Cruise Takes a Wrong Turn

`Thunder' squanders talent with laughable plot and blatant commercialism. FILM: REVIEW

`DAYS OF THUNDER'' reunites the creative team - if that's the phrase - that gave us ``Top Gun,'' the highest grossing film of 1986: director Tony Scott, producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer, and star Tom Cruise. All of them have other legendary hits to their credit, as well, but this project finds them investigating the world of stock-car racing with its thrills, suspense, and noise, noise, noise - in rip-snorting Dolby stereo, of course.

Nobody expects anything like serious filmmaking from director Scott or the Simpson-Bruckheimer duo, whose aesthetic rarely transcends the level of ``Beverly Hills Cop 2,'' their last collaboration. I'd say the same about screenwriter Robert Towne, whose work has plummeted since ``Chinatown'' came out 16 years ago.

By contrast, Mr. Cruise has taken steps in the direction of ``real acting'' recently, most notably in ``Rain Man'' and ``Born on the Fourth of July,'' both of which were made by teams with a bit of creativity up their sleeves.

It's no pleasure to report that he steps in the opposite direction this time around. ``Days of Thunder'' wants to be an action drama, but it's really just a star vehicle of the most rudimentary sort, with nothing to offer Cruise except a chance to look pretty and chant time-tested punchlines. Ditto for the rest of the cast, which may be talented but gets little chance to show it here.

Cruise plays a young man who's born to race. A car-loving businessman (Randy Quaid) and a feisty car expert (Robert Duvall) give him the opportunity to try, and soon he's tearing up the track.

I won't tell whether he wins the Daytona 500 at the end, but maybe you can guess. (Hint: This is a summer movie, and they have happy endings.) I will reveal, however, that he saves his best friend's life and gets a gorgeous girlfriend, who happens to be a brilliant brain surgeon. No kidding.

Yes, this is shameless even by Hollywood-blockbuster standards. Also blatant is the movie's plethora of highly visible advertising plugs, which I watched for - not that you have to watch very hard - after commentator Pat Aufterheide warned about the film in the enterprising Chicago publication In These Times.

Commercial plugs in Hollywood movies have been getting extra attention since a recent issue of the Atlantic featured a cover article by Mark Crispin Miller that deplored the practice, connecting it with a general increase in the triviality and cartoonishness of American cinema. (The article has since appeared in ``Seeing Through Movies,'' a new Pantheon book.) ``Days of Thunder'' proves, if proof were needed, that both triviality and commercialization (through paid ``product placements'' in dialogue and images) are alive and well in movieland.

It bears mentioning, however, that neither of these regrettable qualities is new to Hollywood pictures, even if some spectators and scholars are only now getting heated up about them. I remember ``A Man and a Woman'' being criticized on exactly the same grounds way back in 1966, and the phenomenon wasn't new then. Racing movies are bound to have more than their share of commercialism, moreover, since racetracks and racecars are plastered with ads in real life, too. This means we should be examining not only ad-plugs in movies, but the longtime commercialization of virtually all American spectacles and what this says about our culture and its priorities.

Apart from these negative concerns, ``Days of Thunder'' serves up little to think about, much less enjoy. There's a certain novelty in seeing Mr. Duvall give one of his rare mediocre performances, and there's a certain hilarity in watching Australian actress Nicole Kidman impersonate a ``brain doctor,'' as the screenplay calls her, whose own brain reels with romance every time Cruise's character comes near. For me, the high point of the picture was hearing Michael Rooker play the hero's likable friend with the same menacing voice-tones he used recently in ``Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer.'' And when memories of Henry seem like a high point, you know it's time to move on to the next blockbuster. Fast.

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