Producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer have raised formula films to a science. Take a star — it could be Beverly Hills cop Eddie Murphy, but here it’s the producers’ top gun, Tom Cruise — mix in fast planes, bikes, cars or anything that makes a deafening noise, add a sexy woman, a few fights, a few laughs, a rock soundtrack (flashdance, what a feeling), and presto, you’ve got a critic-proof blockbuster.
It was Cruise, a racing enthusiast, who had the idea to make a film about a racing driver. Screenwriter Robert Towne (Chinatown, Shampoo, The Last Detail) was then hired to flesh out the story about a cocky driver, Cole Trickle, who thinks that if he can control speed, he can control his life. Towne has certainly not challenged his gifts — the script is loaded with stock cars and stock characters — but he does deliver what’s necessary: a workable setup for exciting NASCAR racing footage shot on sixteen Winston Cup tracks from Daytona to Watkins Glen.
Director Tony Scott and cinematographer Ward Russell — collaborators on Top Gun — know how to give good atmosphere. Still, the film has been luckiest in its casting. Such pros as Robert Duvall as Trickle’s crusty crew chief, Randy Quaid as a promoter and Michael Rooker as a rival driver who becomes Trickle’s friend pump conviction into the tiredest macho-buddy scenes. Trickle also has a predictable romance with a doctor, played by Australian actress Nicole Kidman (Dead Calm). They go prettily through the motions, but it’s clear Cruise’s heart is at the track. The “need for speed” he felt in Top Gun has simply been transferred from the air to the ground. The switch should present no problem at the box office. Audiences have demonstrated that they’ll follow Tom Cruise anywhere.