confederate flags in the first 90 seconds. That’s the times and the NASCAR culture, but still, had to take a deep breath after that. Then, we get American hero/Canada’s favorite import Randy Quaid come on screen as race team owner Tim Daland, trying to get his stud crew chief Harry back into the game. Apparently, Daland has found a great driver who escaped the Starwhackers and needs an equally great car.

Right away, I thought, “You know, good for Tom Hagen. After Michael Corleone kicked him out of the family, he was able to live a new life as a farmer/race car builder.”

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Froemming: This is the last movie where Randy Quaid seemed a little normal. He’s been off the rails for years now, so it was a little jarring seeing him in a pretty straight-forward role, and not making sweet love to his wife in a Rupert Murdoch mask as he looks like the Appalachian version of Osama bin Laden. I will not link to that video folks. There are some things people simply cannot unsee.

But Daland convinces Harry to check out some new hotshot driver he has discovered (Cole). And while at the track we also meet Rowdy Burns (Michael Rooker) and get an unexpected origin story of Cal Naughton Jr. from “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby” from the great John C. Reilly.

Michael Rooker in this film looked pretty old for a young guy, and these days he looks pretty young for an old guy. He has been stuck looking 45 years old his whole career.

Brown: When we get introduced to Rooker playing Rowdy, it dawned on me: You could replace Rowdy with Iceman and Cole with Maverick and we’re getting “Top Gun: Ground Edition.” All the same beats, the same producers, same kind of ridiculous macho-ness.

Turns out, Cole (who rides to the race track on a motorcycle and gets called a Yankee because he’s from California?) really can race… at least while he’s on a track by himself. When he gets thrown into his first race, there is definitely a learning curve for Cole, who looks down on stock car racing. But as he learns in the stock car, the competitors are tough and “Rubbin’ is racing.”

Froemming: I also learned a new phrase after his race, “You looked like a monkey (REDACTED) a football.” Maybe the seeds of Quaid’s descent into madness began there….

Well, this leads to the scene I brought up earlier. The lack of communication between Harry and Cole on the track is based on Cole not knowing much about cars. His glazed look at Harry when Harry is babbling about engines and whatnot matched my own. But, after this little heart-to-heart, we get a Steve Winwood-themed racing montage to “Gimme Some Lovin’.”

Brown: Not only do we get that montage, we get a couple of tidbits into Buck (Reilly). First, his dad was killed at Daytona, and yet here he is working with race cars. Of course we would have some intense moment where a character is like “Daytona killed my pappy!” Then, Buck and Cole discuss the slingshot maneuver that helps Cole win his first race. Who else used the slingshot? Cal Naughton Jr.! This is the prequel to “Talladega Nights.”

After this, we see Cole and co. get drunk on moonshine and get pulled over by a female cop who (of course) gets frisky with Cole. This was 1990, after all.

Then, my biggest gripe of the movie comes up. After this, we go to the next racing scene and the announcer says that Cole is NASCAR’s hottest rookie, winning five of his last six races. Wait, what? You couldn’t put some scenes where he’s crossing the finish line for a couple wins? This movie makes all sorts of jarring cuts that threw me for a loop.

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Froemming: This movie jumped around so much I wanted to sue it for the damaging rubbernecking I endured. I doubt there were more than two or three scenes that lasted more than three minutes. I was also baffled by the five-out-of-six races moment, but knowing who produced this, it could have been much more nutty.

Now, there is an intense rivalry between Cole and Rowdy. To the point that during a race, they put each other in the hospital. With brain injuries. But, it is at the hospital we meet Dr. Claire Lewicki, played by Nicole Kidman. She is probably the only sane person here, because she will not clear Cole or Rowdy to race for a while, since Cole literally went BLIND for a while from his brain swelling.

But that doesn’t stop their rivalry. We are treated to not only the most bizarre wheelchair race ever in the hospital, but also the two of them destroy some rental cars on their way to dinner. This happens folks, and it is as weird as it sounds.

Brown: Don Simpson! Jerry Bruckheimer! I love the insanity.

We also get a wrench thrown in Cole’s wheels when Daland brings in Russ Wheeler to take over his car. And while Cole is healing and become best friends with Rowdy (somehow), Russ is dominating in Cole’s old car.

But most alarming is how Rowdy is dealing with his brain trauma, to the point that he collapses after getting examined by Dr. Lewicki (but not before she and Cole hooked up. Because of this movie’s cuts, they go from flirting to bedside in an instant). While Rowdy is suffering, we see Cole distance himself. Race car drivers don’t want to be reminded of their mortality, the movie posits. I think it’s because Cole is clairvoyant and can see his friend moving to Atlanta and becoming a racist zombie hunter.

Froemming: Zombie hunter, or a man who gets stink palmed by a mallrat in the form of a chocolate-covered pretzel.

Yup, we get another cocky race car driver with Russ Wheeler, who is more convincing as a farm boy on Buttercup’s farm in “The Princess Bride” than as a NASCAR driver here. And here is where the movie sort of loses me. When Russ takes over Cole’s car, then Cole takes over Rowdy’s car — and Daland toward the end supports both of them?

Brown: Before we reach the climax of this movie, I want to bring up two of the most screwed up scenes in this.

First: When Cole and Rowdy are injured, they both get told of their diagnosis in the same room with both guys’ crews in the room. Wait, shouldn’t there be some doctor-patient confidentiality? I can understand the crews being in for the guys separately. But no, they’re ALL in the same room together finding out about their maladies.

Then, before Cole gets Rowdy’s car, he tries racing in a car that is clearly inferior. And during the heat of a race, Cole has to take a pit stop because he’s getting roughed up by Russ (again, rubbin’ is racing, bro). How does Cole respond? By flooring it out of pit row during a caution lap (where the racers are going slower) and T-boning Russ at full speed, getting his team fired by Daland in the process. Not only should Cole be suspended for such an egregious act, he should probably be arrested for attempted vehicular manslaughter. There’s being overly competitive and there’s being a sociopath. Cole is the latter.

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Froemming: Remember, this is a Simpson/Bruckheimer film. Logic gets thrown out the window.

Yeah, Cole just bashing right into Russ was probably the nuttiest things in this film. I also liked how we get a second scene where Harry has to be recruited back into the NASCAR game. Just when he thinks he is out, they pull him back in! (yeah, I know Duvall wasn’t in “Godfather III”)

We also find out a little more about Buck Bretherton’s father’s death on the track. This was a plot point that seemed very important at the start of the film, and really didn’t add too much for me at the end.

Brown: If I were Harry, I would try to find any reason to quit working with a lunatic like Cole. To the point that while riding in a car with Claire, Cole gets incensed by a taxi driver bumping into him and hunts the guy down like the truck in “Duel.” Then Claire confirms how I feel about Cole: He’s a sociopath who throws caution in the wind and thinks he’s above consequence.

But, because Claire is a typical sports movie female, she’ll give her speech about how she can’t be around an athlete because they’re egotistical/dangerous/prima donna/etc., only to end up with him because he’s cute or something. I guess it’s kind of excusable in this case since Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman were married in real life after meeting during the filming of “Days of Thunder.”

Froemming: Him bashing into the angry cab driver was hilarious. I, too, get aggravated by rude drivers, but never to the point where I smash into them, and then chase them around town like a psychotic.

But we now get to the final race at the Daytona 500. A race between Cole, Russ and a bunch of other cars on the track. And we see Russ messing with Cole, because Cole is a one-trick pony always going on the outside. But, Harry and Cole do something unthinkable. They go on the inside for a change. And this really throws Russ off his game.

Brown: This may as well have been the scene from “Mighty Ducks 2” where Coach Bombay tells Julie to anticipate the Iceland shooter going glove side. Why? “He’s fancy, he’ll go glove.” And because we need another “Talladega Nights” reference in this review, Cole again goes to the slingshot to win the Daytona 500. SHAKE AND BAKE!

So, we get some sports movie tropes of Cole and Claire kissing around the pit crew (she says she won’t see the race. But, she lied). Then, Cole sees Harry sitting by himself and comes over to tell him to join the celebration. And because this is a Tom Cruise movie, Cole and Harry run to end the movie.

Oh Cole, you card! It’s always about the racin’ with you.

Final thing I want to mention before we wrap this up: Did you find yourself distracted like I was looking at all the old 90s logos all over the cars? And remembering the days where NASCAR’s championship was called the Winston Cup because people love their cigarettes?

Froemming: It was odd seeing those old logos, and thinking about how their designs have changed over the years. But I was thinking more on how this movie probably didn’t cost the studio a dime with all that product placement. There are very few scenes in this movie without a logo advertising something.

Brown: They needed every dime. I read that they doubled this movie’s budget of $35 million. Not to mention, they forgot to film Cole’s car at the finish line at Daytona. Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer, folks! If you want to read about how nuts this movie’s filming was, check out this link.

Let’s wrap this up before Cole tries to smash us to smithereens.

WOULD YOU RECOMMEND?

Brown: I don’t think you’ll remember this movie 10 minutes after you watch it, but as a mindless popcorn movie, it’s fine. It’s not peak Simpson/Bruckheimer insanity (That may be “The Rock” or “Con-Air”), but it’s a nice appetizer for what those two put on screen before Simpson passed away. Plus, Nicole Kidman is adorable in this movie. You could watch a lot worse.

Froemming: I just realized this is probably the shortest JOE-DOWN we have done. Because there is not a whole lot of story here. A lot of action, some dialogue and many, many baffling cut-scenes. If you have two hours to kill and have no desire to get wrapped into a deep plot, then sure, check it out. It is a pretty forgettable film.

Here is what’s coming up for the next Joe-Down: