Devil's Advocate

Audiences love Jerry Bruckheimer. Critics don't. Like he cares.

Jan 16, 2002 at 4:00 am
It should be so easy to hate this man sitting on a couch in a high-priced hotel suite, this man sharing his bottle of Evian. He is, after all, a demon dressed head to toe (or tail?) in slate gray, the Satan of Cinema. Attacking him has long been regular bloodsport among journalists to whom he represents the very worst about the movie biz--all those multimil movies full of retarded bloat, noisy shit, Nic Cage check-cashing, the dim yippee of the crash-and-burn action pic. For nearly two decades, he's been held up as the poster boy for the venality of modern-day blockbuster Hollywood, which exhibits its excesses mostly by radiating a hatred for the audience. The choir of self-appointed angels has been schlepping the same tune since this man and his late partner, who died on the toilet colon-deep in prescription meds, made Flashdance in 1983. Then Beverly Hills Cop. Then Top Gun. Then Bad Boys and The Rock and Con Air and Armageddon and Coyote Ugly and Pearl Harbor.

Grinning with thick lips nestled in a neatly trimmed beard, Jerry Bruckheimer is of modest build and height, to the point of being almost invisible when standing next to director Ridley Scott, the Alien and Blade Runner helmer who speaks in THX. When Bruckheimer talks, his voice barely registers on the tape recorder placed in front of him, which renders him the total opposite of the movies he makes--movies so loud they drive out reason and drown out thought. He is quiet, thoughtful and surprisingly easy to talk with if he believes his interrogator has done his homework and has no discernible ax to grind into his forehead. In this case, a 20-minute chat to discuss Black Hawk Down, which he produced and Scott directed, stretches to almost two hours, during which time he openly discusses his (rare) failures as readily as he celebrates his triumphs.

"Once you start believing your own success, you're gonna fail," says the man whose Web site,, trumpets the fact his films have made some $12.5 billion in box-office, home-video and recording receipts. "After the first wave of success [with Flashdance, Beverly Hills Cop and Top Gun], I felt, 'We really know what we're doing.' And then you go through really stale periods, and you get that insecurity back, and that's what drives you--the fear of failure. At least it does for me. It pushes you, because you don't wanna have a picture open to $3 million, especially something you really believe in and worked hard on."

Hating Bruckheimer (and his late partner, Don Simpson, who died in January 1996) has become a wearying pastime, a dated cliché. That's become especially true after December 28, when Black Hawk Down--an adaptation of Mark Bowden's 1999 book about a failed U.S. military operation in Somalia that left 18 U.S. soldiers and nearly 1,000 Somali militia fighters dead--opened to big box office in Los Angeles and New York and topped numerous critics' year-end best-of lists. The film ultimately fails despite its grand ambitions of putting audiences in soldiers' combat boots and good intentions of showing us the foreign horrors that have become newspaper footnotes in recent years. Aside from feeling as though you're watching the world's most racist PlayStation 2 game--white soldiers mow down armed black savages at a ratio of 50-to-1, without ever missing a shot--you leave the theater without a thought in your head. It makes you feel but never think about the consequences of U.S. intervention on foreign soil; Black Hawk Down ultimately has no agenda other than thrilling, which it does for nearly two and a half hours. It's not surprising when Bruckheimer says he prepared Ridley Scott by showing him the 45-minute battle sequence from the producer's Pearl Harbor and told him to expand it fivefold.

Those critics who love Black Hawk Down have insisted it offers Bruckheimer (and, to some extent, Scott, who made the woeful G.I. Jane with Demi Moore) a certain "redemption," to quote The New Yorker's David Denby. The filmmakers, Denby insisted in the December 24 issue, have "renounced their sins and knocked boldly on the door of virtue." Scott says he's amused by such pronouncements: "I am the luckiest man alive," he bellows in his British accent. "I've got the best job in the world, I got my health, so if I get my head knocked off every now and again doing a movie, I really don't care." Bruckheimer is less emphatic.

He simply does not believe in such things, and to admit to seeking any kind of salvation, least of all from critics, would mean he's somehow ashamed of his past work, which he is not--at least, not most of it. (The only film he shrugs off is 1984's Thief of Hearts, which Paramount Pictures forced on Simpson and Bruckheimer.) He craves no absolution and offers no apology, not for Con Air or Armageddon or Gone in 60 Seconds or Coyote Ugly or any other Bruckheimer production long on bang but short on brain.

"I love what I do," he says, smiling broadly. "I love it. I get up every morning, and I can't believe it. I'm a kid in the candy store. The same enthusiasm I had for film when I was 10 I have today, and the excitement of going to that movie, that dark house and sticking your hand in the popcorn and watching a great film and being part of that magic, I pinch myself every day. And you do care, sure. Of course you do. Nobody wants to keep reading detrimental things about yourself. Nobody wants to get a bad report card all the time. But you have to take it for what it is, as long as you're pleased with what you do. And the fortunate thing is, the pictures that I've made over the last 20 years or so have been very successful, so I am pleasing somebody. Might not be pleasing the critics or some of the journalists, but the masses..." He grins, pauses and begins again.

"It's like Springsteen once said: 'I make music for the masses, for the common man.' And I think that's kinda what we do in film. We make movies for the common man."

There's a difference, I insist, between songs for the common man and movies for the common man. Such songs tend to be about rusted-out Chevys on blocks sitting in a brown front lawn.

"And those are the same people who pay money for our movies," he says.

But what Springsteen provides is a kind of documentary, I tell him. A Jerry Bruckheimer movie offers nothing but escape.

"Right," he says. "But it's about the audience. He writes about a certain audience who buys his records. We make movies not about an audience, but we make movies that appeal to that audience."

Which is different.

"Sure, a little bit, yeah."

Those who think themselves idealists--that is, those who know no better--wonder, constantly, why Bruckheimer, with all his millions, doesn't abandon the numb and dumb movies he makes for artier fare. They gripe that he could easily churn out a dozen meaningful movies with the money spent on cranking out mindless big-name blow-'em-ups. They insist he alone is ruining the movies by rendering his audience deaf and dull from all those exploding asteroids and Porsches and airplanes brought down on the Vegas strip. His detractors (and I've long been one) believe he has the money and pull to make better movies and wish like hell he would.

Bruckheimer and Simpson did executive produce one critically respected film: The Ref in 1994, three years after their Tom Cruise race-car picture, Days of Thunder, pulled into theaters on an empty tank and cost the pair a lucrative deal with Paramount. But The Ref, a domestic comedy starring Kevin Spacey and Denis Leary, did poorly at the box office, grossing just $11 million. A year later, their Bad Boys, a Michael Bay-directed action-comedy starring Will Smith and Martin Lawrence as Eddie Murphy from Beverly Hills Cop, pulled in more than $140 million worldwide. (A Bad Boys sequel will be released in 2003, and Bruckheimer says he's developing a fourth Beverly Hills Cop at Murphy's request.)

Besides, Bruckheimer has little interest in "art" for critics' approval. He loved Good Will Hunting and Shakespeare in Love but likely wouldn't have made them if the scripts had gone to him and not Harvey Weinstein and Miramax. Bruckheimer says he wouldn't "have gotten them on paper," meaning, quite simply, he would have had no idea how to sell them to his audience, which doesn't gladly suffer too many quiet moments of character development. He needs the bang, not the respect.

"I don't think Jerry and I come from too different ends of the spectrum in terms of making movies," Scott says. "My film school was advertising, and advertising is about communication. If you don't communicate, you ain't got a business. And if you think and listen to half the critics today, if we went down that route and followed what they list as their 12 best films on any basis of any year, we wouldn't have an industry, OK? There'd be no fuckin' business! At the end of the day, if I bought 50,000 cans of beans, I wanna fuckin' sell them across the counter, and I want a little bit of profit at the end of it so I can paint my house afterwards, right? And critics forget that....The average price of a Hollywood movie today is $41 million, and that's before you start P&A [prints and ads], right? So with that in mind, I'm very responsible to my investors, and I bloody well make sure that whatever I do I am going to try to tap it from both directions."

Bruckheimer is not a student of cinema; he does not watch a movie, even a favorite (such as Lawrence of Arabia or The Bridge on the River Kwai), more than once. He is, instead, a scholar of audiences: Bruckheimer insists he doesn't attend industry screenings because they're populated by jealous backbiters wishing only failure upon their so-called friends and peers. Only when standing in the back of a theater filled with paying customers can he truly gauge what works and what forces the crowd to shift restlessly in its seats or walk slowly to the bathrooms. "I want to embrace and celebrate what's on that screen with an audience that just paid money and wants the same thing I do," he says.

Like a market researcher, he will try to figure out why the audience reacts as it does to a film, though not horror movies, a genre he admits he doesn't understand. (He and Simpson made only one, 1982's Cat People.) Usually, he says, he can't figure out why they're laughing at things he doesn't find funny. "It's like an inside joke," he insists. He looks for the flaws in a film that keep the audience from embracing it, then goes back to his movies and eradicates such moments. Black Hawk Down is a non-stop thrill ride precisely because of such investigation: Bruckheimer long ago learned audiences, at least his common men and women, have little patience for slow, quiet scenes that exist solely to develop characters, so he and Scott trimmed from Black Hawk Down long speeches given by Somali fighters who explain their side of the story. As a result, the film is bereft of context; it's no Three Kings, the quintessential anti-war film with a conscience. Black Hawk Down is, in many ways, the perfect Bruckheimer film: a bodybuilder stripped of skin and left only with blood and muscle.

"Audiences don't know why, but at the end of a [flawed movie], they say, 'I didn't like it.' They can't really articulate most times what they don't like about it," he says. "The times have changed for what audiences will sit through, and that's me. I make these pictures I feel work and don't really test them in front of an audience till the very end, so maybe we're shorthanding the audience a little bit by [deleting] some of these quieter scenes."

A long time ago, Bruckheimer made movies to survive. Now, he says with a small laugh, he has begun thinking about the notion of a legacy. "I guess I should," he says, chuckling. In the end, he wants to be known as nothing more than an entertainer, the world's best storyteller--even if that comes at the expense of character and coherence, one imagines, given his output. That he thrives beyond his expectations and imagination doesn't make him evil; it makes him victorious. Long ago, he said he doesn't give the audience what it wants, but what it doesn't know it needs. His bank account proves him right, at least for now. If an audience truly deserves the films it gets, then we have only ourselves to blame for Bruckheimer's success.

"And someday, the audience will say no," Bruckheimer says. "Someday I'll lose touch with an audience. Up to the present moment, what I've liked and what I've honed as far as entertainment, they've embraced. That could all change."