Under Further Review: Days of Thunder

Sports movies are important cultural touchstones. They’re never actually just about sports–they’re about perseverance, overcoming the odds, courage, teamwork, family, and looking really good while playing beach volleyball. We can learn all sorts of great lessons from sports films. Remember the Titans taught me about Southern history, strength through diversity, and friendship. The Sandlot taught me to not steal baseballs and that harassing lifeguards can win their hearts.

It had been a long time since I watched a sports movie, so, after a rough week, I decided I needed some sports-film therapy, where the good guy wins and the bad guy is sad and everything is great in the end! I turned to Netflix and was disappointed with its offerings, but then I had a thought: What if I watch the worst sports movie on Netflix? Could even the worst-reviewed sports movie available teach me some life lessons, and fill me with the passion of a good competition? I needed to find out, so after perusing Rotten Tomatoes ratings, I turned to Days of Thunder.

Days of Thunder is a Tom Cruise vehicle (HA!) about NASCAR and men with bad tempers and car crashes and Nicole Kidman’s hair. It came out in 1990 and also features a very young John C. Reilly, a crotchety Robert Duvall, and Cary Elwes, who was my first ever movie crush in The Princess Bride. It has a 39 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Some critics thought it was okay, if cheesy. Others thought it was a “thrill-less action movie” with “smoglike” diffused lighting and heavy-handed music that sounded like “a promotional reel for a constitutional amendment protecting the American right to race stock cars.”

I asked an old friend of mine–a diehard NASCAR fan (as in, gone-to-every-track-in-the-country fan)–about the movie, and he told me it was terrible and I should not waste my time. I ignored him.

A writer for Slant goes as far as to say, “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.” Harsh. I was immediately intrigued.

So I got some snacks, put on my PJs, and settled in for a movie night. I know nothing about NASCAR, and I have no idea how accurate Days of Thunder is. But for your enjoyment, here are some thoughts I noted during my viewing of the movie for “dumb dudes,” in all their in-the-moment glory:

It opens with intensely inspiring music. Hans Zimmer wrote the score for this film, and NEVER lets you forget it. Any chance it gets, the music swells to such intensity that you expect a full-on battle scene, but actually it’s some guy telling some other guy he’s a monkey. Zimmer, what were you thinking?

We see an American flag. Then a Confederate flag. Did nobody care about that in ‘90s? Gross.

Here’s Robert Duvall. I love him, and he was great in Newsies. He’s riding a tractor and doesn’t want to return to NASCAR, and his name is Harry. Crotchety old legendary coach figure who doesn’t want to get back into the sport? Check.

There’s a hotshot new driver coming in from California! “He’s a Yankee?”, Duvall asks. “Not really, if you’re from California, you’re not a Yankee. You’re not really anything,” says the bland businessman character. “You said it!”, Duvall replies. Okay, we get it: NASCAR has Southern heritage.  

Tom Cruise enters in the most overdone, cheesy entrance in all of Hollywood history! Backlit, on a motorcycle, smoke, moody sky, sunglasses, leather. If you thought this movie might have nuance and fresh cinematic choices, you were wrong! Tom/Cole Trinkle (what a terrible name) proves himself as a driver, and everyone is excited. Duvall has to build him a car.

We are in a moodily lit garage and Duvall is talking to the car he is building. Like, just talking to it, in a firm manner. I imagine Duvall (or at least his character) does this to many things, such as his furniture, his reflection, and other human beings.

Okay, whoa, now we’re in a montage! A racing montage! Tom/Cole keeps losing because he wrecks his car. Keep it together, Cole.

Cary Elwes hasn’t shown up yet.

It’s time for Harry/Duvall and Cole/Cruise to fight and then become best friends. In a very emotional moment, Cole confesses that he doesn’t know anything about cars! Who even are you, Cole? Is this because you’re from California, and so you are NOTHING? After calling each other mean names like “old fart,” Harry and Cole are best friends.

I’m seeing what that one critic meant about “thrill-less” action. These car-racing montages are like watching your friend play Mario Kart.

The villain needs to show up, and here he is, with the fabulous name Rowdy! “I’m gonna take this rookie once and for all!”, he says as he bumps Cole’s car during a race. Except it’s not bumping, it’s rubbing, and “rubbing is racing.”

Bad Guy Rowdy says “the boy don’t have the balls to pass me on the outside,” which means HE DOES. And Cole passes him on the outside and wins, and everybody hugs and celebrates with moonshine. There is a stripper harassing Cole, which is not okay.

Back on the racetrack now, folks. Rowdy intentionally wrecks Cole! Rowdy, what sort of murdering NASCAR driver are you?!? Then we’re in the hospital, and Cole says he “can’t see anything.” Is he going blind? Is this going to be Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken, and he’ll drive BLIND?!?

Oh, here is Nicole Kidman as the doctor. This is where she and Tom met, and they later got married, which just seems like a bad move, since they met on a set of a film like this one.

Rowdy and Cole are racing in their wheelchairs with super-serious music playing in the background. Is this supposed to be funny? I am not invested in these two brats playing out their angst in the hospital hallways. Is this how grown men ACT? Is this how Tom Cruise thinks grown men act?

People call each other monkeys a lot in this movie. Was monkey a big insult in the ‘90s? I was never called a monkey. Maybe I wasn’t around the right crowd.

I would like to point out that there is not a single person of color in this film.

Rowdy and Cole are now racing rental cars around the city, which could definitely kill someone, but whatever. They smile at each other, all friendly-like, and no one seems to care that Rowdy tried to MURDER Cole.

Oh, Cary Elwes is here!

Romance begins, as Dr. Nicole wears denim on denim, and Cole fills her room with tacky teddy bears. It gets steamy, folks, but awkwardly so.

Rowdy and Cole are being buddies and it’s time for more TOXIC MASCULINITY, as Rowdy says, “Nobody in my family goes to the doctor unless they’re dying.” Super healthy, Rowdy!

We get to witness Cole’s deep-seated anger-management and control issues, as he chases down a taxi driver who made him upset. Dr. Nicole calls him an “infantile egomaniac,” and this is the only piece of dialogue I have connected with the entire film. Rowdy is not impressed with her, and calls her a “damn woman doctor.” Tell us how you really feel, you sexist jerk.

Time for Cole to get back in the game, this time driving Rowdy’s car, for some reason. Time for Duvall to serenade the car with another monologue in another dimly lit garage. It sounds vaguely like The Lion King, due to the Hans Zimmer soundtrack. Cary Elwes is being rude and also handsome.

Dr. Nicole, NO! Do NOT go back to Cole. He is a psycho! This movie joins a long line of films about self-destructive men and their long-suffering ladies.

There are so many shots of men just staring at each other in this film. Is this a dude thing? Is this a NASCAR thing?

Cole just said “remember me?” to Cary Elwes and gave him a finger gun. Cole wins the race! The movie is over, freeze frame and fade to black on Tom Cruise and Robert Duvall running down the track.

So what did we learn, friends? We learned that friendship built on a solid foundation of moonshine and cars is true friendship indeed, and can even survive attempted murder. We learned about the importance of mental health, gender equality, and reckless driving. Mostly, we learned that one troubled but brave man with a troubled but loyal coach can beat the odds every time, to the rising crescendo of an orchestra. Godspeed, Hollywood, Godspeed.


Mary Ellen Dingley is a writer who goes by the nickname Rowdy. You should follow her on Twitter.