In defence of Days of Thunder (1990)
On Saturday, when all the chores and errands were done, I had an urge.
Days of Thunder was calling my name. I wanted to get out there and hit the pace car.
Earlier in the month, I’d watched a TV news story about drag racer Phil Lamattina who had survived a horror crash and has now quit racing.
Days of Thunder had been floating around in my subconscious ever since.
It was a film on high rotation during my childhood. Mum had taped it off the telly on VHS and my brother and I quickly embraced it. Phrases like “I’m dropping the hammer!” became common in our home. We’d ‘slipstream’ on our bikes.
For those unfamiliar with the text, IMDb says Days of Thunder is about “a young hot-shot stock car driver [who] gets his chance to compete at the top level”.
Even I think that sounds shit.
The film has long been derided as ‘Top Gun on wheels’, full of two dimensional characters and wooden dialogue. Insert your phrase of condemnation here (though, be warned, they’ve all been used before…)
Should I even revisit this film? Or was it best left in my childhood?
With some trepidation, I decided to show some faith and rewatch Days of Thunder.
I wasn’t expecting a masterpiece, but among the extended action sequences, perfunctory character development (and, it must be said, an uncondemned instance of what’d we’d now call sexual assault*) what I encountered was a pleasant surprise.
Indeed, in retrospect, the film even acted as a petrol splattered Trojan Horse for a few pretty valuable life lessons:
1) Real heroes admit their flaws.
The Days of Thunder plot setup hinges on a single moment where arrogant and supremely talented race car driver Cole Trickle (Tom Cruise) admits to industry veteran Harry Hogge (Robert Duvall) that he’s in over his head.
“I don’t know a lot about cars,” Trickle says in hushed tones in a blokey bar. “I’d like to help out but I can’t. I’m an idiot. I don’t have the vocabulary.”
In the context of the film, this is a massive and embarrassing confession. The movie’s prototype hotshot driver (“There’s nothing I can’t do in a race car”) is admitting he’s oversold himself and is begging for help from a man he hardly knows, but whose reputation he obviously respects.
Admitting your flaws? Respecting your elders? Asking for help? You wouldn’t find many other ‘action heroes’ embarking on such a conversation.
Cruise and Duvall’s characters quickly slot into the protégée/mentor dynamic and success soon beckons.
2) Men, talk to your mates about their health.
When Trickle and the film’s early villain, the perfectly named Rowdy Burns, are involved in a serious crash, the two adversaries soon develop a fractious friendship. Rowdy suffers a subtle but debilitating brain injury from the smash and ends up hiding away in his country retreat popping painkillers.
Burns makes it very clear he doesn’t like hospitals or doctors—especially female ones—and has no intention of engaging with the medical system. Sound like any men you know? Pressure is put on Trickle to go “talk to Rowdy” and convince him to get treatment.
Eventually, he does.
Cole Trickle: What’d you win this one for? This one right here? What’d you win this for? [Points to a big trophy in Burns’ room.]
Rowdy Burns: Doesn’t it say?
Cole Trickle: Yeah, that’s a Winston Cup, buddy. Hell, that’s an easy one to forget. What’s your name, or has that slipped your mind too?
Rowdy Burns: Screw you, man.
The dialogue is hardly Sorkin-esque, but the conversation is nonetheless tense and layered. Neither man wants to be there. Cole doesn’t want to be probing his new friend’s health woes (and reminding himself of his own mortality), and Rowdy doesn’t want him there putting pressure on him. Frankly, it’s a conversation men never enjoy.
But the scene happens (below). Rowdy goes to the hospital and agrees to have minor brain surgery. Their friendship is elevated to a new level. The lessons are that real mates talk to each other about their health and that awkward conversations are sometimes necessary. If more men had learnt this lesson in teenagehood the world would be a better place.
3) “I’m more afraid of being nothing than I am of being hurt”
Cruise’s character delivers this memorable line in the buildup to the movie’s final race sequence at the Daytona 500, “the Super Bowl of stock car racing”, which he, of course, wins.
On face value it’s a statement of recklessness and hubris. But, in the context of the film, this somewhat cheesy line is a declaration of genuine self-belief.
Coming at such a crucial moment in the film, it’s also instructive in understanding Trickle’s wider character arc. It’s the sentiment of a young man who’s respectfully learned at the foot of his mentor, honestly contemplated the risks of his own profession through watching the suffering of his mate Rowdy and—weighing up the dangers—has made a calculated decision to pursue his goals.
The lesson here needs little decoding. It’s okay to dream big and even take risks to achieve your goals.
Days of Thunder isn’t a work of genius. It’s closer to good than great, but it certainly doesn’t deserve the trash reputation it’s developed over the past 25 years. Which is why I felt compelled to pen this defence.
If you love a brainless action sequence then please watch Days of Thunder immediately.
But, equally, if you look beyond the fast cars and slick race scenes, and ignore the now-cliche Tom Cruise smirk, you might just find a film with equal parts heart and horsepower.
*- This is a big asterisk. The scene referenced involves Cruise’s character grabbing his female doctor’s hand and shoving it on his crotch, because he mistakenly believes she’s a prostitute wearing a medical costume. The incident becomes a source of embarrassment for Trickle and his mentor Hogge, who later apologises to the doctor (played by Nicole Kidman). Interestingly, she doesn’t really condemn his act and actually enters into a relationship with him. This film’s views on acceptable sexual behaviour is dated, to say the very least.