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Watching DAYS OF THUNDER in 2023: Does It Still Hold Up?

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This week, we thought it would be fun to take a trip down memory lane and watch DAYS OF THUNDER. How does it hold up in 2023? Let's talk about it.

Full disclosure: I have never been a humungous fan of the 1990 classic film, Days of Thunder. That’s not to say that I disliked the film, I didn’t. But the film came out 5-years before I was born and I wasn’t huge into NASCAR when I first saw it. It doesn’t help that it was shown on cable over the holidays and I was only half-engaged as I played with whatever toy my parents had gotten me that Christmas.

When I was assigned this story, I was mostly intrigued by the idea of getting to go back to this relic of the sport’s past and watch it again, this time as a much more educated fan. Not to mention a grown man. I was a boy when I saw the film last and a few scenes did stick with me from that first viewing. Specifically, the scene where Cole is explaining drafting to Dr. Lewicki.

This time, though, I went in with freshly clean goggles and a more mature mind. So, what did I think? Does Days of Thunder hold up in the year 2023? Well, let’s talk about it.

What’s Outdated and a Couple of Criticisms?

For a movie released in the 1990s, obviously, there are bound to be a few areas that either didn’t age all that great or are irrelevant in this day and age. As soon as I hit PLAY on the DVD player (yeah, I went old school for this one!) the music started up playing in the opening credits and a montage of real NASCAR racecars running around the track at Daytona dashed across the screen, you’re shown a lot of Confederate/rebel flag imagery. I’m not going to make a political statement here but the late great Dale Earnhardt has his opinions on that flag and NASCAR has been trying in recent years to distance themselves from it. I think that it’s safe to say that in the year 2023, that kind of thing is outdated.

Another criticism I have of the film is how fast the movie progressed through its plot and its flat characters. The former there is a nitpick thing. I understand that. But events in this movie move much too quickly, in my opinion.

In the beginning, Cole (Tom Cruise) was constantly butting heads with his crew chief, Harry (Robert Duvall) as well as his fellow competitor Rowdy Burns (Michael Rooker). Things get kind of hostile between them and I felt that these characters becoming buddy-buddy was too easy and cheap. I don’t think the film naturally progressed their relationships. I literally felt like, turn the page, and boom, they’re singing “Kumbaya”. The same could be said for the budding romantic relationship between Dr. Claire Lewicki (Nicole Kidman) and Cole. It really was presented as love at first sight and that’s not realistic.

The dialogue was also pretty laughable and cheesy at times. That will certainly have some more modern NASCAR fans rolling their eyes.

What’s Still Relevant? And What I liked

The section above makes it sound like I’m dogging on this movie. I’m not. Overall, I liked it. It was fun to see again from a refreshed perspective and the movie is quite a bit of fun as well. One benefit of having the film cars run alongside real racecars at Daytona is that it gave the film a sense of reality. A lot of your favorite drivers from the days of old appear in this movie and it gives it a gritty aesthetic which I really enjoyed. The appearances from these drivers were never used to make a cheap joke like they were in another NASCAR-themed movie and I felt that there was a mutual respect shown by both the filmmakers and NASCAR.

When I was watching the movie and getting a grasp on its overall story, I couldn’t help but think of the Tim Richmond story. After doing a little bit of digging, it turns out that much of Cole’s story is inspired by Tim Richmond and his short stint in NASCAR. If you don’t know about Richmond, look it up. It’s one of the most astounding and tragic stories in the sport of NASCAR.

Rowdy was obviously a stand-in for Dale Earnhardt and I got some Neil Bonnett vibes from him as well. He did a great job in that role. All of that is to say that this movie had personality which is funny because so many modern NASCAR drivers are criticized for lacking personality. So, it’s neat to look back and see a somewhat accurate representation of what NASCAR was just before and during its boom in pop culture versus what it is today.

With the character of Harry Hogge, an emphasis is placed on the art of a team constructing their own racecars and engines. They highlight the importance of conserving tires, changing track conditions, and the handling of the car. Due to pacing issues, all that is little more than a footnote in a couple of scenes but it’s still there and I can appreciate that.

There is one inconsistency that I couldn’t help but find a little funny. At one point in the movie, there are three laps to go in a race and caution comes out with Cole in the lead. Everybody pits and the race gets restarted in a green-white-checkered finish. In real life, in 1990, the race would have officially finished under caution and Cole would have won. That’s funny because, today, with GWC rules and unlimited restarts, it would have played out exactly like it did: with endless chaos. So, there’s an example of NASCAR using entertainment to influence their current rules.

Most Memorable Scenes

I said before that the most prominent scene I remember from the movie was Tom Cruise’s character teaching Nicole Kidman’s character about drafting. But that wasn’t the only scene I remembered, though I didn’t realize it until just before it was about to happen. Basically, Cole and Rowdy get involved in an incident on the track and are hospitalized. When they’re getting ready to be discharged, they have to leave in wheelchairs due to hospital policy and they start racing one another down the hallway. As soon as that was getting ready to happen, I remembered it almost perfectly. It’s a great scene and it’s pretty funny, too.

Another scene that I vaguely remember was the road rage scene where Cole loses his mind with Dr. Claire in the car after a taxi driver pisses him off and they go on this chase scene out into the streets. That was uncomfortable to watch but I did dimly recall it. Another fun street racing scene is when Cole and Rowdy are forced to go out to dinner with one another and, on the way to the restaurant, they race each other in rental cars. I got a kick out of that.

Should New/Younger NASCAR Fans Watch the Movie?

So, what about watchability for newer and/or younger NASCAR fans? Depends on how young they are on whether or not I can recommend it. I’m honestly surprised that it’s rated PG-13 but whatever. I’ll say this: if you’re of age and you love NASCAR, give it a watch. There’s no harm in it and you’ll get to maybe learn about some things like car craftsmanship that has long fallen by the wayside in NASCAR with the introduction of the NextGen car.

Just note that it is, most certainly, a relic of the past. It’s not 100% accurate all the time and it is very much a ’90s movie. But, it’s a pretty good film. I doubt watching it would really waste anybody’s time and there is fun to be had there for sure.

Sequel?

Back in June of this year, there was a story that broke which claimed that a sequel film was in the works. There have also been rumors of doing a Days of Thunder TV show. But, largely, there’s nothing new to add since that first report was published back in the summer. If you want to read more about a possible sequel, click on the article below:

Conclusion

That’ll do it for this short movie review, Daily Downforce readers. Let us know: have you watched Days of Thunder? Did you love it? Only like it? Were you like me and born five years after the hype had already died off and just never got around to watching it? Let us know!

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Cody Williams

Cody Williams is the author of BUNNY BOY and THE FIFTH LINE. He lives near Bristol, TN.
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