Watch a Tom Cruise movie – be it from the present day or two decades ago – and you get the indefinable essence of a movie star. Be the film good, bad, or somewhere in between, there's Tom Cruise, shining and larger than life. There are certain aspects of his performance, of his personality, which bleed across from one film to the next. There are few performances in which Tom Cruise's character doesn't have a cocksure attitude, in which his character doesn't defy death.
This Tuesday a classic Tom Cruise performance will wend its way to Blu-ray as Cole Trickle from Days of Thunder makes his first appearance in the high-definition format. For those of you who can't instantly recollect which Cruise vehicle that was, think Top Gun, but with cars. Or, thought of another way, it's the one where he first worked with Nicole Kidman, the one that started it all.
Days of Thunder takes place in the world of stock car racing and Cruise, naturally, plays the blessed-with-enormous-amounts-of-God-given-talent-but-naïve-to-the-ways-of-the-world-and-more-than-a-little-scared-inside young hotshot. Trickle is mentored by the old-hand crew chief Harry Hogge (Robert Duvall), learning the ins and outs of NASCAR, and a little bit about himself along the way.
It's the perfect sort of Tom Cruise vehicle; the story was even developed by Cruise (his one WGA story credit) along with Robert Towne, who wrote the screenplay. Directed by Tony Scott and produced by Jerry Bruckheimer and Don Simpson the film has the definite feel of a big-budget summer blockbuster.
Happily, the film does separate itself out from the average blockbuster by having the main villain in the piece be Trickle's own fears. Trickle does have enemies on the track, Rowdy Burns (Michael Rooker) and Russ Wheeler (Cary Elwes), but they are always secondary. Wheeler and Burns are present only as agents by which Trickle is able to learn about his fears, confront them, and eventually overcome them. No, I didn't just spoil anything, you know exactly where the film is going to end the moment the opening credits roll.
Helping Trickle on his path to greater self-knowledge is not only Hogge, but also Dr. Claire Lewicki (Nicole Kidman). She arrives in the narrative following a crash that leaves Burns and Trickle in the hospital, and quickly finds herself involved with the egotistical and flawed Trickle. Watching the film one is never quite sure what Lewicki sees in Trickle, except, of course, that he's Tom Cruise.
If that description sounds moderately unenthusiastic, I have misrepresented the film. It is exciting. It has some pretty good race scenes, a few decent crashes, and, did I mention that it stars Tom Cruise? Swap out cars for planes, Nicole Kidman for Kelly McGillis, and instead of having a super-fast guy who should-be-a-team-player-but-isn't named "Trickle" call him "Maverick" and it's Top Gun, and Top Gun was a really good movie. Additionally, the work of the supporting characters, most notably Duvall and a relatively early performance by John C. Reilly, definitely add to the flavor of this movie. Duvall, even when he's glossing over racing techniques that you wish the film would actually explore instead of obfuscate gives the role his all.
The new Blu-ray release of Days of Thunder finds itself terribly lacking in its technical presentation. The print used to produce the film is full of imperfections, particularly early on when the piece should be trying to draw viewers in. There are numerous white splotches that appear on screen, perhaps the result of degradation over time or perhaps scratches to the print, but either way terribly distracting. While the film is presented in 5.1 channel sound, it rarely makes use of the rear speakers. Cars can be heard whizzing by from time to time, but during big accidents on the track, when one would expect to hear noise all around, there is a noticeable lack of sound in the rear channels. As for special features, the film contains nothing more than the original theatrical trailer.
The apparent lack of effort put into this Blu-ray release leads one to wonder whether the studio is planning on putting out a fully-loaded "special edition" down the line. Or if, perhaps, they believe Cruise's box-office power has waned to the point where people are even uninterested in work from the star's heyday. Whatever the case might be, the result is that this particular edition of Days of Thunder is disappointing. The film may not be Cruise's best work, but it is certainly enjoyable enough that it deserves better treatment.