Why ‘Days of Thunder’ Is Secretly ‘Top Gun 2’

     May 27, 2020

The Top Gun sequel Top Gun: Maverick was originally supposed to be released in theaters this June, but much like the F-14 canopy that crushed Goose’s skull, the coronavirus had other plans. Due to the pandemic, the long-gestating sequel’s release date got bumped from June all the way to December 23, which means we’re going to have to wait six more months to see a 57-year-old man catapult himself off of an aircraft carrier for our amusement.

However, that doesn’t mean you have to wait six more months to see the sequel to Top Gun. No, I’m not suggesting that The Pirate Bay has suddenly escaped litigation and is back online slinging shitty cellphone recordings of hit movies in which you can hear some guy two rows ahead breaking up with his girlfriend in the middle of Avengers: Endgame. The truth is, Top Gun 2 already came out, years ago, back in 1990. It’s called Days of Thunder.

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Image via Paramount Pictures

Days of Thunder, available on 4K Blu-ray this month, was the follow-up to Cruise’s mega-successful 1986 blockbuster about angry dudes in jets begrudgingly sharing their feelings with each other. Reteaming with Top Gun director Tony Scott and producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer, Cruise got the band back together to tell what is essentially the same story about a volatile young man with father issues giving form to his rage at the controls of a terrifyingly fast machine. In Days of Thunder, he stars as rookie NASCAR driver Cole Trickle, a name every character in the movie repeats with a straight face. Like Top Gun’s Maverick, Cole is pretty much an asshole from the moment he first appears onscreen (and like Maverick, he shows up on a motorcycle like an Extremely Cool Dude). And like Top Gun, the rest of Days of Thunder is about Cole slowly learning how to not be such a dickhead all the time.

In Top Gun, Maverick’s father was a pilot who was killed in action, and he feels pressured to live up to his old man. In Days of Thunder, Cole’s father was a scumbag who used Cole’s name and reputation as a successful open-wheel car driver to sell stolen yachts. (Every personal relationship in Days of Thunder is as absurd as that last sentence.) The circumstances are very different, but the end result is the same – both Maverick and Cole are trying to escape their fathers’ shadows. And much like Maverick finds in Viper (Tom Skerritt), Cole finds a surrogate father in his crew chief Harry Hogge (Robert Duvall).

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Image via Paramount Pictures

Cole falls in love with a strong, professional woman, Dr. Claire Lewicki (Nicole Kidman), who does not suffer any of his bullshit for one second. She literally manhandles him in more than one scene, and it is excellent. Maverick also falls for a strong, professional woman, instructor Charlie Blackwood (Kelly McGillis), who similarly does not tolerate much of Maverick’s horseshit. Interestingly, they don’t do as much work in Days of Thunder to cover up the fact that Cruise (5’ 7”) is several inches shorter than Kidman (5’ 11”) – Claire is still noticeably taller than Cole, but only by about an inch or two. I don’t know what that means, but it’s fun to compare it to Top Gun, in which they almost have Cruise strap on a pair of stilts to share an eyeline with McGillis. He’s like a wood nymph.

Cole meets his Iceman in Rowdy Burns (Michael Rooker), and much like Iceman, I’m kind of on Rowdy’s side. Cole strolls in and takes Rowdy’s car in the opening scene, then drives like an asshole for several races. Sure, he’s fast, but he’s reckless and he’s not winning. It’s the same problem Iceman (Val Kilmer) has with Maverick – Maverick may be a great pilot, but he’s impulsive and unsafe, which is ultimately what gets dear sweet Goose killed.

Speaking of Goose, there’s definitely a “Goose dies” moment in Days of Thunder. The rivalry between Cole and Rowdy gets so intense that they wind up in a horrific crash that inflicts severe brain injuries on the both of them. Cole recovers, but Rowdy doesn’t, and will never be allowed to race again. While Rowdy doesn’t die, their brush with mortality shakes Cole in the same way that Goose’s death shakes Maverick, and it takes a great deal of convincing (plus Rowdy’s insistence that Cole drive his car at the Daytona 500) to get him behind the wheel again. It’s an extremely bromantical moment, with both men grunting and refusing to make eye contact while sharing their feelings. It doesn’t reach the heights of a glistening shirtless volleyball match, but Dude Bonds are still very much at play in Days of Thunder.

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Image via Paramount Pictures

Despite the fact that Kidman is a great character who provides several much-needed kicks in the ass to the petulant Cole, Scott recognizes that the most important relationship of the film is the one between Cole and Harry. They spend the whole film arguing like father and son, and even have a dramatic falling-out at the end of Act 2 (at the hero’s lowest point, if you’ve ever taken a screenwriting class). But they reconcile in time for Harry to replace the engine in Rowdy’s car and act as Cole’s crew chief at Daytona, which Cole predictably wins by defeating a perfectly smug Cary Elwes. The film ends not with Cole celebrating with Claire, but with Cole and Harry hugging it out and doing a foot race. Top Gun doesn’t end precisely the same way, but it does end with Maverick letting go of his perceived failures and of his father’s influence and agreeing to return to TOPGUN as an instructor. So both characters, who begin their respective journeys effectively as rebellious teenagers, mature into adults at the end.

Days of Thunder didn’t manage to match the box office success of Top Gun, but in my opinion it was just as important a film in Cruise’s career and for movies in general as its predecessor was. In terms of Cruise’s career, the film introduced him to Kidman. The couple were married that same year and had two children, and went on to make two more films together – 1992’s Far and Away and 1999’s Eyes Wide Shut (incidentally, the last film director Stanley Kubrick finished before he died). Days of Thunder also introduced him to screenwriter Robert Towne. Towne, who won an Oscar for Chinatown, became close friends with the actor and wrote three of his future films – The Firm, Mission: Impossible, and Mission: Impossible 2. The start of the Mission: Impossible franchise is arguably the most significant development in Cruise’s career, as its still going strong nearly 25 years later and has helped him comfortably maintain his superstar status.

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Image via Paramount Pictures

Meanwhile, Days of Thunder began to solidify Simpson and Bruckheimer’s status as action movie producers. They were already extremely successful, but their relationship with Tony Scott paved the way for their work with Michael Bay in the 90s – Tony Scott walked so that Michael Bay could blow shit up. Simpson passed away in the mid-90s, but Bruckheimer continued on as the go-to producer for huge action-adventure blockbusters, including the Pirates of the Caribbean, National Treasure, and Bad Boys franchises. I’m not solely crediting Days of Thunder with the direction the Simpson/Bruckheimer train decided to focus on, but it’s definitely worth noting that Days of Thunder was the second film of a long collaboration with Scott (Bruckheimer would later build similar relationships with Bay and Gore Verbinski), and it was the first mega-budget action film they produced. Top Gun was made for a surprising $15 million, whereas Days of Thunder carried a budget of $55 million; for comparison, that’s only slightly less than what it cost to make Jurassic Park three years later.

Days of Thunder is by no means a great film, but it exists in the same realm of thoroughly enjoyable popcorn action melodrama as Top Gun. It’s a ton of fun to watch, especially if you pair it with Top Gun as a double-feature to tide you over like a sweet oasis until Top Gun: Maverick finally buzzes the tower this December. (Assuming the virus has quietly retired like Rowdy Burns by then.) Also, I recommend throwing Days of Thunder on if for no other reason than to be absolutely knocked to the floor when John C. Reilly appears onscreen, blissfully unaware that he would spoof this movie so perfectly 16 years later with Talladega Nights.

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