How Days of Thunder Changed Hollywood
For the better.
Days of Thunder was intended to be an uncomplicated reprise—same director, same star, same producers, same deal-point treasure. (Its industry nickname was Top Car.) But where Top Gun is pleasantly goofy, Days of Thunder is aggressively incoherent. It makes no sense that Cruise’s character, the improbably named Cole Trickle, is in that expensive race car (he keeps admitting he knows nothing about cars). It makes no sense that Tom Cruise is in this expensive movie (the look on his face throughout says, “I am not a NASCAR driver; I am a best actor nominee.”)
Long, quiet, ice-toned scenes of Cruise-Trickle confessing his inability to live with his own good fortune alternate with gleefully bad scenes of stock car racing. (One anecdote, perhaps apocryphal, claims principal photography for Days of Thunder ended without a shot of Cruise’s car crossing the finish line.) The film bears all the hallmarks of a project doomed from the get-go by power struggles: In this instance, between Tom Cruise, whose celebrity had been burnished to a high polish by the critical successes of Rain Man and Born on the Fourth of July, and Don Simpson, whose debauchery was now raging out of control. While Cruise manipulated the script into a parable of his own success, Simpson converted the set into his own Roman playpen. He spent (so reports his biographer, Charles Fleming) $400,000 of studio money to convert his hotel suite into a private gym, kept a closetful of Donna Karan dresses for the ladies his assistants handpicked on the Daytona beaches, and commandeered a local disco for (total filmmaking in action) private parties featuring Tone Loc.
In addition to his Caligula-like exploits, Simpson got it into his head that he should act in Days of Thunder. A new character was dutifully written in, and a sin-bloated Simpson was squeezed into a NASCAR fire-suit. Had Tony Scott asserted one iota of directorial control, he would have excised Simpson completely from the film. But then again, had Tony Scott asserted one iota of directorial control, Days of Thunder might not have been the catastrophe it was. Scott didn’t, it bombed; but by bombing, it helped bring about the death of the anti-auteur era in 1990, no less than Heaven’s Gate had hastened the death of the auteur era in 1980. The films Scott made in the ’90s, principally Crimson Tide and Enemy of the State, owe their relative elegance as blockbusters to the reacquired authority of the director, an authority reacquired, in no small part, thanks to the debacle of his final ’80s film.
Rewatching the film the other night, I noticed for the first time one particularly superfluous racing sequence. “God damn,” I thought, as I rewound it, thinking I’d mistaken what I just saw. But no, there it was: Simpson’s car gets love-tapped once on its rear bumper and boom, for no apparent reason, his engine blows sky high, knocking him out of the race, and the movie. “There it is,” I said, the little wink to let you know, even amid the insanity, the author was not dead. It was like finding the lost finish line footage, only to discover a Prius sneaking across while no one was looking.
Stephen Metcalf is Slate's critic at large. He is working on a book about the 1980s.