`Top Gun' Revisited and Recycled

In a recent interview,Days of Thunder producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer(Flashdance, Beverly Hills Cop I and II, Top Gun) swore that they had balked at the prospect of making a sequel to their fabulously successful Top Gun. Well, they lied.

Thunder, quite simply, is Top Gun II, the continuing adventures of Tom Cruise and his ongoing relationship with fast motorized vehicles. Once more, the entire cast is back: the same cocksure motorcycle-riding Cruise, the patented Simpson/Bruckheimer ethos, the guitarladen soundtrack, and the same formula-ridden script.

As if it matters, Thunder is about the exploits of Cole Trickle (Cruise), a rookie North American Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR) driver out to prove--surprise--that he is the best race car driver around. The differences betweenThunder and Top Gun don't go much deeper than that. The storyline and plot twists of the two movies coincide with eerie familiarity:

Days of Thunder

Starring Tom Cruise

At the Harvard Square Nickelodeon

Cocky immature pilot/driver who everyone knows has talent moves from boring aircraft duty/ California sprint circuit to big time Top Gun flight school/NASCAR circuit in order to prove he's great. During adjustment period Cruise gets picked on by other pilots/drivers and the flight instructer/pit crew chief, played by Robert Duvall in Thunder. Pilot/driver has the shadow of his father hanging over him; discusses it with flight instructor/crew chief.

Cruise meets with emotional setback when his best friend and fellow pilot/driver (Michael Rooker in Thunder) dies in plane crash/incurs brain damage in car crash, which he blames himself for. Begins to doubt his abilities and can't fly/drive anymore. Looses nerve in aerial engagements/NASCAR races.

Cruise regains form after (brief) emotional dilemna with help of understanding flight instructer/crew chief and love interest (in Thunder played by Nichole Kidman), and her role as his superior is compromised by their entanglement. Love interest is beautiful bright professor of astrophysics/neurosurgeon who can't believe she is sleeping with infantile pilot/driver and feels forced to give Cruise a lecture on his immaturity.

Cruise goes on to prove to himself, rival (who is supposed to be a) teammate pilot/driver, and everyone else that he has the right stuff by winning big dogfight/race.

These similarites are hardly accidental. Half the story credit goes to Cruise, who should have known better than to try his hand at scriptwriting, much less forging Top Gun. But it was Simpson and Bruckheimer who saw to it that Thunder bore their tired blockbuster stamp. The producers bought themselves one of the best screenwriters money can buy in Robert Towne and he responded by slavishly helping Cruise plagiarize Top Gun.

Towne, rather than display the form that earned his Chinatown an Academy Award, lets the $60 million worth of race cars, panoramic track views and explosions, do all the work. The script gives way almost entirely to stage and technical directions with the dialogue proceeding limply, if at all.

A prime example is Thunder's emotional climax, in which Duvall shouts at his young charge, "You're scared, you're scared!" To which Cruise deftly retorts "You're scared, too!" Typical of the entire movie, Towne does not set up this, or any other of the films' emotional turns, with any believability. Cruise's breathtaking response is preceeded by a bewildering psychoanalysis of Duvall's character which would seem to require telepathy and clairvoyance to produce.

Nothing in this movie makes sense because Towne, with the producers' blessing, does not take the time or effort to explain anything.Thunder is a collection of hastily drawn characters. Towne tell us nothing about them and then shamelessly expects us to sympathize with them. Only Duvall and Rooker, playing the wise experienced crew chief and the simple farmer turned race driver, respectively, have any significant depth to their characterization.

The film as a whole revolves around something akin to how individual drivers are at the mercy of large corporate sponsors who--horror of horrors--think that winning is everything. But the elaborate workings of NASCAR sponsorship unfold mysteriously and inexplicably.

Add to that the incongruous fact that the corporate logos generously splashed all over the screen have already parlayed themselves into commercial advertisements and promotional gimmicks in the real world, and you have the sum and substance of Days of Thunder.

Now that Simpson and Bruckheimer have a contract with Paramount guaranteeing them millions of dollars no matter what they produce (or how well it does at the box office), they have the kind of creative freedom to at least attempt to produce tenable films. Instead they chose to produce a movie which indulges the boyhood fantasies of Simpson and Cruise, both amateur race car drivers.

Thunder is the latest in a series of multi-million dollar extravaganzas that clumsily blur the line between promoting and making a film with disastrous results. With Simpson and Bruckheimer it is becoming increasingly difficult to see where the advertisement ends and the film, if it ever does, begins.