Devil's Advocate

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, www.jbfilms.com, 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.

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky