Days of Thunder: More Than Top Gun on Wheels?

We look back at Tom Cruise’s 1990 race car epic, Days of Thunder, which, at the time, was considered Top Gun on Wheels.

Last Updated on August 24, 2023

1990’s Days of Thunder was the end of an era for Tom Cruise. It would be the last movie he’d make as part of his “youth” phase, which began with Risky Business. At the time, he was best known as the cocky young hot shot, but when this movie underperformed at the box office, Cruise took some time off and returned as a more seasoned leading man, with 1992’s A Few Good Men kicking off an unprecedented streak of hits. While Days of Thunder has a valued place in Tom Cruise’s filmography and remains a popular title, when it came out, the movie was considered such a disappointment that the movie’s two producers, Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckkeimer’s deal with Paramount Pictures came to a fractious end. So what happened?

Top Gun on Wheels” – that’s what everyone called Days of Thunder in the summer of 1990. The studio. Paramount, no doubt hoped lightning would strike twice, and Cruise, who was re-teaming with Tony Scott and Simpson/Bruckheimer, expected a hit. Indeed, it was set to be one of the biggest movies of 1990, boasting a mighty $35 million budget, which would be doubled by the time the movie hit theaters.

The film stars Cruise as Cole Trickle, a rookie hotshot who enters the world of NASCAR and becomes embroiled in a rivalry with the sport’s biggest star, Rowdy Burns, played by Michael Rooker. Trickle’s got a problem – he knows nothing about cars. But put him behind the steering wheel, and he can do amazing things. Having washed out of open-wheel racing thanks to his father’s financial crimes, Cole finds himself forced to rely on a team of misfits, with his benefactor a car dealer, played by Randy Quaid, who can only afford one car. Luckily, he’s got an ace up his sleeve, with a veteran crew chief, played by Robert Duvall, taking him under his wing. What follows is a pretty exciting, if fanciful, journey into the world of NASCAR, where friends become rivals, rivals become friends, and everyone wants to be a champion.

First thing first – Tom Cruise is basically playing Maverick. From his entry into the movie, wearing a leather duster over a denim jacket (over a dress shirt) while on top of a motorcycle, Cole is the same kind of headstrong rebel Maverick was. Similar to Maverick, his family is plagued by scandal, and just like how he found a father figure in Tom Skerritt’s Viper in Top Gun, he finds a new mentor in Robert Duvall’s Harry.

days of thunder Nicole Kidman

It goes further than that, though. Just like in Top Gun, a terrible accident shatters Cole’s belief in himself. What’s cool is that the Iceman/ Goose figures are merged to some degree in Michael Rooker’s Rowdy, starting as enemies, only to become closer than brothers once they almost kill each other in an accident. For the rest of the movie, Cary Elwes’ Russ Wheeler, who’s styled to look precisely like Val Kilmer, is the antagonist, although it feels like half his role ended up on the cutting room floor.

So why is Days of Thunder controversial? Cruise is excellent in it, as is Robert Duvall. The supporting cast is top shelf, including John C. Reilly in his “other” Nascar movie long before he teamed up with Ricky Bobby. In a few scenes, you can even see a young Margo Martindale timing the laps on the race track. There’s also a pre-insanity Randy Quaid, and best of all, Nicole Kidman, in her American film debut as the neurosurgeon Cole falls for and vice-versa. If anything, the movie is better remembered as the film Cruise and Kidman met on, with the two marrying the very same year the film hit theaters. Plus, it has a kick-ass musical score by Hans Zimmer. What could have possibly gone wrong?

Excess. That’s what went wrong. Days of Thunder is the movie that brought the heady days of the 1980s to a grinding halt. Producer Don Simpson is a legendary figure in Hollywood, but not entirely due to all the good movies he made. In addition to making Flashdance, Top Gun, Beverly Hills Cop and many others, he was a party animal known to indulge in his share of drugs. Days of Thunder seemed to be where his demons caught up with him, and the money the studio poured into the film certainly helped.

A great book about Don Simpson called “High Concept” (read it for free here) goes into the various hijinx behind the scenes. For instance, Simpson and Bruckheimer threw a welcome party for the crew in which food and drink were minimal, and someone forgot to take care of the music – BUT THERE WERE HOOKERS!

It got worse. Robert Towne, the movie’s writer, had not one but two barns built for a chunk of his script, but he turned out to be impossible to please, so the scenes were excised. The screenplay was in constant flux, with the crew standing by idly for hours daily with Simpson, Bruckheimer, Tony Scott, and Robert Towne fighting over what to shoot. Despite the difficulties, Scott would reteam with Simpson and Bruckheimer on Crimson Tide, and Towne would become Cruise’s go-to writer for most of the nineties.

tom cruise days of thunder

Financially, the film was a disaster, with the budget ballooning, much to Cruise’s dismay, who prided himself as a professional. It was said to be one of the experiences that pushed him into producing, starting with Mission: Impossible in 1996. The film was so chaotic that they forgot to shoot a shot of Cruise’s car crossing the finish line at the end of the film when he wins the climactic race. It had to be added just before it opened.

Ultimately, the movie did decent business in theaters, grossing $82 million domestically and much more overseas and on video. But, it took a while for the film to turn a profit, and it’s worth noting the movie only made $10 million more than Born on the Fourth of July, which was far less commercial. It only made half of what Rain Man and Top Gun had made, and it was nearly outgrossed by Cruise’s Cocktail, which cost a fraction as much. Even the soundtrack whiffed, with the eighties-style power ballads by people like Whitesnake’s David Coverdale dated by the time the movie hit theaters. This one just missed the zeitgeist.

Even still, Cruise came out ahead, with him getting a new wife, Nicole Kidman, out of the deal and perhaps a new attitude, which would see him take on greater creative control on his follow-up movies. It’s hard to imagine Cruise starring in anything as thinly plotted as Days of Thunder now. Still, despite everything, I think it’s aged reasonably well and remains a fun addition to Cruise’s filmography.

About the Author

Chris Bumbray began his career with JoBlo as the resident film critic (and James Bond expert) way back in 2007, and he has stuck around ever since, being named editor-in-chief in 2021. A voting member of the CCA and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved critic, you can also catch Chris discussing pop culture regularly on CTV News Channel.