Jerry Bruckheimer is a quiet man who produces the loudest movies in the world. Early, arty Jerry was the fixer who put together 1980’s slight neo-noir American Gigolo. Thrusting mid-period Jerry, happily partnered with the 1980s zeitgeist and fellow producer Don Simpson, made the classics Flashdance, Top Gun and Beverly Hills Cop. Don died a truly maximal Hollywood death in 1996 — they found 21 different substances inside him — but Jerry, always the sober one, kept going bigger, faster, louder: The Rock, Con Air, Armageddon.
Jerry’s family-friendly feint in the early 2000s with franchises like National Treasure and Pirates of the Caribbean didn’t mean he was mellowing. He was mastering network television at the same time, with death-heavy CSI and its lucrative spinoffs. There were duds, though, like the forgettable Prince of Persia and The Lone Ranger. Perhaps there was even a sense of sputtering down as the age of the super-producer transitioned into the age of the superhero.
This year, as we crawl wearily through the white noise of impeachment, the nation needs Jerry Bruckheimer like a testosterone shot in the butt. The impresario is back, reunited with Will Smith for this month’s Bad Boys for Life, and, in July, with Tom Cruise for Top Gun: Maverick.
Jerry is so devoted to gratifying his audiences, it’s almost sleazy. Nuance, sensitivity, doubt, ambiguity, circumspection: no one looks for these in a Bad Boys movie. Will Smith and Martin Lawrence (even funnier as he gets even fatter) return as Miami narcs Mike Lowrey and Marcus Burnett, utterly faithful to each other and the buddy cop paradigm of word play, gun play and exhausting braggadocio.
Jerry’s signature is the absence of the minimal and the modest, and the total embrace of style. Miami is to Bruckheimer as London was to Dickens. The Bruckheimerian playground is supercharged and sweaty, populated only by steroid-addled hombres and thick-buttocked, wasp-waisted babes in dental- floss bikinis, a palmy cityscape of chop shops and sweat-box gyms lit by the orange pandemonium of a permanently setting sun.
Top Gun: Maverick is, if you can imagine such a thing, a more hotly anticipated picture than Bad Boys for Life. The return of Cruise, now pushing 60 but looking a cryogenic 35, injects that bottled energy and dangerous commitment that has made him such a reliable, if weird, star. When Maverick was officially announced, Val Kilmer began an ultimately successful social media campaign to reprise his role as Tom ‘Iceman’ Kazansky. He is 60, but looks cryogenic in the way of someone partially defrosted by accident.
Bruckheimer may think that the Oedipus Complex is a Greek shopping mall, but the set-ups of Bad Boys and Top Gun are classical: patriotic, unflappable veterans have to knock feckless young guns into shape. ‘The end is inevitable, Maverick, your kind is heading for extinction,’ a wizened Ed Harris tells Cruise the boomer patriarch. ‘Maybe so sir, but not today,’ Cruise replies.
Is this Bruckheimer’s message to millennials? Bruckheimer is that rarity, an out Hollywood conservative. A worship of American technological and military prowess powers much of what he probably doesn’t call his cinematic oeuvre. Heroes are wrapped in the flag, and naval supremacy is advocated with a ferocity not seen since the days of Alfred Thayer Mahan. It’s propaganda, but then Kipling wrote propaganda too. As Orwell wrote of Kipling: ‘One has the sense of being seduced by something spurious, and yet unquestionably seduced.’
Of course, populist entertainment and shameless nation-boosting bring out the slings and arrows. The soy-boy Guardian has called Bruckheimer the ‘architect of cultural stupidization’ (2000) and a conjurer of ‘narrow razzle-dazzle for the multiplex masses’ (2013). Certainly, our Jerry is no theorist. His philosophy is straightforward, though with the ambition of Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk, the ‘total work of art’: ‘We want to take you away from whatever is bothering you that day and just give you two hours where you can’t think about anything else.’
Bruckheimer usually succeeds in obliterating thought for the running time of his movies. If you watched 1998’s Armageddon, you couldn’t think of anything else for days afterwards. So rich is the Bruckheimer blend of sadism and sentimentality that his films are never far from toppling into outright hysteria. Recall how in Armageddon, Billy Bob Thornton summons immense gravity to describe Bruce Willis as ‘the world’s best deep-core driller’. That’s funnier than any Woody Allen line. This is why Kingsley Amis, one of the greatest comic novelists, believed Beverly Hills Cop to be a ‘flawless masterpiece’.