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MOVIE REVIEW : Utility Vehicle : 'Days of Thunder': The NASCAR racing footage and Tom Cruise's grin are fine. Robert Towne's malnourished screenplay isn't.

June 27, 1990|SHEILA BENSON | TIMES FILM CRITIC

Whoosh!! "Days of Thunder" just streaked in (citywide), fast as a race-car paint job and about as flat. The movie's excitement comes from its racing footage; its massive case of attitude comes from producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer's assurance that they can retool the formula of "Top Gun," bless it with a little sprinkle of Valvoline and send it out as a brand-new movie.

They have a few things working for them. Tom Cruise's slowly dawning grin remains unassailable. And the movie's 20 minutes of footage on the NASCAR racing circuit, cut with the greatest dexterity to make it feel like twice as much, is impressive. Director Tony Scott, his "Top Gun" editors and cameramen have discovered ways to make audiences feel they're going with the drivers into banked turns at roughly 200 miles an hour. With this many scrapes against the side walls at this speed, you can leave "Days of Thunder" feeling positively chafed. That clanking noise, however, comes from Robert Towne's tinny story and its malnourished characters.

What relationships the movie has aren't between Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, as one might hope after her spirited intelligence in "Dead Calm," but between Cruise and Robert Duvall, putting full, ornery life into another ol' Southern peckerwood. This time it's Harry Hogge, a "legendary" crew chief who must be coaxed out of retirement and who talks to the cars he's built the way other men talk to their womenfolk. Other men who aren't in this movie.

Towne, who reportedly hung out along the NASCAR circuit to soak up atmosphere, has the lingo right enough; the movie bristles with talk about drivers who've "lost their rides" and offhand jawing about "rubbin' "--as in rubbin' a quarter-panel off a competitor's car as you pass him. As Duvall explains, "Rubbin', son, is racin'."

However, don't expect full in-depth Robert Towne characters here. As the Simpson-Bruckheimer canon expands, character details seem to be the easiest things to drop along the way. As recently as "Top Gun," Kelly McGillis seemed to have come from a real past; she even had a real house, with traces of her personality upon it. The first "Beverly Hills Cop" went to some pains to tell us where and how Eddie Murphy lived before bursting upon an unsuspecting Beverly Hills. These niceties have become absolutely old-fashioned.

Tom Cruise's Cole Trickle is an enigmatic Californian with a bummer of a past and a burning need to prove himself in the present. Aside from what clues we can pick up from his natty tailoring, that's all we know about him and presumably all we need to know. The woman he makes love to this time--"involved with" seems absolutely presumptuous--is Kidman's Dr. Claire Lewicki, a doctor simply because the script says she is one. She arrives on the scene rather late in the film, after a horrendous crash involving Cruise and his driving rival, Rowdy Burns (Michael Rooker)

Towne has gone to some trouble to give these people offbeat names, and from Kidman's accent, the doctor clearly isn't from anywhere in the southern United States, but in Cole Trickle's life curiosity about other people doesn't exist. So Cruise is stuck playing a piece of driving machinery with a great haircut, who makes speeches about needing to know "he can control something that's out of control." (Kidman's response to this awfulness is probably the movie's single memorable exchange. )

Wandering through, with only their suits to create their characters, are Randy Quaid, as a successful car salesman who backs Duvall's racing team and young rival driver Cary Elwes, as the most paper-thin villain since "Fire Birds," which is saying something.

Characters come together, quarrel, make up, become villains or friends for no reason whatever. Only two actors are able to create whole, real characters and that's partly because we see their home ground: Duvall's Harry, who like "Top Gun's" Tom Skerritt is Cruise's missing father figure, and Rooker's grand fleshing out of fellow driver Rowdy Burns. And even Burns' character is allowed to fade out instead of being resolved. Unlikely that Rooker will fade from memory, however; the actor, who played the title role in "Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer" earlier this year, has a tangible and startling presence.

The rest of the film's attention has been lavished on the racing footage, and while there isn't a single nice bit of detail to characterize a stock-car audience for us, there's no denying the hairbreadth quality of the race-car camerawork by Ward Russell in his feature cinematography credit. Scattering movie cars gingerly within real NASCAR races, Russell and his crew have come up with moments that suggest the sport's real sense of speed and danger, edited with clarity and rhythm by Billy Weber and Chris Lebenzon. If any one of these qualities had been poured into the characters, "Days of Thunder" (rated PG-13) might have been a different story, instead of just an expensively retreaded one.

'DAYS OF THUNDER'

A Paramount Pictures presentation of a Don Simpson, Jerry Bruckheimer production. Executive producer Gerald R. Molen. Producers Simpson, Bruckheimer. Director Tony Scott. Screenplay Robert Towne from a story by Towne and Tom Cruise. Editors Billy Weber, Chris Lebenzon. Music Hans Zimmer. Art director Benjamin Fernandez. Costumes Susan Becker. Sound Charles M. Wilborn. With Cruise, Robert Duvall, Randy Quaid, Nicole Kidman, Michael Rooker, Cary Elwes.

Running time: 1 hour, 47 minutes.

MPAA-rated: PG-13 (parents strongly cautioned; some material may be inappropriate for children under 13).

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