More than anyone in Hollywood, producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer have done their damndest to turn American movies into a mass narcotic. Their films Flashdance, Top Gun, and now Days of Thunder, aka Top Gun on Wheels invite audiences to shoot up on music and imagery and sensation, to indulge in heady, escalating rushes of dramatic ''triumph.'' For Simpson and Bruckheimer, of course, the real triumph is at the box office.
Still, what sets this pair apart isn't simply their astonishing entrepreneurial track record. It's the fact that their marketing fever is embedded in the adrenaline aesthetic of their movies. Simpson and Bruckheimer are capitalist speed freaks: Their films are self-referential commercials consisting of one peak moment after another. The protagonists of Flashdance and Top Gun aren't just winners; before our eyes, they face down their demons and turn into pop-Olympian superstars, the Best of the Best. With their state- of-the-art soundtracks, their layered fantasies of success, their glowing cascades of rock-video imagery, Simpson-Bruckheimer movies provide such an intense dose of surface pleasure that it's no wonder young viewers who have grown up on them have little concept of what a real movie is. Even for adults, a Simpson-Bruckheimer product is like cotton candy spun from pure sugar you can't stop eating, even though you know it's bad for you.
Days of Thunder, set in the glamorously down-scale world of stock-car racing, reteams Simpson and Bruckheimer, Tom Cruise, and Top Gun director Tony Scott. Like Top Gun, the movie isn't simply a Tom Cruise vehicle it's about the fact that it's a Tom Cruise vehicle. Once again the Dimpled One is cast as an iconic hotshot whose swaggering antics conceal a ''troubled'' soul. And once again the camera ravishes his grin, his eagle-pure stare his Cruiseness.
Scott has ditched Top Gun's soft, confectionery look for a grainier documentary style an aesthetic rawness. The plot, a slavish copy of the earlier film's, provides Cruise with another shadowy Oedipal conflict and another devoted comrade (Michael Rooker) who doesn't quite have the right stuff. Also on hand is Nicole Kidman in the Kelly McGillis role of a no- nonsense professional whom Cruise woos with ardent devotion that is, until he wins her, at which point she's relegated to the back burner so that our hero can get on with his true romance, namely maneuvering smoky hunks of machinery at hundreds of miles per hour.
The racing scenes are genuinely exciting: careening barrages of speed and noise and singed metal. Scott shoots nearly everything in close-up, so that we can practically smell the danger. Still, compared with Top Gun's apocalyptic dogfights, the action here inevitably seems a trifle earthbound.
Michael Rooker gives the most human performance in the film; his flat lug's face is inviting, lived-in. Kidman brings an appealing Aussie snap to the thankless role of Cruise's neurologist groupie, and Robert Duvall, as Cruise's mentor and coach, drawls happily and mostly lets his wrinkles do his acting for him. In general, the movie is full of characters and subplots that come swirling into view like so many puffs of smoke and then disappear just as ethereally.
Days of Thunder jettisons the swaggering patriotism of Top Gun, but it has the same essential spirit of Reaganite bravura. There's nothing at stake in this movie (except for how well it does at the box office), but then, how could there be? You can't have drama unless you acknowledge the possibility that your hero's deeds may somehow fall short of his dreams, and Simpson and Bruckheimer establish a universe of total, drenching victory. The film, though sleek and easy to sit through, replaces genuine dramatic involvement with a superficial, rock & roll empathy-it's as though we were watching Cruise's character and playing air guitar to his emotions. There are plenty of soulless movies around. What's special about Days of Thunder is that it works overtime trying to convince you it's not one of them.