I was just a little tyke when Days of Thunder opened in June of 1990, still vroom-vrooming toy cars on the beige carpet of my parents’ living room and in need of an occasional diaper change. That description also fits director Tony Scott’s film, which routinely resembles what would happen if a dozen dudes who like to slug cheap beer and talk about engine pistons were given $60 million to make a masturbatory fantasy about stock car racing. However, to say Days of Thunder is about anything more than ego tripping gives Scott and screenwriter Robert Towne too much credit. Towne frontloads the script with endless racing jargon and Scott’s got his trusty filter collection on his right hip, drawing monochromatic reds, blues, and greens as fast as thunder, er, lightning, which muffles and masks the film’s core, male melodrama.
The American flag. The Confederate flag. The Pepsi flag. All fly at full mast during the film’s opening credits through a succession of shots that would function as auto-critique of national-cum-corporate exploitation were they not part and parcel with producer Jerry Bruckheimer’s own, still freshly minted brand of hyper-capitalist blockbuster cinema. Bruckheimer’s corporate circle-jerking is even fluidly integrated into Towne’s script: When Cole Trickle (Tom Cruise) explains his orientation to racing, he mentions how “the coverage on ESPN is excellent.” Cruise’s boyish bravado naturalizes the rep, another tacit formation of the Bruckheimer mold, where charisma compliments commerce and obfuscates insidious dealings in conglomerate mitosis.
When ABC acquired ESPN in 1984, it was because Texaco sold their shares, wanting to shed non-energy holdings. The relationship is fascinating, not least because Towne’s script for The Two Jakes, which opened in August of ’90, features a ruthless oil tycoon. Given Towne’s track record, one might be tempted to look for evidence of cynicism regarding capital gains via a sport that puts product placements on wheels. Whatever Towne may have had to say on the matter is pummeled by tire-screeching spectacle, which prefers the meager rewards of dopey one-liners and whirring neon colors to sustained, pleasurable interrogation.
Dispensing with all notions that Days of Thunder is a critical work of any sort reveals its hollow and misogynistic underpinnings; instead of being a film about dumb dudes, it’s a film for dumb dudes, who would shit-kick the back of a theater seat when Randy Quaid’s dealership tycoon shouts “we end up looking like a monkey fucking a football out there.” Scott uses Hans Zimmer’s pulsating score to accentuate physical duress—not images of it, but exclamations and threats to “tear your balls off.” It’s all meant to be good ol’ fun, as Harry (Robert Duvall, playing the same shit-talking father figure from The Great Santini) tells Cole, while he’s on the course, that a driver “rubbed you, and rubbin’, son, is racin’.” Harry’s willing to put Cole at risk against snarling foe Rowdy (Michael Rooker) by lying about some special tires he’s fitted the car with, telling Cole to make a move that would otherwise put the driver at risk. When Cole finds out, he goes to whoop the old man’s ass, but the two end up smiling and playing grab-ass instead because, well, they won the race.
Racing terminology mixes with sexual innuendo throughout. In fact, hearing lines like “Everyone’s got to pit, Cole,” “Don’t just go to the outside like that, Cole,” and “Don’t do anything weird on my leg, Cole,” out of context makes it difficult to tell which is which. But neither Scott nor Towne has any fun with it. When Dr. Lewicki (Nicole Kidman) first appears, she’s made to fondle Trickle’s penis because he’s mistaken her for another stripper since, you know, he’s Cole Trickle goddamnit! In a film where “sonofabitch!” is uttered more frequently than “hello,” Days of Thunder is all sons and no bitch, foisting a female presence into a world where its only role is to stroke the members of an all-boys club.
The film is largely set in Charlotte, North Carolina, which is about 40 miles from where I spent my formative years. My first contact with the film came at the Paramount’s Carowinds theme park in 1995, where a Days of Thunder motion-simulation attraction had opened at the site’s Action Theater. Basically a proto-D-BOX, the theater seats jerked and rumbled while the on-screen action matched the seat’s direction. By the end of the ride, the kid next to me had shit his pants, which at the time seemed awfully embarrassing; in hindsight, it’s perhaps the only proper response to Bruckheimer cinema, where all of the ass-patting, wafting smoke, and rubbin’ amounts to little more than corporate foreplay. And that’s the trouble: The young patron’s underwear can be washed, but the filmmakers’ excremental vision cannot be permanently cleansed from the pop culture palette.