A couple of weeks ago, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice landed in theaters with a dull “thud.” It was the latest high-concept film from the producing force that is Jerry Bruckheimer, and it proved, once again, that the man is not a “hit machine.”
Like any of us needed further proof after this summer’s other Bruckheimer pic, the abysmal Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. Luckily the man is still getting his fourth Pirates of the Caribbean movie made, though. So don’t feel too badly for him.
Still, looking at this summer’s Bruckheimer disasters got me thinking about the man’s career. He’s a producing machine, pumping out dozens of projects (both film and TV) over the past thirty plus years. Some are good, some bad. Most were successful, others less than profitable.
But the man always tries to put out entertaining popcorn cinema. And even when I don’t like the product, I have to respect the fact that Bruckheimer has given us some truly awesome cinematic moments.
There are literally books that can be written about the man’s movies, process, etc. But today, I want to take a closer look at two films birthed with the help of Mr. Jerry P. Bruckheimer.
So let’s jump in our fighter jet and fly all the way back to 1986. Shoulder pads were in, cocaine was being snorted in every bathroom on both the east and west coasts, and a young man by the name of Thomas J. Cruise (yes, I’m making up the middle initials) had just finished a movie called Legend with the incomparable Ridley Scott.
And Ridley’s brother, Tony, wanted in on the action. So together with Jerry Bruckheimer, these powerhouse talents created the most rousing and homoerotic fighter pilot movies ever to grace the silver screen: Top Gun. (Cue the theme).
The movie was an instant success and made words like “wingman” part of the lexicon. ”I’ll be your Goose” became one of the most bromantic phrases any heterosexual male could utter, and “You’ve lost that love and feeling” turned into a sure way to make any young lady smile.
I will be honest…I love the shit out of this movie. With all its cheese and all its flaws, the film is still a magical, testosterone-fueled trip down the path of joyful and effective cliche. And the soundtrack kicks ass.
Ask any modern moviegoer (over the age of 25, at least) and you’ll get the same response: Top Gun is pure dumb fun. It’s a movie crafted perfectly to the times, and it’s the quintessence of the “Bruckheimer” brand.
So it’s no surprise that the team of Bruckheimer, Scott and Cruise decided they wanted to make lightning strike twice. Four years later, they recycled their perfect action formula and put together the lesser known (and lesser, in general) Days of Thunder.
On the surface, these movies look nothing alike. One is about a cocky fighter pilot training to be the “best of the best” at a military program. The other is about a cocky race car driver training to be the “best of the best” under the tutelage of Robert Duvall.
TOTALLY different, see? But when you start to look closer, you realize that maybe Jerry Bruckheimer should be suing himself for copyright infringement.
The basic plot of both movies is the same. A rogue but talented race car driver/fighter pilot is thirsty to prove his own worth. So thirsty, in fact, that he breaks all the rules and refuses to listen to authority. This main character constantly battles with his arch-nemesis…someone who threatens his title of “the best of the best.” Something horrific happens, and this character must overcome 1) his disdain for “the rules,” 2) his competition with his nemesis (who becomes his ally in some way) and 3) his newfound fear of the thing he’s best at (namely driving race cars and/or flying crazy fighter jets).
In both stories, Tom Cruise meets and falls for a woman who is “out of his league.” She’s intelligent, beautiful and in a position of authority. Tom must make a complete ass of himself at the outset, but he refuses to take “no” for an answer, finally winning her over. And just when the disdain between them seems at its zenith, she melts like putty in his Tom Cruise hands.
Now, to be fair, Days of Thunder does stray from the formula in a few ways. Instead of a best friend in “Goose,” Tom’s best friend is also his trainer, Harry (played by the incomparable Robert Duvall). Whereas the tragedy in Top Gun is Goose’s death (SPOILER!), Thunder revolves around a cataclysmic crash that causes brain damage in Cole’s nemesis, “Rowdy Burns” (god, who named these people). Another tragedy exists, as well, in a bit of backstory where Duvall’s character was driven away from racing by a scandal in which one of his drivers was killed in a horrible accident.
So instead of Tom being haunted by the possibly honor-less death of his father, Duvall is haunted by the possibly honor-less death of his previous driver. But in both cases it comes out at the beginning of act three that each backstory incident wasn’t honor-less at all, and both revelations provide the catalyst to get Mr. Cruise back in the driver’s seat/cockpit.
The “nemesis” also takes a different form. Top Gun gives us Val Kilmer’s Iceman, the rule-following number two fighter pilot. Thunder‘s Rowdy, too, is the number two race car driver and biggest threat to Cole’s race-car-driver superiority. And while the Cruise/Kilmer dynamic is fairly straightforward, the Rowdy/Cruise dynamic takes a bit of a turn when Rowdy, all brain-damaged and angry, asks Cole to drive his race car for Rowdy’s family’s sake.
Yeah, it’s thin logic, but we’ll go with it.
Where both films converge, however, is that “foe” turns to “friend” in the interest of defeating a new enemy. Top Gun gives us a Russian MiG, and Days of Thunder allows us to hate on Cary Elwes’ Russ Wheeler, a hotshot rookie race car driver. And Days complicates things either further by giving us Randy Quaid, the manager who owns both Cole’s and Russ’s cars and so is competing against himself. This addition allows Duvall’s character to have an enemy, too, but the conflict is very quickly and easily resolved as Randy Quaid decides at the last minute to give Tom Cruise a helping hand at a crucial moment.
All of this is just window dressing to the two main similarities, of course…the two things that prove once and for all that Bruckheimer and Scott were cribbing their own material. First, both movies have a ridiculous move of questionable physics that shows the intelligence and “outside the box-ness” of Tom Cruise. In Top Gun we get “throwing on the brakes and letting him fly right by us” and in Thunder we have the “slingshotting” principle.
And second…both movies have Tom Cruise looking like a badass on a motorcycle.
So there you have it. Incontrovertible proof that Top Gun and Days of Thunder are, in fact, the same movie. And when you look at Bruckheimer’s career through that lens, do other similarities start to pop up? Isn’t Prince of Persia a vague, soulless remake of Pirates of the Caribbean, complete with an historic epic involving a supernatural force and a cocky hero’s quest to get back what is “rightly his?”
Ah well, I guess I should let it go. This is what Hollywood does…find a formula to a blockbuster, distill it to its most basic elements and remake it until they run it into the ground.
With Top Gun and Days of Thunder, though, we get two movies that both work, on some level at least, because of that most basic human need.
“The need…for speed.”