The best 10 mega-hit movies from super producer Jerry Bruckheimer

Now streaming on Stan, the crime drama Hightown was produced by the great, mega hit-making Jerry Bruckheimer. Critic Travis Johnson picks the 10 best Bruickheimer movies.

Stan’s new crime drama Hightown has landed, with new episodes arriving weekly. The show introduces us to hard-drinking Fisheries Service agent Jackie Quinones (Monica Raymund), who gets caught up in a web of deceit and murder when she stumbles across a the dead body of a drug addict on the local beach.

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It’s another gritty, high concept procedural from super-producer Jerry Bruckheimer, who has been cranking out blockbuster hits on both big screen and small for decades. Whether in partnership with the late, little-lamented Don Simpson (Google it) or going it solo, Bruckheimer has the Midas touch when it comes to delivering high-octane, crowd-pleasing spectacle.

If the critics don’t like it, well, the box office takings paint a whole different picture. Here, then, are 10 of Bruckheimer’s best.

American Gigolo (1980)

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Director Paul Schrader (Light Sleeper, First Reformed) makes films that are ethical traps in which we see protagonists fail to grapple with their human wants, needs, and failings, and so destroy themselves by proxy. Here the hapless hero is Richard Gere’s male sex worker, who falls for trophy wife Lauren Hutton while at the same time finding himself suspected of murdering one of his clients.

While Schrader uses the character’s narcissism and materialism as thematic tools, illustrating his initial shallowness and, when he starts not tending to his fashionable wardrobe and sleek appearance, his ongoing disintegration, in retrospect it seems clear that Bruckheimer took one look at all those shiny status symbols and said “hell yes.”

Thief (1981)

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The feature film debut of Michael “Heat” Mann. It’s interesting to reflect how these days Bruckheimer gets accused of style over substance while Mann is breathing the rarefied air of a filmmaker the critics have decided uses style in service of substance. There’s a uni film club punch-up waiting to happen in that sentence.

In the meantime, revel in this superb piece of ‘70s noir in which James Caan’s professional thief attempts to pull off one last job to finance a straight life with Tuesday Weld, only for the merciless machinations of the criminal underworld to throw up obstacle after obstacle. Mann’s obsession with consummate professionals doing their thing is already in place, but Bruckheimer’s own stylistic fingerprints are largely absent.

Flashdance (1983)

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Bruckheimer’s first feature with longtime professional partner Don Simpson sees Jennifer Beals as Alex, a welder who aspires to be a ballet dancer. The drama is forced, as Alex struggles against her working class roots to audition at a prestigious conservatory, but this marks the first time that Bruckheimer elevated a commercial director.

In this case that director was second time feature helmer Adrian Lyne, to the big leagues, applying the polished, efficient, evocative visual language of TV ads to a longform narrative. The approach, coupled with a hit-heavy soundtrack, struck a chord with audiences, who propelled it to box office success, even as critics lined up to bag it out.

Beverly Hills Cop (1984)

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What was originally supposed to be a Sylvester Stallone action drama was reconfigured into one of the most beloved action comedies of all time when Eddie Murphy took on the role of Axel Foley, a Detroit Cop on the hunt in LA for the murderer of his old buddy, butting heads with Beverly Hill PD plods played by John Ashton and Judge Reinhold. The procedural plotting is robust if uninspired, but what really works is Murphy’s luminescent charisma, which powers us right through a rote crime drama and into one of the most straight-up fun movies of all time.

Top Gun (1986)

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Mark my words, Top Gun changed cinema. There’s before Top Gun and after, with Tony Scott’s flight school drama being ground zero for the Bruckheimer/Simpson school of blockbuster cinema. Tom Cruise delivers a genuinely star-making turn as the cocky Maverick, competing against Val Kilmer’s Iceman to be the best of the best of the best.

The big machines in motion, the soaring Harold Faltemeyer score paired with contemporary hot hits, the searing romance with Kelly McGillis’ instructor, the macho posturing, the big action finale, the top notch supporting cast (Anthony Edwards, Tom Skerritt, Michael Ironside, Meg Ryan, Tim Robbins and more!), the big, broad, punch-to-the-heart emotions—this is How. To. Do. It.

The Rock (1996)

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“Welcome to The Rock!” Sean Connery’s grizzled SAS commando snarls. The only man ever to successfully escape Alcatraz, he’s been tasked with leading Nicolas Cage’s science boffin and a team of Navy SEALS onto the island to stop Ed Harris’ rogue General and his men from dropping chemical weapons on San Francisco.

Executive excessive Michael Bay directs this modern action classic, taking the strong stylistic verve he displayed in Bad Boys and jacking it up to the next level, moving and cutting and shaking the camera to such a degree that the action—of which there is plenty—becomes an almost impressionist mosaic of speed and violence.

Con Air (1997)

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Essentially The Dirty Dozen on a plane, Con Air puts Nicolas Cage’s (again!) jailbird Army Ranger on a plane full of the worst the U.S. penal system has to offer, only for them to hijack the flight for some nefarious purpose. Action and Lynyrd Skynyrd ensue, but the real attraction here is the cast, with John Malkovich, Ving Rhames, John Cusack, Colm Meaney, Steve Buscemi, Danny Trejo, Dave Chappelle and more bringing their best testosterone-drenched grunting to the table.

Black Hawk Down (2001)

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Director Ridley Scott strips out all but the most essential backstory and narrative scaffolding to present the audience with the U.S. military’s desperate attempt to rescue the crews of two downed Black Hawk helicopters from enemy territory in Mogadishu, Somalia. Once again, a top notch cast is assembled. The trick is to get great actors to breathe life into thinly written roles, which is why Bruckheimer ensembles rarely fail to impress.

And so we follow, across various fraught subplots, Josh Hartnett, Ewan McGregor, Eric Bana, Tom Sizemore, William Fichtner, Sam Shepard, Tom Hardy, Jason Isaacs, Sam Shepard, Orlando Bloom, Jeremy Piven and more across the entire engagement, with the action of the battle the only story in play. What could have become a grind is actually electrifying cinema, thanks to Scott’s consummate action and the sheer scale of the production.

Bad Boys II (2003)

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Yes, the sequel. While the 1995 original get points for being first, the sequel encapsulates the excesses of both Bruckheimer’s producing style and director Michael Bay’s kinetic aesthetic, for better and worse. Rverything is scaled up: the action, the blood, the explosions, the sheer scope of the mayhem—and the nihilism, the juvenile, often offensive humour, the disregard for any kind of moral centre.

As a pure, visceral, sensory overload it works a trick, with the combined star power of Will Smith and Martin Lawrence eclipsing the sneaking suspicion that these two cops in the edge might just be sociopathic monsters. It’s a lot of fun.

Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003)

Another game changer, at least in terms of Johhny Depp’s career, with the indie heartthrob becoming a genuine superstar thanks to his intuitively weird, endlessly enjoyable turn as Captain Jack Sparrow, who finds himself teaming up with Orlando Bloom’s noble blacksmith-swordsman to take on Geoffrey Rush’s leering zombie pirate lord. It’s just so much goddamn fun, resurrecting the long-moribund swashbuckler genre for a new age and spawning an ongoing franchise that, even in the better instalments, never matched the surprising delights of this first foray.