”Drafting,” in racing lingo, means catching a free ride in another car’s wake. It also describes what Paramount Home Video is hoping to achieve by releasing Red Line 7000, a 1965 racetrack melodrama, in tandem with the Tom Cruise movie Days of Thunder. This type of dual release — offering the chance to compare racing films from two Hollywood generations — is one of the qualities that make home video unique. Yet the idea that the golden oldie will draft on the hype surrounding the newer film ignores the fact that these two movies have little other than spinouts in common.
Of course, the movie that Days of Thunder resembles most is 1986’s Top Gun. Not only do they share a star, a director (Tony Scott), and producers (Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer), but the stories rely on identical clichés (to ”win the big one,” hotshot Cruise must ”face down inner demons” and ”overcome his rivals”), the same MTV-rip-off camera moves, and scores that mix oldies with boilerplate hard rock. The only major change in the equation is that the module labeled NAVY FIGHTER PILOT has been pulled out and a new one labeled STOCK-CAR RACER plugged in. Ironically, its slavish adherence to formula sealed Days of Thunder’s doom. Top Gun at least had novelty — no one had thought to film a recruiting poster as if it were a music video before — but the new movie adds nothing to the racetrack genre except 200 mph editing.
True, screenwriter Robert Towne (Chinatown) and costar Robert Duvall (as Cruise’s mentor) each deliver a certain snap. True, the setting avoids the shallow political posturing that made Top Gun so obnoxious. Days of Thunder is watchable nonsense rather than an active irritant. But who decided to name Cruise’s character Cole Trickle? (It sounds like a mishap in a deli.) And who thought to make the love interest (Nicole Kidman, now Cruise’s real-life spouse) a brain surgeon? Every time Days of Thunder looks as though it might shift into gear as a movie, the filmmakers stall with frat-boy vogueing that might have seemed visually awesome in theaters but on the home screen looks jumbled and blurry, like a Levi’s 501 ad on fast forward.
Red Line 7000 (the title refers to the point of no return on the racers’ rpm gauge) follows a different formula, one that director Howard Hawks developed in such classic films as 1944’s To Have and Have Not and 1948’s Red River. Hawks once said that ”the best drama is one that deals with a man in danger,” but what makes his films special is that they also deal with the women who deal with the men who deal with danger. While Red Line 7000 is nowhere near his best film (it was one of his last), it still covers the favored terrain: The stock-car racers led by Mike Marsh (James Caan) are terse professionals who bottle up insecurities and daily face death while their wives and girlfriends decide whether to change them, live with them, or get the hell out. In structure it’s just a soap opera mixed with good, tough action scenes — it sounds as simpleminded as, say, a Tom Cruise movie. But somehow Hawks’ unpretentious alchemy makes it richer.
Compare the dialogue. In Days, Cruise talks in a yuppie Zenspeak more appropriate to slogans on a coffee mug: ”You’ve got to be good at your job before you can enjoy the rest of your life.” Hawks’ characters, by contrast, are too busy living their job to talk such rubbish. Red Line’s script may get hokey and sometimes sexist (”Aw, cut it out — you’re actin’ like a female”). Still, there are plenty of moments that are quintessential, cut-the-crap Hawks — such as the scene in which Holly Maguire (Gail Hire), grieving over her dead boyfriend, stops a consoling Marsh in his tracks by quietly asking, ”Do you always say the right thing, Mike?”
Compare the action. By virtue of modern film technology, Days of Thunder really does put you inside a stock car, but it keeps you there, and you never get to see the overall picture: The racing sequences are a dazzle of tightly edited close-ups, screeching tires, and, on video, confusion. The similar scenes in Red Line 7000 are filmed mostly from positions on the track: They’re stodgy in comparison to Days, but you have the advantage of knowing what’s going on. The crash scenes clinch it. Days of Thunder’s crack-ups are extremely impressive. Red Line 7000’s are terrifying.
Finally, compare the characterizations. The truth is that Days of Thunder has none. There’s nothing particular about Cruise’s character, or Kidman’s or Duvall’s. They’re mannequins, too false to be archetypes. Our emotional responses are cued by the editing and music rather than by anything the characters do. The relationships of the men and women in Red Line, on the other hand — insecure Mike and flighty Gaby (Marianna Hill), egotistical Ned (John Robert Crawford) and clear-eyed Julie (Laura Devon) — have a wit and maturity that can startle ’90s audiences with their perception and that make Days of Thunder’s hubba-hubba look like the prattle of children.
Hawks’ formula was for grown-ups, so Red Line 7000’s major flaw — its bungling attempts to appeal to the ’60s youth audience — is ironic. The costumes and slang have both dated badly, and the idiotic fake-rock soundtrack (shrill R&B versions of ”She’ll Be Coming ‘Round the Mountain” and ”I’ve Been Working on the Railroad”) is an insult to rock fans of any generation. The director should have had more faith in his narrative skills than to try to sweeten the pill with such wrongheaded hipness. If it’s any consolation, though, Days of Thunder is probably going to look just as dated in another 25 years — and it still won’t have the honest compensations of Hawks’ vision. Days of Thunder: C-; Red Line 7000: B-