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‘Top Gun’ and the Bruckheimer Hero

'Top Gun' and the Bruckheimer Hero

Back in theaters this Friday for a special one week run in IMAX 3D is “Top Gun,” the seminal ’80s action movie about fighter pilots, Tom Cruise, homoerotic volleyball matches, and poor renditions of “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” (though not necessarily in that order). The film also just became available Netflix Watch Instantly — which is how I watched it to prepare for a review on the next episode of my Filmspotting: Streaming Video Unit podcast. If you don’t feel like paying $15 bucks to see Tom Skerritt’s incredible mustache in 3D, that option is available to you.

“Top Gun” wasn’t one of my favorite movies as a kid, but it was still inescapable: at sleepovers, on cable television, even as a playground game (where you really didn’t want to get picked to be Goose). Now more than twenty-five years old, it’s both an interesting relic and a valuable time capsule: of Reagan-era American values (“Down with the enemy, whatever generic non-offensive other we deem that to be!”) and fashion (Ray-Bans, y’all), and of a very particular type of movie developed by “Top Gun”‘s producers, Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer. 

Our “Top Gun” podcast is going to be themed around ’80s movies, and Simpson and Bruckheimer produced many of the decade’s defining pieces of cinema; not necessarily its best — no, make that, definitely not its best — but possibly its most iconic. In preparation for the show, I’ve rewatched some (1984’s “Beverly Hills Cop” and 1987’s “Beverly Hills Cop II”) and caught a few for the first time (1983’s “Flashdance”). Viewed in a row, something hit me: they are all about the same character.

They’re certainly different kinds of movies; “Top Gun” is a war fantasy about an elite school for pilots, the “Beverly Hills Cop”s are police comedies with a wisecracking, displaced detective from Detroit, and “Flashdance” is — honestly, I don’t know what the hell “Flashdance” is; I guess it’s “Saturday Night Fever” with a faint whiff of softcore porn? Later, Bruckheimer and Simpson made more movies about the military (“Crimson Tide” and “The Rock”) and expanded into stories set in the worlds of auto racing (“Days of Thunder”) and underprivileged schools (“Dangerous Minds”). After Simpson passed away, Bruckheimer carried on with his own productions — chases for elaborate historical secrets (“National Treasure”), and desperate struggles to save the world from Armageddon (“Armageddon”). The settings changed, the genres changed, the actors changed, but the figure at the center of these movies stayed essentially fixed — an archetype we might call “The Bruckheimer Hero.”

This hero, man or woman, always bears certain identifying qualities; most importantly, a willingness to take risks — or an inability to avoid them — that marks he or she as an outsider within their chosen profession or society at large. The Bruckheimer Hero also has a strong disrespect of authority (a healthy one, in the film’s eyes), and because they’re outsiders who don’t play by the rules, they’re usually underestimated by those around them. But their iconoclastic theories and actions invariably become the one thing that enables them to succeed: to disarm the bomb, win the girl, inspire their students, or get the gig with the exclusive dance company.

The Bruckheimer Hero is remarkably consistent across the producer’s career, regardless of the other collaborators involved. High-powered directors like Tony Scott, Michael Bay, and Gore Verbinski come and go, each with their own creative concerns, but it’s Bruckheimer (and Simpson) who remains the auteur(s) of these movies, and it’s this hero figure that remains his (their) strongest authorial signature. The Bruckheimer Hero pops up again and again, from Violet in “Coyote Ugly” — the sassy songwriter who supports her artistic dreams by bartending at a rowdy road house — to Captain Jack Sparrow in the “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies.

The degree to which The Bruckheimer Hero is an actual creative statement rooted in some sort of belief or passion instead of a cold, calculated formula devised for purely mercenary purposes is open to debate. The answer could be somewhere in the middle. Simpson in particular was a notorious “bad boy” (to quote the name of one of his most famous productions), with a legendary drug habit. The pair might have identified with their lone wolf, gunslinging cowboys. Or they might have just recognized that audiences did and left it at that.

Whether The Bruckheimer Hero springs from creative or financial impulses, it’s pretty clear that Bruckheimer inserts him into his movies by deliberate and careful design. In a 2010 interview, Charlie Rose asked Bruckheimer why he thought Jack Sparrow had become so popular with moviegoers. His response:

“I think he’s so irreverent. He’s so much fun to watch. He goes against the norm. He’s the ultimate pirate.”

He’s describing Captain Jack — along with all the Bruckheimer Heroes, these cinematic icons who go against the grain with irreverence, style, and wit. They’re originals; they’re mavericks. The name of Tom Cruise’s character in “Top Gun” surely can’t be a coincidence.

Watch more of Jerry Bruckheimer on “Charlie Rose.”

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