For those of you who may have gotten a Blu-ray player over the holidays now is a great time to start your collections. It seems all the major studios are lining up to put their classics and audience favorites in high-definition picture and sound. Paramount is ending 2008 with a solid batch of crowd pleasers on Blu-ray. Among them is the 1990 Tom Cruise stock car racing picture, Days of Thunder. Released just four years after Cruise’s mega-hit Top Gun, Days of Thunder follows largely the same premise–except here, the speed machines are race cars instead of jet fighters.

Days of Thunder is practically interchangeable with Top Gun. You’ll remember from the first film that it featured a cocky, young hotshot; an overbearing rival; a grizzled veteran; a love interest with a beautiful, well-educated woman; and a whole load of conflicts involving all of them in one way or another. So, now you know the plot for Days of Thunder.
thunder.jpgUnfortunately, Days of Thunder doesn’t have the same level of excitement as its predecessor. Somehow, a bunch of cars going around a track at insanely high speeds doesn’t have the same excitement as fighter jets engaged in a dogfight. However, I know that’s a matter of personal preference. Much like Top Gun, Days of Thunder interjects a lot of personal drama into the story, to try to make the personal lives of the characters as interesting as their lives as race car drivers.
Director Tony Scott has made his living with action films. Besides Top Gun, he directed Crimson Tide (1995), Enemy of the State (1998) Spy Game (2001) and Man on Fire (2004) among others. For Days of Thunder, Scott collaborated with Oscar winning screenwriter Robert Towne (Chinatown, Personal Best, and Mission Impossible) which seemingly should have led to an original idea for a script. Presumably, pleased with the success of Top Gun, Scott and Towne were satisfied with retooling the Top Gun script to fit a racing theme.
Cruise plays Cole Trickle, a cocky, rookie stock-car racer out to prove himself to everyone. Cruise has always been good at playing cocky, and he does it well here. Robert Duvall plays an old racing-car engineer and crew chief, Harry Hogge, whom a local car dealer, Tim Daland (Randy Quaid), lures out of retirement to head up a racing team he’s putting together. John C. Reilly plays their chief mechanic, Buck Bretherton. The early villain in the film is rival driver, Rowdy Burns (Michael Rooker).
Cole and Rowdy take their hatred for one another out on the track, crashing their cars into one another as often as possible. According to the film, this is common practice in stock-car racing. Having watched a few Nascar races in my day, I know drivers do occasionally brush and nudge each other along. However, in the name of safety and the desire to actually win a race, drivers never use the track as a personal roller derby rink. Not one of the 800,000 people watching them as they throw their cars at each another notices anything unsavory. Except that is, the racing commissioner, Big John, played by Fred Dalton Thompson. After half a season of Cole and Rowdy’s antics on the track, Big John orders them to stop.
Predictably, tragedy strikes. Cole gets into a near-fatal accident on the track, and in the hospital meets a beautiful brain surgeon, Dr. Claire Rewicki, played by Nicole Kidman. Though Kidman turned out to be a fine actress, she is totally unbelievable in this role. Just twenty-two when Days of Thunder was filmed, she doesn’t look like she’s graduated from high school yet, let alone medical school. Of course they fall in love, and the off track drama takes a mushy turn.
If you liked Top Gun you’ll probably enjoy Days of Thunder. They both provide a series of personal backdrops to a series of action sequences. The problems with Days of Thunder are that the background story is trite and melodramatic, and the action sequences are all alike and exaggerated. Nothing surprising happens, but there are worse ways to whittle away 107 minutes.
Paramount has remastered the picture and transferred it to disc in its original aspect ratio, 2.35:1, using a dual-layer BD50 and an MPEG-4/AVC encode. Remastering does not mean restored, however, so you will still see occasional age flecks and noise in the print. Outdoor footage shows a good deal of natural film grain, while indoor shots show quite a bit less. This is what film actually looks like. Because of the remastering and the high-bit transfer, the colors shine brilliantly, deeply, and solidly, with reasonably well-honed definition. Facial tones seem a bit dark, and there is sometimes a thin veil over the image, but it is minor at worst. With no evidence of edge enhancement or filtering, the video quality is quite impressive.
The lossless Dolby TrueHD 5.1 lives up to its name by providing a truly awesome experience during the races. The audio sounds sharply etched, with plenty of oomph and a great deal of surround activity during the racing sequences. Although Hans Zimmer’s musical score is often loud and clamorous, it comes at the right moments, matching the noisy competition. In terms of sheer technical brilliance, impact, clarity, and rear-channel information, this TrueHD track surpasses that of Top Gun. The sounds of the cars alone make the disc worth watching.
Paramount has offered little in the way of special features. There is only a widescreen trailer. The disc also offers twenty-three scene selections and bookmarks; pop-up menus; English, French, and Spanish spoken languages; English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese subtitles; and English captions for the hearing impaired