DAYS OF THUNDER
**/**** Image A- Sound B+ Extras D+
starring Tom Cruise, Robert Duvall, Randy Quaid, Nicole Kidman
screenplay by Robert Towne
directed by Tony Scott
**/**** Image B Sound A+ Extras A
starring Tom Cruise, Kelly McGillis, Val Kilmer, Anthony Edwards
screenplay by Jim Cash & Jack Epps, Jr.
directed by Tony Scott
WAR OF THE WORLDS
***/**** Image A+ Sound A+
starring Tom Cruise, Dakota Fanning, Miranda Otto, Tim Robbins
screenplay by Josh Friedman and David Koepp, based on the novel by H.G. Wells
directed by Steven Spielberg
by Bill Chambers Days of Thunder was not a crapshoot; the dice were loaded. Almost the entire creative team that made Top Gun a hit--the illustrious Robert Towne filled in for the screenwriting duo of Jim Cash and Jack Epps, Jr., and none of the soundtrack artists were invited back--was reuniting to do for NASCAR what the earlier film had done for the U.S. Navy's Fighter Weapons School. Star Tom Cruise had become even more popular in the intervening years, earning an Oscar nomination for Oliver Stone's Born on the Fourth of July. Producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer had such an unparalleled track record, having shepherded Flashdance, Top Gun, and the first two Beverly Hills Cops to commercial success, that Paramount confidently renewed their contract at the start of production. As recounted in Charles Fleming's unsparing High Concept: Don Simpson and the Hollywood Cultures of Excess, under the terms of their renegotiated deal (a "visionary alliance," as Simpson-Bruckheimer insisted it be called in the trades), they would receive $300M for five pictures--any five pictures--over five years, as well as a host of unprecedented perqs, including creative autonomy and fully-furnished home theatres installed at the studio's expense. Days of Thunder would be the first production of this visionary alliance. It would also, quite ludicrously, be the last.
Needless to say, Days of Thunder performed below expectations. Its $82M gross might've pegged it as a minor hit, had its budget not ballooned from $30M (already twice that of Top Gun, if you can believe it) to $70M. With a budget of $65M, Paul Verhoeven's Total Recall was touted as one of the most expensive movies ever made when it opened a mere month before, but its groundbreaking visual effects seemed to vindicate and insulate the filmmakers: the money was up there on the screen. Days of Thunder, on the other hand, became a poster boy for Hollywood profligacy, because it was mostly a case of throwing good money after bad. Despite a hefty price-tag of $100,000 per vehicle, the racecars featured in the film were lemons that kept breaking down, having not been built to NASCAR standards. The script was only partially finished at the start of shooting, and new scenes were often being written and shot simultaneously. Worse, Simpson had a fantasy of movie stardom that led to the writing and lensing of much unusable material. Only one little nugget of his performance remains in the film. (Ironically, another Days of Thunder producer, Gerald R. Molen, wound up with the plum role of a neurologist.) All of these things resulted in costly delays, which led to equally costly overtime to get the movie into theatres by the end of June. In fact, it was originally scheduled for a Memorial Day release, but they were still shooting that weekend. Days of Thunder looks like the proverbial million bucks--it's Tony Scott, after all--but it doesn't look like seventy million bucks. Most of the money is offscreen, in the margins, between the splices.
It should be said that Towne's screenplay, from a story by Tom Cruise, is almost shockingly basic. It's peculiar that Towne is held in such high regard as a script doctor, considering his best work (Shampoo, Chinatown, The Last Detail) took forever to write and that kind of novelist indulgence is diametrically opposed to the discipline it takes to churn out pages on the fly. His strong suit, a flair for dialogue that carries over into an ability to adapt to different voices (no one wrote for Jack Nicholson better), is a bit of voodoo that's taken his reach beyond his grasp, I suspect; Days of Thunder's screenplay is ultimately not much of an improvement on Top Gun's, even though everyone sounds 50% more human. Cruise plays cocky but know-nothing up-and-coming racecar driver Cole Trickle, who wants to win the Indy 500. Car dealer and team-builder Tim (Randy Quaid) pairs him with retired crew chief Harry (Robert Duvall) to make that happen. Harry's last driver died on him, and he's still in shock. Cole and Rowdy (Michael Rooker) become instant rivals and soon collide on the track. Both are hospitalized and suspended from racing. Cole starts dating Dr. Claire Lewicki (Nicole Kidman), his sexy neurologist. Rowdy's injuries turn out to be more severe than Cole's. Cole agrees to drive Rowdy's car in the Daytona 500. Harry is paranoid that history will repeat itself, while Claire can't abide Cole's recklessness. Everyone rallies at the last-minute and, spoiler, Cole wins the Daytona 500 in a photo finish against his new rival, Russ Wheeler (Cary Elwes, who turned this Discount Iceman routine into a second career as the snide villain of Hot Shots!, The Jungle Book, and Twister), the driver who took Cole's place.
A friend of mine used to spend many hours trying to codify Tom Cruise's career, Carrie Mathison-style. Based on variables like the length of Cruise's hair and whether or not his co-star was a venerable Oscar winner, he would divine a Cruise movie's box-office, and as I recall Cruise's quasi-mullet in Days of Thunder had him worried about its chances. We saw it together on opening weekend, and I wound up seeing it again about a week later, at a sneak-preview of Ghost--the film that would prove to be a much sturdier tentpole for Paramount that summer. Both times I had the same reaction: yes, that's a movie. I cut it a lot of slack in my first-ever online review, for a pre-Internet BBS, because I wasn't a particularly demanding consumer of media at the age of 15, and because Duvall's giggly-coot shtick, perfected if not debuted here ("...I don't believe NASCAR would think much of you tryna eat a ice-cream cone out there!"), is kind of impressive the first time you see it. My friend the Tom Cruise aficionado loved it, maybe as much as he loved Top Gun--another movie that had garnered my indifferent approval. That people saw a qualitative difference between the two films didn't make a ton of sense to me then, but I think I get it now, inasmuch as it can be got. One key ingredient missing from Days of Thunder is music. Oh, sure, there are songs galore in it, but few are memorably tailored to the film and fewer still are co-opted by it, à la The Righteous Brothers' "You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin'." And composer Hans Zimmer fails to give any of his music the anthemic charge of Harold Faltermeyer's Top Gun score. Top Gun is as brazen and cocksure as its hero in curating an insular soundtrack for the world of the film that sells the viewer on it like commercial jingles. Buying the album--which about 12,000,000 people did, including yours truly--didn't just mean you liked the songs, it meant you were nostalgic for Top Gun's whole vibe, creating a feedback loop that helped prolong the film's presence in the national consciousness. Between Flashdance ("Flashdance...What a Feeling"), Beverly Hills Cop ("Axel F"), and Top Gun, this was a Simpson-Bruckheimer specialty for a while there.
There's another, more abstract way in which the two films diverge that might mean everything in terms of accounting for the success of one and the failure of the other. Top Gun closes on a fade-out of Cruise and co-star Kelly McGillis on the verge of kissing, just as "You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin'" is building to its yearning crescendo, at which point we get a curtain-call featuring shots of each main cast member (the dead "Goose" is instantly resurrected, which feels right) doing something vaguely iconic as The Righteous Brothers wail on the soundtrack. Reflecting Scott's background in commercials, this little montage cynically stirs up the emotions with due haste, sending you out of the theatre soaring. By contrast, Days of Thunder ends with Cole kissing Claire atop his car at the finish line, then looking for Harry, who's sitting by himself on the sidelines. The two exchange verbal sighs of relief, tinged with a certain "Now what?" pathos. Then Duvall stands up and calls an impromptu footrace to Victory Lane, leading to this goofy closing freeze-frame:
Outside of Being There, with its mood-shattering blooper-reel credits, I can't think of many films that sell themselves out like this at the fade-out. Where Top Gun leaves you with enough residual goodwill that its frequent lapses in judgment and taste start to dissolve in the rearview, Days of Thunder wipes itself completely off the blackboard of your mind by lingering on an image that distils all of the movie's superficiality and mediocrity.
There is some interest to be mined from Days of Thunder as an auteur piece--the auteur being Cruise, not Scott. (In those days, Scott was mostly a facilitator of movie-star glamour.) Paul Newman invited Cruise to do practice laps with him on the Daytona circuit after they bonded on the set of The Color of Money, and Cruise took such a shine to it that he immediately declared his intentions to make a movie about stock-car racing. He tried, with An Officer and a Gentleman screenwriter Douglas Day Stewart and subsequently with Top Gun's uncredited script doctor Warren Skaaren, to turn his newfound passion project into a story pitch, but only Towne, an inveterate starfucker, could make sense of his ideas, or was sycophantic enough to transcribe them. Days of Thunder suggests it was no accident that he gravitated towards Top Gun, The Color of Money, and Rain Man, films with boatloads of daddy issues--a thread that would continue through A Few Good Men, the first Mission: Impossible, Magnolia, Vanilla Sky, and Collateral, until suddenly he is the problematic role model in War of the Worlds. (In 2006, Cruise told PARADE that his dad, who shares his given name (Thomas Cruise Mapother), was "a bully and a coward" and a constant source of anxiety for Cruise as a boy. When Thomas was dying of cancer, he agreed to see his estranged son on the condition that Cruise not bring up the past.) Given a blank canvas, Cruise imagines himself as the offspring of a "lowlife piece of trash" who started his own racing team and used Cole's burgeoning fame to prop up his shady business deals. Like most fathers in Tom Cruise movies, he's an offscreen presence but an albatross our protagonist must implicitly shed.
In a similarly confessional vein, the dyslexic Cruise has Cole confide to Harry that although he's had some success behind the wheel, he doesn't actually understand the racing terminology he's supposed to speak. ("I'm an idiot. I don't have the vocabulary.") Cole Trickle isn't terribly likable or appealing, and a big part of that is his joyless mien. Still, I'm beginning to see this as a feature rather than a bug--some kind of impostor syndrome masquerading as too-cool-for-school-ness. There is also a fascinating scene where a bit of road rage incites a car chase, during which Claire is more Cole's hostage than passenger. Once safely out of the vehicle, she gives him a richly deserved tongue-lashing: "You want to control something that's out of control, that's what you said to me. I'm going to let you in on a little secret that almost everybody else in this world automatically knows. Control is an illusion, you infantile egomaniac. Nobody knows what's going to happen next. Not on a freeway, not in an airplane, not inside our own bodies, and certainly not on a racetrack with forty other infantile egomaniacs." I hear in that an argument against Scientology's superman doctrine. Of course, this is Cruise's origin story, so she's wasting her breath. But he does let Kidman be taller than him.
For one of Cruise's glorified Elvis movies* (Cole Trickle is a very Elvis name; ditto Pete Mitchell (Top Gun)), Days of Thunder really isn't a total loss. I liked a moment that Bruckheimer may have looted for the infamous animal-crackers seduction in Armageddon where Cole demonstrates--with packets of Sweet'N Low on Claire's legs--the concept of one car catching the draft of another and then slingshotting past it. It's the only time in the film I learned something about racing, and if all physics lessons were conducted on Kidman's gams, I'd be Max Planck by now. Too, there's an inspired scene in which a race breaks out in the hospital hallway between Cole and Rowdy, both in wheelchairs. As the late racecar driver Alan "Special K" Kulwicki told the LOS ANGELES TIMES, it "perfectly [captures] the competitive spirit that inhabits most drivers." Me, I like the scene for normalizing wheelchairs and even lending them some cachet. In the same article, Kulwicki complains about Cruise's car being constructed in a barn instead of an engineering shop--a bit of poetic license meant to accommodate Scott's shafts-of-light aesthetic--and notes that the various races take liberties with physics and the rules of NASCAR. "'If we hit a wall once, we have to pit and get new tires,' [Kulwicki] said. 'But they had to make the movie exciting for the movie fan and I think they did that very well.'" I would add that the director of Top Gun probably discovered that stock cars lack the visual dynamism of fighter jets unless they're coming apart at the seams.
In what was originally intended as a cross-promotion with the postponed theatrical release of Top Gun: Maverick, Paramount has reissued Days of Thunder on 4K UHD disc along with Top Gun and the Cruise/Spielberg War of the Worlds. (The Firm, we hardly knew ya.) I realize I've barely touched on the other two, especially the latter, but that's because Walter Chaw has already definitively covered them for this site. To wit: "Top Gun's silhouetted woo is indelible for the head-size discrepancy, unmatched until the mantis-feeding of Winslet looming over DiCaprio." Mwah! The star ratings and letter grades above are mine alone, however, and I will say that War of the Worlds is one of the many films with renewed currency "thanks" to the pandemic, although it's a tad unrealistic that nobody in it calls the Martian invasion a Democrat hoax or tries yelling at the Tripods while wearing an American flag diaper and wielding an AR-15. When Cruise's Ray Farrier returns home to his son and daughter, shell-shocked and covered in the ashes of neighbours incinerated by death-rays, young Rachel (Dakota Fanning) asks why he's all dusty and Ray runs into the nearest bathroom. Instead of showing Ray frantically brush himself off, Spielberg cuts to clouds of dust billowing out into the hallway as Rachel and the older Robbie (Justin Chatwin) look on in bafflement. Besides being darkly funny, it shifts empathy to the kids, who now face two looming threats in aliens and Ray's mental state. More bluntly, staying on Ray would be reportage; putting the camera in the hall is cinema. Viva Spielberg--though the epilogue remains hopelessly cloying.
THE 4K UHD DISCS
All three discs in this Tom Cruise promotion are stunners to varying degrees. Days of Thunder is the only one that does not include a second copy of the film on HD Blu-ray, but as I have the old BD on hand, I was able to do an A/B comparison. Unimpeachable in terms of grain reproduction and clarity, the 2.40:1, 2160p transfer resembles a virgin print and instantly transported me back to 1990. Gone are the dirt and flecks of the SDR version, and the deep contrast of that earlier presentation has been corrected--perhaps overcorrected, as there's a dearth of pure black in the image. HDR is lightly applied: while the specular highlights are kicked up a notch, colours are surprisingly tame. If the 1080p disc looks relatively oversaturated, its candy gloss is also synonymous with NASCAR and not necessarily unwelcome. The attendant 5.1 DTS-HD MA track is predictably loud with lots of panning effects and a handful of "made you look" over-the-shoulder discrete effects that bring the racing venues to life. I've always suspected this mix was rushed, as it lacks finesse, with music often getting lost in the shuffle. Incidentally, Days of Thunder is the only one in this trio of titles Paramount couldn't be arsed to remix in Dolby Atmos. (Curiously, they have furnished it with an isolated score, in DD 2.0 stereo.) There's just one supplement on the platter, a 7-minute talking-head with Bruckheimer called "Filmmaker Focus: Days of Thunder" (HD). Though the piece bears a 2020 copyright, Bruckheimer speaks of the deceased Scott and Simpson in the present tense. He sings the praises of Scott, Kidman, Duvall, Towne, and, of course, Cruise, and more or less says Days of Thunder must be timeless or they wouldn't have remastered it in 4K 30 years later. It's as good a defense of Tammy and the T-Rex getting the same treatment as any.
Top Gun is the grand poobah of this collection, undoubtedly one of the most-anticipated discs since the advent of 4K. Let me preface this by saying that while I audited these discs in HDR10, they're encoded with Dolby Vision as well, thus my criticisms may not reflect the Dolby Vision experience. That said, Top Gun is a real let-down in HDR10. Yes, the picture is remarkably detailed--the close-ups of Maverick's face, beaded with sweat, during the final briefing are as crisp and tactile a UHD image as I have ever seen (when I imagined the potential of high-definition as a child, it was that)--but the blacks are washed-out, the colours are strangely reserved, and there is no discernible boosting of the highlights. Whatsoever. I expected to feel the warmth, the intensity, of the magic-hour sunlight cresting in McGillis's blonde hair; to be dazzled by the twinkling lights of San Diego after dusk; to get a sense of the blinding reflections pilots are confronted with in the cockpit. Nada. If ever a film were crying out for an ostentatious application of HDR, Top Gun is it. Film grain, for what it's worth, is meticulously reproduced, though the increased resolution brings a mix of film stocks into sharper relief.
The best reason to upgrade would be the Atmos track, which, even downmixed to 7.1 Dolby TrueHD, improves on the already legendary audio of previous editions, sounding comparatively clearer and less shrill. Every musical interlude has the force and intimacy of a personal concert, and the rumble of the planes sent my cat upstairs for the afternoon. Other reviewers have noted a (minor) sync issue a little past the 87-minute mark, but it's obviously an ADR gaffe and equally present on the 2008 Blu-ray. Two new HD extras accompany the feature: "The Legacy of Top Gun" (6 mins.), a featurette wherein the cast of Top Gun: Maverick extols the virtues of original-recipe Top Gun; and the five-part "On Your Six: Thirty Years of Top Gun" (30 mins.), an extended reminiscence from Cruise produced in 2016. Cruise's business savvy and daredevil impulse blossomed at around the same time, and he remembers Top Gun as training for the rest of his career. He tells a funny story about the first time he went up in the F-14 and having to juggle his imminent desire to puke with the responsibility of switching on the camera (a necessity because if they rolled film on the ground, most of it would be gone by the time they were airborne). Additionally on board is the excellent 2004 commentary track featuring Scott, Bruckheimer, Cash, Epps, Jr., technical advisor Pete Pettigrew, and real-life aviators Mike Galpin and Mike McCabe. It's optionally subtitled here.
Last if hardly least, War of the Worlds is the hero among these releases, another technically irreproachable Spielberg special. Oddly, the 1.85:1 mattes of the 1080p Blu-ray are opened up to the HD-native aspect ratio of 1.78:1. The difference is negligible (or should I say inconspicuous), although I wish I had the capability to take 4K framegrabs for a more thorough investigation. Nevertheless, the 2160p image is gorgeous, finding hidden depths of colour within the film's purposefully narrow palette. HDR highlights, though restrained, particularly enhance the strobing chaos in night scenes where alien devastation is met with military force. Shadow detail impresses: a silhouetted shot of Cruise in the bunker at around the 1:13:25 mark reveals the contours of his face, which are swallowed by blackness in SDR. Grain loses the density it had on DVD and Blu-ray without sacrificing any of its crunchy texture. As for the Dolby Atmos track, it takes a soundmix that was the GOAT to begin with and only makes it GOATier. When the pavement, before the first appearance of a Tripod, cracks like a windshield, destroying the foundation of a building across the street, the effect rolls underneath you and behind you up the wall. It's as satisfying as it is unsettling--a fair description of this soundtrack as a whole. In short: demo-worthy A/V. The three films come with digital duplicates; Top Gun and War of the Worlds are bundled with Blu-rays of themselves, too.
- Days of Thunder
107 minutes; PG-13; 2.40:1 (2160p/MPEG-H), Dolby Vision|HDR10; English Dolby Atmos (7.1 Dolby TrueHD core), French DD 5.1, Spanish DD 5.1, Latin American Spanish DD 5.1, Brazilian Portuguese DD 5.1, Italian DD 5.1, German DD 5.1, Japanese DD 2.0; English, English SDH, French, Spanish, German, Brazilian Portuguese, Greek, Romanian, Icelandic, Swedish, Dutch, Danish, Finnish, Norwegian, Cantonese subtitles; BD-66; Region-free; Paramount
- Top Gun
109 minutes; PG; UHD: 2.40:1 (2160p/MPEG-H), Dolby Vision|HDR10, BD: 2.40:1 (1080p/MPEG-4); UHD: English Dolby Atmos (7.1 Dolby TrueHD core), French DD 5.1, Spanish DD 5.1, Latin American Spanish DD 5.1, Brazilian Portuguese DD 5.1, Italian DD 5.1, German DD 5.1, Japanese DD 5.1 (TV Tokyo), Japanese DD 2.0 Mono (Fuji TV), Russian DD 5.1, BD: English DD 5.1, French DD 5.1, Spanish DD 5.1; UHD: English, English SDH, French, Spanish, German, Brazilian Portuguese, Czech, Hungarian, Polish, Romanian, Slovenian, Icelandic, Swedish, Dutch, Danish, Finnish, Norwegian, Greek, Turkish, Thai, Mandarin (simplified), Malay, Russian subtitles, BD: English, English SDH, French, Spanish subtitles; BD-66 + BD-50; Region-free; Paramount
- War of the Worlds
116 minutes; PG-13; UHD: 1.78:1 (2160p/MPEG-H), Dolby Vision|HDR10, BD: 1.85:1 (1080p/MPEG-4); UHD: English Dolby Atmos (7.1 Dolby TrueHD core), French DD 5.1, Spanish DD 5.1, Latin American Spanish DD 5.1, Brazilian Portuguese DD 5.1, Italian DD 5.1, German DD 5.1, Japanese DD 5.1, Thai DD 5.1, Hungarian DD 5.1, Polish DD 2.0, Russian DD 5.1, BD: English DD 5.1, French DD 5.1, Spanish DD 5.1; UHD: English, English SDH, French, Spanish, German, Brazilian Portuguese, Czech, Hungarian, Polish, Romanian, Swedish, Dutch, Danish, Finnish, Norwegian, Greek, Thai, Korean, Cantonese, Simplified Chinese, Mandarin, Russian subtitles, BD: English, English SDH, French, Spanish subtitles; BD-66 + BD-50; Region-free; Paramount