Tony Scott’s second film of 1990 is, for all intents and purposes, a spiritual sequel to Top Gun, with the Daytona 500 race track substituting for the tarmac at NAS Miramar. Once again, Tom Cruise plays a renegade visionary, but this time around he’s Cole Trickle, a motorcyclist-turned-race car driver who wants to make a name for himself on the NASCAR circuit. To that end, he enlists the help of veteran trainer and race car designer Harry Hogge, played by Robert Duvall, challenging him to build a race car proportionate to his talent – a race car that he can handle with the same dexterity and speed as a motorcycle. Apparently the resulting story was partly conceived by Cruise himself, along with Robert Towne, and his personal investment in the project shows, since this is easily one of the most focused and visceral performances of the first part of his career (“We’re looking for some speed out of this”). In fact, all reports would suggest that Days of Thunder held much the same appeal for the producers, and even became a lifestyle choice that momentarily supervened the creation of the actual film, sending them away over their prescribed budget even as they pre-emptively opened their own personal “Days of Thunder” styled gymnasium during filming at Daytona.
As much as the film might be anchored in Cruise and its lavish production budget, however, this is very much Tony Scott’s vision, offering him considerably more scope to develop his cinematic style than occurred in any of his previous films. You might even say that Days of Thunder, along with Revenge, is where Scott finally came of age as a director, partly because high speed motor sports seemed to have provided him with the first glimpse of the hyper-kinetic camera that would come to define his personal style over the next two decades. Just as Harry is tasked with building a car proportionate to Cole’s talent, so it feels as if Scott is trying to effect a new convergence of car and camera, which is perhaps why Duvall so often feels like Scott’s surrogate throughout the film, directing Cruise remotely and functioning as his eyes and ears when he can’t see what’s on the track ahead of him. In that sense, Scott is also trying to envisage a camera proportionate to Cruise’s celebrity aura at this point in time – visceral yet distant, muscular yet somehow disembodied, subsumed into his own image but in ways that seemed to make him even more physically present as well.
Key to that process is effectively replicating Cruise’s perspective in the driver’s seat, which was apparently a source of no small debate and disagreement amongst the producers, and one of the main reasons why Days of Thunder exceeded its budget in such a dramatic way. One of the strangest consequences of that struggle is that there aren’t actually a huge number of driving sequences in the film, with Scott tending to spend more time on the mind games and psychological drama that take place behind the scenes. When he does return to the racetrack, however, the effect is even more dramatic, making it feel as if we have entered another film, or another sphere of existence, or even an accelerated version of the future. Whereas most of the action takes place in garages, hospitals, bars and other small, cramped spaces, these driving sequences are oriented around sweeping aerial shots and sudden alternations between sound and silence, as Scott places us amongst landscapes so flattened by the sky that the cars almost feel as if they’re launching into orbit.
At the same time, these sequences are quite incredible in their dexterity, as Scott presents racing as an act of creative destruction, and a study in managing and orchestrating collateral damage. That tends to give Days of Thunder the energy and momentum of a car chase film – or a car crash film – more than a sports film, or to converge the two into some new high-speed, high-octane drama. Hence the red haze that descends from the top of the screen during the most intense races, as if Cole were burning off more and more of the earth’s atmosphere with each loop, leaving only the slightest membrane of air between the track and outer space. During these sequences, the shots of the crowd are almost as sublime as the driving itself, since it’s here that you really feel the galactic scale of it all, as Scott seems to collapse cinema into some even greater mass spectacle that almost demands several screens to be placed side by side to capture the full scale of what’s unfolding.
At a more immediate and literal level, a key part of racing turns out to be strategically destroying other cars by “rubbing” up against them – “rubbing is racing” – as well as being able to develop the sixth sense needed to drive straight through zero visibility pileups and emerged unscathed, especially on tight turns. In other words, being a driver is about navigating and orchestrating crashes as much as tackling the track itself, as Cole becomes more and more fused with the car as each new accident, injury and trauma takes its toll on his body. As the Daytona 500 looms on the horizon, Cole therefore has to perfectly time things so that his bodily injury is pronounced enough to make him dependent on the car as a prosthetic extension of his body, but not severe enough to prevent him actually commandeering the car as if it were an extension of his body when it comes to the race.
As might be expected, that leads to a fair amount of medical discussion, which is where Nicole Kidman enters the scene as Cole’s neurosurgeon, Claire Lewicki. Interestingly, it’s not Cole’s limbs, or bones, or muscles, that form the biggest risk to his driving future, but the question of whether his brain is sufficiently intact to get back behind the wheel, as both Harry and Scott repeatedly suggest that the most successful racers are able to effect a direct neural connection with the engine and steering apparatus. For that reason, Days of Thunder often seems to draw upon the popularity of racing video games, with Cruise turning into something of an avatar during the driving sequences, especially when paired with Scott’s windscreened POV shots, which tend to be framed like gaming consoles. It’s not just in the POV shots that you feel it, though, with one of the most memorably sequences seeing Cole and his nemesis gliding over surface streets, sidewalks, boardwalks and beaches like they’re flying, envisaging and channeling some new kind of digital car chase that’s not beholden to the clunky obstacles and immoveable structures of an older kind of analog spectacle.
At the same time, Cole and Claire’s romance – and Cruise and Kidman’s burgeoning romance – is largely inflected through neuroscience, since Daytona is pointedly presented as a centre of excellence for both racing and neurosurgery. Most immediately, the early part of their relationship revolves around Claire examining Cole’s eyes, facial expressions and head movements, allowing Scott to shortcut a more conventional and laborious romance with a compressed sequence of deflected gazes and breathless proximities that work wonderfully alongside Kidman’s Australian accent, which she retains without ever having to explain. More generally, however, the relationship starts with Claire experiencing a certain self-consciousness about dating someone in such a destructive field (“How could I, a brilliant brain doctor, be in bed with a guy who drives a car for a living?”) only to gradually realise that what Cole and Harry do is also, in its own way, a kind of brain intervention and neural augmentation comparable to her own professional vocation. As we move between Daytona Memorial Hospital and Daytona Racetrack, and between racing and neurosurgery, Cole and Claire immerse themselves in a neuroromance that is strangely Gleason and disembodied, driven by their fascination with the different ways in which they each momentarily transcend their physical selves.
It’s not hard, then, to see why Cruise and Kidman fell in love during the film, nor is it hard to see their romance blossoming through their respective characters. In fact, you’d be hard pressed to think of a better vehicle for two actors to develop a romantic connection than Days of Thunder, with Cruise and Towne’s screenplay continually seeming to disclose Cole and Claire to each other only to subsume them back into their ideas of each other. I sense that when two actors fall in love with each other, it’s about navigating the idea of the person as much as the person themselves – especially on set – and this particular film is perfectly set up to accommodate that, to the point where the burgeoning rapport between Cruise and Kidman is almost the central spectacle on display. As much as Duvall and Cruise might also have a great rapport – and as much as it might save the racing sequences from some pretty bland dialogue – it’s Cruise and Kidman that take centre stage and imbue Days of Thunder with its ineffable, infallible sense of cool, which percolates all the way up from the smallest inflection to the grandest vistas. As improbable as it might sound, rewatching it made me realise how much even Eyes Wide Shut replicated some of the glances present here, in order to map out the other big bookend of Cruise and Kidman’s onscreen relationship.
By the end of Days of Thunder, then, the galactic spectacle of race car driving has converged with the sublime spectacle of Cruise and Kidman’s celebrity rapport, turning Claire into Cole’s most important spectator. In the process, the spectacle of celebrity itself becomes a kind of technological sublime, as Scott presents the celebrity body and gaze as both repository and harbinger of a new kind of perception that he was as yet only starting to glimpse at this point in his career. Moving forward, he would prove inimitable at anchoring hyperactive camera work in big-budget actors – culminating with his string of films with Denzel Washington – in his search for a camera alive to the ways in which celebrity had started to exceed the boundaries of analog representation by the turn of the millennium and instead cascade over into digital cultures of fandom, gossip and entertainment reporting. In Steven Shaviro’s terms, then, Scott was trying to find a visual language for post-cinematic celebrity before post-cinematic media had even been clearly formulated or envisaged, which is perhaps why Cruise and Kidman feel so much more futuristic here than in any of their subsequent films, as well as – somehow – older and more venerable than in any of their subsequent performances. By the same token, the driving sequences on display here seem to occupy a precipice of space-time that hasn’t really dated since they were first exhibited, instead playing as an artistic manifesto that would simply be filled out by Scott over the remainder of his filmography – a manifesto that few other big-budget Hollywood directors (or low-budget indie directors) have come close to rivalling.