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Culture Club: Bruckheimer vs. Bruckheimer
  • October 04, 2013 : 23:10
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Part of what got audiences hooked was testosterone. Star Wars has boyish, gee-whiz adventure, but Bruckheimer’s films feel simultaneously adult and adolescent. Whether it’s Top Gun, Bad Boys, Crimson Tide, The Rock or Bad Company, the predominant image from a Bruckheimer film is of unflappable hardasses bantering as if the world were one big frat house. Women have a place in his movies but usually just on the periphery: Téa Leoni as a damsel in distress in Bad Boys; Kelly McGillis, Liv Tyler and Kate Beckinsale as love interests in Top Gun, Armageddon and Pearl Harbor, respectively. When he made movies starring women, he was savvy about it. Michelle Pfeiffer’s inner-city school drama Dangerous Minds was overshadowed by Coolio’s “Gangster’s Paradise,” an example of Bruckheimer’s ability to think beyond theatrical revenue to create popular, lucrative soundtracks for his films. (For many people, Top Gun’s soundtrack is as iconic as anything else in the movie.) As for Coyote Ugly, he was able to sell a movie about lissome young women by featuring them on the cover of Maxim, a magazine manufactured for impressionable horn dogs.

But Bruckheimer’s most infamous contribution to the modern event movie was his discovery of Michael Bay, a commercial and video director. If Top Gun and Beverly Hills Cop define 1980s flash, Bay’s Bad Boys, The Rock, Armageddon and Pearl Harbor are amped-up 1990s swagger, saluting all-American masculinity and hopped-up visual pyrotechnics. The notion that summer movies need to be epic events—goofy but also unreservedly awesome—can be felt in every frame of Bay’s escapist flicks. Without Bay, it’s harder to imagine the sensation-overload films of Zack Snyder (300) or the giddy dopiness of Roland Emmerich’s work (Independence Day).

As the 21st century began, studios became increasingly interested in movies that could play to the widest audience possible, which meant moving away from R-rated films to films rated PG-13. Again, Bruckheimer was ahead of the curve, producing Disney Studios’ first PG-13 moviePirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. By tamping down his trademark testosterone, he delivered a template for the new breed of four-quadrant hit, that commercial Holy Grail that can rope in men, women, the young and the old. But as successful as the Pirates films have been—grossing $3.7 billion worldwide—they also signaled a change in Hollywood moviemaking that ultimately worked against marquee names, including Bruckheimer.

In 2003, when Curse of the Black Pearl was the third-highest grossing film of the year, six of the year’s top 10 moneymakers were either sequels or remakes. Every year since then has averaged around the same ratio (if not higher)—and that’s not counting movies such as Iron Man that are based on well-known pop-culture characters. This trend doesn't look like it's going to end anytime soon. Thanks to hit franchises like Pirates of the Caribbean, audiences have become less interested in stars than they are in recognizable properties. People won’t necessarily check out Tom Cruise in Oblivion, but they’re onboard for Mission: Impossible 5. Will Smith can’t get audiences to see After Earth, but Men in Black 3 will bring out the crowds. It doesn’t even matter if a franchise isn’t that old: Sony successfully rebooted Spider-Man shortly after Tobey Maguire left, and Universal plowed forward with a Jason Bourne sequel, The Bourne Legacy, that had little to do with Matt Damon’s character. Nowadays, studios aren’t in the business of breaking new talents the way Bruckheimer once did (e.g., Cruise in Top Gun, Smith in Bad Boys, Eddie Murphy in Beverly Hills Cop)—they want to manage their brands in the same way people worry over their investment portfolios.

In such an environment, relying on formula and sticking to PG-13 ratings makes good business sense but is hell on a producer who can’t generate new franchises. From Disney’s perspective, churning broad-appeal Marvel movies and Disneyland-derived films like Tomorrowland is a safer bet than risking another Sorcerer’s Apprentice—which, ironically, might have done better if it had been a straight-up adaptation of the memorable “Fantasia” sequence. These days, originality is a liability. And just as stars are becoming dependent on franchises for surefire hits, big-name producers have to worry about pre-established tentpoles. Studios simply don’t need salesmen like Bruckheimer as much; the films now sell themselves.

And yet, these new movies lack the seasoning that made Bruckheimer’s biggest hits so memorable. Top Gun and Bad Boys have a cocky exuberance that feels sunny and uncomplicated. Modern event films are darker, in part as a response to 9/11, but also because franchises copied the Bourne films and Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, opting for a tougher, more realistic look at their characters. (Tellingly, the only recent films that feel remotely like Bruckheimer’s are Bay’s overblown Transformers movies, which Bruckheimer didn’t produce but bear his DNA.)

Bruckheimer’s specific brand of unfiltered, happy adolescence isn’t so present at the multiplexes anymore. Surprisingly, I miss it. Top Gun was once viewed as deeply cynical and soulless—Kael’s comment about it being a poster for itself could be an indictment of Hollywood’s dumbed-down development strategy ever since—but it’s a film that, in hindsight, possesses a sweet naivete in comparison with modern blockbusters’ industrial-strength explosiveness and gloom. That doesn’t mean those of us who rolled our eyes at Bruckheimer’s movies’ outlandishness were wrong. But at his best, he found that sweet spot where showmanship, escapism and giddiness combine to produce that irreplaceable experience that Bruckheimer loved as a child of going to the theater “and sticking your hand in the popcorn and watching a great film.”

Bruckheimer has hinted that after parting ways with Disney he might go back to making the sort of R-rated movies he pursued in his earlier years that aren’t conducive to Disney’s family-centric credo. But the truth is, Bruckheimer’s old R-rated mentality doesn’t have much of a place in Hollywood’s four-quadrant business model. In a sense, maybe his era isn’t ending so much as coming full circle. He started off as a pseudo–bad boy; his next chapter might be making movies the system he helped create no longer has a place for.

Tim Grierson is Playboy for iPhone’s critic-at-large. His new biography of Wilco, Sunken Treasure, is available on Amazon. You can follow him on Twitter.

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  • Samson LeClerk
    Samson LeClerk
    The amount of sperm in my testicles is beyond beleif