Days of Thunder shouldn't be as good as it is, I want to say; but that would imply that it is good, and I'm not entirely sure if that's the case. It oughtn't be good, at least. Not with that script. And yet it's so much better than the combined quality of its elements that I simply don't know what to do with it.

Whatever else is the case, we can say this in comfort: it's an exquisitely characteristic film of all involved: lead actor (and primary driver of the project, down to having a story credit) Tom Cruise, still in the headiest period of his "unimpeachably cool movie star but just starting to want to have a little more depth to his parts than simply being pretty for the camera" phase; director Tony Scott, whose four preceding projects hadn't congealed into the exact shape of what future years would regard "a Tony Scott film", but who firmly attained that status with this movie; and especially producers Jerry Bruckheimer and Don Simpson, whose lightning strike company logo made its debut with this movie, if I am not entirely wrong, and whose house style could not be better expressed in a movie that really doesn't even think about hiding the degree to which its obvious sell-line is "Top Gun with race cars."

That's not entirely accurate, of course. There'd be simply no way to act out Cold War military fantasies in any remotely sane race car movie (though the utterly insane race car movie that doubles as Cold War propaganda is one I badly want to see), so the conflict is not slashed off when the various in-fighting flying aces stock-car racers scramble to knock some enemy fighters out of the sky in a maneuver that probably ignites World War III. But the nature of the conflict is virtually identical, as is the character that Cruise is playing, as is the romantic side-plot that the film clearly doesn't know what to do with - for God's sake, woman, don't you understand that this is a celebration of mechanically-augmented masculinity? Get that girly shit out of here! - though at least it feels like the unusually hot 'n heavy PG-13 sex scene (Scott had, after all, made the porny Revenge between Top Gun and Days of Thunder) feels like it was put in there on purpose, and the thankless love interest played by Nicole Kidman is at least moderately more situated in the film than Kelly McGillis's lost-at-sea tomboy in Top Gun's panoply of homosociality.

The plot, anyway - the script was written by Robert Towne, of all astonishingly overqualified people - is a basic "talented hotshot makes good" sports drama: car dealership maven Tim Daland (Randy Quaid) is anxious to have legendary NASCAR crew chief and car engineer Harry Hogge (Robert Duvall) come out of a retirement under the shadow of a vaguely-described rule violation some years back, but Harry won't do it if he doesn't have a rock-solid driver to work with. None of the brand names are interested, but a reckless, brilliant young driver, Cole Trickle (Cruise) is eager to break into stock car racing, and it takes all of the older man's patience and wisdom to shape the immensely gifted but dangerously undisciplined kid into the kind of racer who wins championships. Personal dramas swirl around: Cole gets into a bad crash with rival Rowdy Burns (Michael Rooker), sending both of them to the hospital and the no-nonsense care of Dr. Claire Lewicki (Kidman), with Burns in particular seeming doomed to the kind of injuries you don't walk back from. This opens up room for the even younger rookie, Russ Wheeler (Cary Elwes) to sniff around at Cole's spot, and soon Daland is fielding two crews, an unorthodox step that raises Cole and Harry's ire even more.

The film was being rewritten on the fly during production, and it certainly shows: besides the general anemia of the scenario, the way that subplots flicker to life and meander about without clear direction is hardly indicative of focused, intentional screenwriting. Even the bits that feel premeditated can only really be described as primitive: this is willfully, pridefully generic storytelling, in which the basic beats are obvious enough that they don't even need the over-the-top foreshadowing that Towne so readily provides for them, and where the dots are so big and loudly emphasised that they're already touching, no connecting them required. It's messy as hell, throwing out its first conflict (Cole and Harry at each other's throats) just when it's starting to warm up, and never defining Russ enough as a character that the second conflict can take off.

And damn me, but it doesn't even matter: this is a racing movie, and like racing movies from Grand Prix on down, the failings of the human drama only matter as much as the action doesn't work. But in Days of Thunder, the action works gloriously. Tony Scott was a better director than when he made Top Gun, and his handling of the racing scenes is better than anything he'd done up to that time outside of the uncharacteristic Gothic horror The Hunger. He is not working alone, of course: he has a huge amount of help from the Oscar-nominated sound team, giving the film the deep rumble of a mightily powerful car that sounds like metal orgasming; from his ever-reliable editors Chris Lebenzon and Billy Weber (also a long-term Terrence Malick ally, including on the similarly-titled Days of Heaven), who keep the momentum dizzily fast-paced and slice the races into easily-digested chunks that create the idea of constant movement and delirium without being in the least ways confusing to watch; and from Hans Zimmer, who had just broken into A-list films, and whose unabashed '80s throwback score (even by 1990, I am convinced that synthesizers weren't this prevalent) nicely evokes that touch of Giorgio Moroder that makes it feel like a proper Simpson/Bruckheimer flick, and even if it's frankly corny, it's fast-paced and exciting, and it's probably the best tool in the movie's arsenal.

Not that it's just an exercise in pure style and audio, though that's probably what it's best at, and the reason that it works awfully well as popcorn fare. Given the paucity of the characters, Days of Thunder has a remarkably strong cast: Duvall and Kidman obviously, with young John C. Reilly in a small role and the wonderful, yet-underserved character actor Margo Martindale making her film debut. Not that any of these people are inevitably great, but especially given how obviously the film didn't care if they tried, it's heartening to see that Kidman found room where she could to give her character dignity and intelligence and fire, or that Duvall decided to make the film's lazy "daddy issues" motif that's mentioned once and forgotten like so many other plot threads an opportunity rather than a crutch, and play to Cruise as a prickly authority figure who wants to be challenged by his young student, but only for intelligent reasons. Heck, even Cruise, at his all-time most don't-give-a-shit period, is at least tolerable, and certainly no worse than in any of his other late-'80s/early-'90s films, though unlike his co-stars, he only attempts to live up to the material, not to elevate it.

Days of Thunder has not, in fairness, survived for nearly a quarter of a century intact; there is an unmistakable musty smell about its '80s-into-'90s aesthetic, and Scott's flashy, stylistic filmmaking would work better in later films when there was at least some human element to hang it on. But it's exciting action cinema, at least, and it's not quite as baldly playing like a long-form TV commercial as Top Gun. It may be shallow, but at least it's pleasurable.