TBT: Days of Thunder (1990)

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Welcome to September’s edition of TBT! Though I wasn’t wild about trying to theme out this particular thread over the course of even something as short as a month, seeing as though I have a slight issue with consistency and all. . .I feel there’s a very good reason to try it out for this month. Given that on September 27, the latest Ron Howard picture, Rush,  is set to drop, I figured this would be a good time to take a look at some badass car movies. Initially I was going to try to restrict the theme simply to racing movies, but since yours truly has pretty limited racing film experience, I broadened the theme to include any really cool movie involving high speed cars, car chases, and yes, race sequences. Whether the film is character-driven as it dives into famous racer profiles (as Rush will here in a couple of weeks; and boy, do I hope this film proves to be the bounce-back Howard needs after his latest outing, The Dilemma. . . ) or whether the film just happens to show some ludicrous albeit highly entertaining car stunts throughout, this is the month to get your adrenaline fix as we throw it back to some older films involving automobiles. Enjoy! 

Today’s food for thought: Days of Thunder

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Release: June 27, 1990

[DVD]

A very young, moody Tom Cruise dons the racing gloves and other appropriately goofy garb required of NASCAR drivers as he steps into the role of Cole Trickle, an extremely talented but emotionally unstable young driver who finds himself putting his foot back on the gas pedal following some events that likely could have sidelined him in the NASCAR world for the rest of his career. Fortunately, this is a movie and so his character will end up getting his perhaps all-too-easily-earned shot at redemption at some point or another.

Being the first of a series of three back-to-back films to star Nicole Kidman alongside Tom Cruise (the other two being Far and Away and Eyes Wide Shut), Days of Thunder is a riveting action film which may not exactly be the most accurate portrayal of life in the NASCAR circuit but what it may lack in certain factual consistency it makes up for with its passionate storytelling and energetic, high-intensity race scenes.

There’s something about Days of Thunder and the way the late Tony Scott managed to capture the rambunctious, unpredictable and often grimy, filthy nature of the culture surrounding stock car racing. It is not tonally the most consistent film ever created, nor is it always as compelling as it ought to be, however there’s enough of a tinge of sentimentality in the capturing of sunset on race day, a nostalgic youth in the performances delivered by Cruise, Kidman and the intimidating veteran racer Rowdy Burns (Michael Rooker) that elevates the overall production.

Returning to this film is always a treat, given the solid cast and moments of terror and fear experienced on the track at high speeds. Indeed, one may not remember all that much from this film other than a couple of significant developments in the final race scene, Tom Cruise’s smile and Nicole Kidman’s accent when she gets mad (“Get out of the cahhh, Cole!”), but the few images and memories that one manages to keep from that first viewing are likely to be fond.

Cole Trickle (a character based on real-life NASCAR driver Tim Richmond, who died much too young at the age of 34 after he contracted AIDS) is an extremely gifted open-wheel driver who gets picked up by dealership tycoon Tim Daland (Randy Quaid, playing a fictionalized version of Rick Hendrick). Daland also convinces a retired car builder and former crew chief, Harry Hogge (Robert Duvall) to come out of hiding and get things rolling for the newbie. Things, of course, do not go soundly at first as Cole is not used to both the size of the cars and the speed of the tracks he’s on, not to mention he’s frequently finding himself a target of intimidation by one Rowdy Burns. After multiple failed races that typically resulted in blown engines, it becomes clear to Harry that he needs to really get to specifics with Cole as the kid is not at all familiar even with some terminology used at the track and in the pit. Needless to say, Cole undergoes rigorous training and soon emerges as a very dangerous racer indeed. His first victory over Rowdy ignited a fierce rivalry, and ultimately foreshadows a tragedy looming in the near future. This is where the film turns to something a bit more compelling.

Cole Trickle (a character based on real-life NASCAR driver Tim Richmond, who died much too young at the age of 34 after he contracted AIDS) is an extremely gifted open-wheel driver who gets picked up by dealership tycoon Tim Daland (Randy Quaid, playing a fictionalized version of Rick Hendrick). Daland also convinces a retired car builder and former crew chief, Harry Hogge (Robert Duvall) to come out of hiding and get things rolling for the newbie. Things, of course, do not go soundly at first as Cole is not used to both the size of the cars and the speed of the tracks he’s on, not to mention he’s frequently finding himself a target of intimidation by one Rowdy Burns. After multiple failed races that typically resulted in blown engines, it becomes clear to Harry that he needs to really get to specifics with Cole as the kid is not at all familiar even with some terminology used at the track and in the pit. Needless to say, Cole undergoes rigorous training and soon emerges as a very dangerous racer indeed. His first victory over Rowdy ignited a fierce rivalry, and ultimately foreshadows a tragedy looming in the near future. This is where the film turns to something a bit more compelling.

During the Firecracker 400 race in Daytona, a massive wreck occurs and sweeps up both Rowdy and Cole who both sustain injuries — though Cole comes out with far less serious ones. Rowdy’s future all of a sudden is in jeopardy (at least in terms of performing on the track) since the attending doctor (cue the red-headed Australian actress) says he is suffering severe head trauma. While both racers have to take some time off, some interesting developments occur both on and off the track. Cole starts seeing this brilliant doctor for more than just the routine check-up, and soon their relationship blossoms. Meanwhile, another racer is brought onto the team to fill in for the still-recuperating Cole, a smug, arrogant driver named Russ Wheeler (Cary Elwes) who’s only goal is to make everyone forget about Cole Trickle.

His confidence shaken, Cole finds himself struggling to make sense out of his own life and in particular, his career choice since all he wants to do is get back into his car and win. . . win big. But with the added perspective of his newfound romantic interest, perhaps there’s more to life than driving around in circles all day hoping to not get into another life-threatening wreck (you have to remember, this film was set/made during a time when safety protocol wasn’t quite up to the standards set today). To make matters worse, Cole finds himself fired from the team by Daland, after he and Russ get into an altercation following an illegal move made by Russ in pit lane. It would seem Cole is out of the scene and out of a job. Cue your typical ‘hero-seeks-consolation-from-jaded-mentor’ scene.

Cole seeks out Harry, who, after being humiliated at the race track in the wake of the fight, has isolated himself once again to his secluded farmhouse and is not exactly pleased to see Cole trying to make a return to racing — much less, ask for him to be involved. Of course, Harry caves — but will the team be the same ever again?

There are moments throughout the film that may induce some yawns, but in general the atmosphere created by Scott’s decidedly Southern film is thoroughly enjoyable and provides yet another different role for Tom Cruise — the man who seemingly has now seen and done it all. Duvall is reliably heartwarming as Cole’s mentor, friend and coworker, and perhaps this movie might not have been so inspiring had it lacked presence from a man of his stature. Kidman is, well. . . I don’t really like Kidman at all and continually find her annoying and repelling. Here, she’s more neutral even though at times her reasons to protect Cole and certainly her emotional flare-ups are questionably fleeting and unconvincing. She was brought in more for a foil for our protagonist to have second-thoughts about himself, more so than the romantic interest. It’s quite easy to see through her character. However, she’s the weakest link and the rest of the cast turn in solid work.

I touched on it at the beginning of the previous paragraph, but the fact that this is an atmospheric film needs to be emphasized more. As is true for many sporting events, going to races has the added bonus of one feeling like they’re contributing to some larger idea; the closer you get to sit to the track, the more you feel a part of the race, a part of the culture. The more you feel involved in a general sense. In that way, this film is quite impressive in detailing both spectacle and circumstance surrounding any given race (a few of the highlights include the Darlington “Lady in Black” Raceway and the Daytona 500). These aspects are what make it a truly enjoyable watch, a staple of the ’90s. In fact, I’d venture to argue that most of the enjoyment resides in these aspects, and not simply in the fact that the feature boasts one of America’s most popular big-screen performers. We’ll keep that between us, though, because I’m not sure how Tom Cruise’s ego would take that news. . .

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3-5Recommendation: This likely isn’t THE definitive racing movie, but it likely could be (for now) the definitive race movie based around NASCAR events. Its hardly a true story, though elements from real-life events were loosely referenced throughout. Any fan of the sport of racing in general should have passed the checkered flag by now but if you’re circling the last lap in getting around to this film, don’t worry about your position in this race. What matters is whether or not you cross the finish line at all. Days of Thunder is well worth the effort and time required to seek it out.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 107 mins.

Where were you when this film came out? 

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.idolosol.com; http://www.motorsportsretro.com 

Oblivion

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Release: Friday, April 19, 2013

[Theater]

Honestly, this is the perfect movie for an actor who has (or according to some, had…) feet firmly planted in the Scientology belief system. For someone who believes in aliens, Tom Cruise managed to pick rather appropriate territory by signing up for Oblivion, the new sci-fi adventure from Joseph Kosinski.

Aside from his intellectual curiosity about all things extraterrestrial, Cruise’s role in Oblivion seems to be a throwback to his performance in another futuristic thriller, Minority Report — some decade ago now. . . . . .and this would be right before he began to lose serious credibility with me.

Both of those films deal heavily in gadgetry, in human relations that have evolved (or devolved, take your pick) to the point of being robotic, and both are set well into the future. For both, the suspension of disbelief is a requisite. One major difference between Kosinski’s sci-try and Spielberg’s effort, is that Minority Report was rather successful in its mind-warping storytelling. And another: while many science fiction films do pay tribute to other films of the genre, Oblivion does this to a fault. Comparisons to other films run the gamut from Wall-E to Independence DayI, Robot to Inception. A lot of scenes throughout this post-apocalyptic-Earth story make up a collage of borrowed ideas that attempt to forge an original storyline that, ultimately, reverts to ripping off one of the aforementioned films (Independence Day) in a very obvious way.

But it’s hardly an original idea to argue how this film is not original. Again, the homages paid in many sci-fi “classics” can be obvious. Maybe the multitudes that are made do not surface all in one film as they do here, but hey whatever. What is more annoying and a bigger letdown is that it’s now 2013, and still we are being fed sci-fi soup with not a whole lot of flavor; and in particular, this one is very deflated in tone, and well-worn in its invention. Basically only the setting and its cast help distinguish the project.

Jack, along with Victoria (Andrea Riseborough), comprise a mop-up team that ensures that the technology humans have employed to retrieve valuable resources from Earth are functioning correctly. Now, most people are either living on Titan (apparently one of Saturn’s moons has been deemed a reasonable place for us to live these days) or they’re preparing to go there, and soon Jack and Victoria will join. They live in luxurious quarters established high above the clouds. Jack’s mode of transportation looks like a concept helicopter for the year 2077. It is with this rather sleek vehicle Jack makes his drone repair missions frequently and the vantage point we have for a good portion of the first half, in experiencing the aftermath of a war which ravaged the planet.

Harper fills us in a little on the situation during a brief narration in the very opening scene, informing us that while humans won this war, Scavs destroyed the moon along with half the planet. The resultant landscape is something akin to the Halo maps, fully-realized on an IMAX screen. When we are out wandering around with Jack, it’s all very stunning and strangely beautiful seeing a planet devoid of human life.

In fact, I’d argue most of Oblivion‘s issues arise from the production design being a seriously tough act to follow, if you’re the script. I don’t see this film suffering from a simple case of a weak script. There’s always a pecking order amongst direction, production, and editing departments, and it’s clear where it all broke down for this one. (Academy Award-winner Claudio Miranda has his way with this set. Thanks, buddy.)

We get to feast our imaginations on the unfamiliarity the new landscape brings, one that cements the Empire State Building in several thousand feet of ash; a floodplain the size of the Mississippi on top of — yes, on top of — Washington D.C.

What must this war have been like? — we might ask ourselves as the camera sweeps dramatically out again across the land.

We almost couldn’t care less about what Cruise represents here, that he’s actually a part of the actual story actually taking place in this proposed world. We’re so overwhelmed by what Oblivion has done better than The Day After Tomorrow that we forget about the fact we are going to face plot turns, consequences and all that stuff specific to this movie. . . . if only we could just stop comparing . . .

The fact that the plot and especially some of the dialogue feels like it took a backseat to production values is not damnable, by the way. It’s just impossible to ignore. Riseborough, in particular, is terrible in this film. Morgan Freeman, as Beech, was handed some pretty dull assignment as well. And that’s exactly how his role feels, too: an assignment. He’s not operating in full Morgan Freeman capacity here, particularly given what you know and what you will know by the time his character is fully revealed. Tom Cruise seems to handle his job fine enough, but this is not his greatest performance of all time either. Olga Kurylenko plays a very soporific Julia, a character development that is also not too thought-provoking. As uninspired as she comes across, her character is rather crucial to understanding the film’s final destination.

It’s a passable story, though, and its dressed up in beautiful style. Altogether, Oblivion sells as quite a handsome marketing pitch, and it’s a cool-feeling movie when everything is said and done. Need there be no more involvement than your gut reaction, Oblivion works as a perfectly serviceable new-age actioner featuring a revamped alien version of Tom Cruise.

His role in Scientology makes perfect sense.

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3-0Recommendation: It lacks the sophisticated premise that underlay some of the visually inferior works of Cruise’s early career, but style over substance might just do it for most people when standing on the edge of Oblivion.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 126 mins.

Quoted: “I can’t shake the feeling that Earth, in spite of all that’s happened, Earth is still my home.” 

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com