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NO BANG IN 'THUNDER'; CAR RACING MOVIE IS FUN, BUT IT'S HEADED FOR A STALL

"DAYS OF Thunder" might have been fun -- really. If it had been made on an oilcan budget, starred a bunch of guys who seldom shaved and often scratched and had been slipped in sideways at your local multiplex while no one was looking, it might have been a kick to discover.

As a megamillion-dollar contender for summer blockbuster status from the terminally shlock-pompous team that created "Top Gun" (producers Simpson and Bruckheimer, director Tony Scott), it's fun but also a bit of a drag.

At the moment, the film is sitting on the starting line going "vroom, vroom" at a sufficient decibel level to scare the drive shaft off its competition in the cinematic summer race we've all come to know and love. (As sports go, summer cinema is bigger than the Kentucky Derby, the Stanley Cup and the NBA finals combined and is rapidly approaching Super Bowl magnitude.)

If I had a piece of the action of "Dick Tracy" or "Total Recall" or "Gremlins 2," I wouldn't worry much. If "Days of Thunder" doesn't stall out in a month, I'll be amazed.

It will have its young partisans, to be sure -- boys, mostly, and their girlfriends, who find Tom Cruise just too cute for words.

But no movie as hopelessly adolescent and clumsy as this could hope to capture the national imagination.

Yes, it seems to be true that young men are the determining factor of blockbuster movie success (just as women ages 18 to 49 rule television). But when you're going for the big time, you have to break out a bit. Demographic crossover is crucial.

Except for Robert Duvall and some excitingly filmed racing sequences, no reasonably sentient adult could possibly find much to watch in "Days of Thunder." It's as cynically adolescent (and mechanical) a movie as it might be possible to imagine -- a sluggardly teen-age boy's dream of what it would be like to drive NASCAR stock rigs at 200 mph on the Southern Speedway circuit.

It isn't just, say, a matter of "Dick Tracy" being pre-sold with a marketing blitz of tie-ins and knickknacks that would have embarrassed P.T. Barnum. Or that "Days of Thunder" has had to be content with shameless flackery from TV allies on the Paramount lot ("Entertainment Tonight," an entire "Arsenio Hall Show").

The trouble is simpler and deeper.

I quote Blanche McCrary Boyd, my favorite post-hippie, Southern-fried anarcho-lesbian writer (and quite possibly the only one extant):

"Stock car racing," she writes in "The Redneck Way of Knowledge," is "a redneck sport. It originated among moonshine runners who souped up their cars so they could escape the feds. (Remember Robert Mitchum in 'Thunder Road'?) For fun they tested their driving skills and hand-modified cars against each other. Now dirt tracks are scattered through other parts of the country and there are a few big speedways in California, Michigan and Delaware, but stock car racing has remained primarily a Southern phenomenon."

In other parts of the country, we may periodically have Georgia on our minds but not enough to make a blockbuster, kick-out-the-jams hit out of a stock car movie.

Aesthetics are vastly underrated in the world. It is, for instance, no accident that interest in football and basketball soared once television was able to aestheticize it -- to show in slo-mo instant replays the sublime grace that makes it possible for Andre Reed to be Andre Reed and Michael Jordan to be Michael Jordan.

What made "Top Gun" -- really made the picture -- was the gorgeous sight of silvery jets soaring through the clouds and splitting the sky. It's a sight Leonardo da Vinci might have liked.

On the other hand, loud overheated stock cars going around in circles with Skol, Tide, Exxon, STP, Quaker State and Citgo plastered all over their metal skins aren't quite the same thing.

Exciting, yes. Loud, yes. Beautiful, no. They can't carry a movie, no matter how well filmed they are.

The action in "Top Gun" had some commercial poetry. In "Days of Thunder," it's the visual equivalent of an advertising jingle.

Which leaves the rest of the movie.

The photography is pretty and some of the locker room ribaldry is funny, but most of Robert Towne's dialogue is so unconvincingly macho that it leaves hopeless oil slicks all over the movie's dramatic straightaways.

Doubtless there will be those who will ignore the evidence of "Tequila Sunrise" and continue to take seriously anything that master screenwriter Robert Towne does. It seems to me the man who wrote "Shampoo," "Chinatown" and "The Last Detail" and wrote and directed "Personal Best" has long since become a player in Hollywood's deal-making games. Whatever he once did, he's in it for the gold now.

Tiny bits of writerly panache are sprinkled over "Days of Thunder" like cayenne pepper over scrambled eggs. But the basic dish is a sloppy, slapdash cliche from beginning to end.

The plot, in brief, is this: A businessman (Randy Quaid) talks a retired and wizardly stock car crew chief named Harry (Robert Duvall) out of retirement and back on the circuit. "You can build a driver like you build a car, Harry."

Enter Tom Cruise in shades on a motorcycle to the accompaniment of thudding rock pomp. He is what he almost always is -- raw talent personified. "Lemme drive," he says. "I won't make a fool out of you."

Educational romance follows as Harry guides the kid through the course. Harry converses mystically with his car and the kid falls for the sleek neurologist (Nicole Kidman) who patches his skull together after he plows into a wall. (He races because he wants to "control something that's out of control," he explains at the beginning of one of their more intense bedroom moments.)

As in "Top Gun," friendly nemeses must be defeated before the Kid can triumph, i.e. win the Daytona 500.

Put it this way -- Cruise and company may well drive you to your local multiplex. You may have a moderately good time, too.

But then, it just may make a fool out of you.

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