Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer are arguably the most successful producing
team in Hollywood history. Their films including “Beverly Hills Cop,” “The
Rock,” “Armageddon,” and “Top Gun” have earned, according to a 1995 statistic
from Entertainment Weekly, about $820 million. When one factors in the grosses
for the last five or six films produced by Simpson and Bruckheimer (and
Bruckheimer after Simpson’s death in 1996) the total will most likely exceed $2
Despite their enormous financial successes, the films of Simpson and
Bruckheimer are often criticized (and many times rightfully so) as big budget
throwaway entertainments. They make films in which stuff, as the critics on
SCTV’s “Farm Film Report” would say, “blow up real good.” Peruse most reviews of
these pictures, and adjectives like “banal,” “dumb,” “insipid,” and
“empty-headed” are bound to appear.
Despite the critical misgivings about Simpson/Bruckheimer productions,
audiences still tend to flock to their brand of mayhem, hyper masculinity,
thunderous sound effects, and cutting edge special effects. And while they have
had their share of bombs (like the dismal “Days of Thunder” or “Gone in 60
Seconds”) more often than not, they make movies the public seems to
So what is it about these producers and their films that are so
In this paper I will offer a structural analysis of the films of Simpson and
Bruckheimer. In addition to their spectacle and typically well-crafted action
sequences, Simpson/Bruckheimer pictures seem to possess an unconscious
understanding of the zeitgeist and other cultural trends. It is this almost
innate ability to select scripts that tap into some traditional American values
(patriotism, individualism, and the obsession with the “new”) that helps to make
their movies blockbusters.
On top of that, however, Simpson and Bruckheimer have perfected a sacred
Hollywood formula-they are masters of the high concept film.
By the time I complete my analysis, I hope to prove that Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer not only perfected a style of film production, but for better or worse, revolutionized the Hollywood film industry.
Simpson, Bruckheimer and the Critics: A refutation
of traditional analyses
In my research I came upon an interesting trend in nearly every review for
movies produced by Simpson and Bruckheimer. Most critics tend not to criticize
their films for their merits (be it artistic or visceral), but instead critique
the producers themselves.
The review that sticks out in my mind (and also quoted by Charles Fleming in
“High Concept,” his exhaustively researched biography on Simpson) is a
staggeringly mean-spirited review of “Con Air” by Owen Gleiberman in
Entertainment Weekly. In one paragraph Gleiberman seemed to sum up most
critics’ opinions on the canon of Simpson and Bruckheimer. Gleiberman dubbed
“Con Air” (the first film Bruckheimer produced in the wake of Simpson’s death)
“a headache in the form of a movie…. It’s a drug designed for people who have
done every drug and now want to be jet-propelled into numbness. ‘Con Air’ may be
the closest thing yet to pure action-thriller pornography. Ultimately there’s
nothing to it but thrust.”
Gleiberman, in his best “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” era Pauline Kael-style prose,
has effectively summed up the Simpson/Bruckheimer oeuvre. Their films are
nothing but money shots, each scene is designed and performed to the hilt and
limits of reality and are meant to be moments of release, be it through
explosions or gunfights. Their pictures are designed as perpetual motion
machines. The incessant movement is necessary for two reasons: 1) audiences do
seem to enjoy fast-paced entertainment and 2) if the plots did slow down, their
rickety natures would be quite lucid to even the dimmest member of the audience.
Of course, there’s nothing inherently wrong with pictures that
want to move and provide the crowds with excitement, so many critics refuse to
analyze the film based on their own merits. “The Rock” or “Con Air” are not
trying to be “My Dinner With Andre,” they are trying to be fun action pictures
and should be judged as such. It is a mistake many critics make in reviewing any
mainstream pictures. Critics are looking at these movies as texts and looking
for an intrinsic meaning. Scholars like Tony Bennett would dispute this, and
doing so is necessary for assessing Simpson/Bruckheimer pictures.
In “Melodrama and Meaning,” Barbara Klinger’s evaluation of the films of
Douglas Sirk, she writes: “textual meanings are negotiated by external agencies,
whether they be academic modes of interpretation, practices of the film
industry, or film reviews set within a particular historical landscape.”
What Klinger is arguing, and what is at the heart of assessing Simpson/Bruckheimer films, is that films or any sort of cultural texts have no basic meaning. Any meaning a film takes on is defined and filtered through the engines of popular culture and society. When looking at a Simpson/Bruckheimer movie, there is no basic meaning behind their films. Those looking for insight into the plight of the working class are not going to find it in “Flashdance,” is the long and short of it. What one must look at in a Simpson/Bruckheimer film is their structure; the meaning both culturally and cinematically arises from how well they present their formula. With that in mind, let us turn to how Simpson and Bruckheimer organize and make their movies.
The High Concept
The three-act film structure is nothing new in Hollywood
filmmaking. It is the most-oft used screenplay structure, and has been revised
and altered innumerable times. Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer certainly
adhere to the three act structure, but their three act style was something
relatively new when they put forth the idea of the “high concept”
A high concept film is one that can be summed up in a few
sentences. For example, “Passenger 57” could be sold as “’Die Hard’” on a
plane.” The Hollywood high concept film came into being when “Jaws” went onto do
unprecedented success. With “Jaws” executives saw a film that would later be
dubbed a “tentpole” picture. It was a movie with a lot of action, solid story,
and cutting edge effects. A few years later when “Star Wars” dropped on an
unsuspecting public, the contemporary blockbuster had become fully developed.
Yet those films also retained character growth and good writing. It was Simpson
and Bruckheimer who would distill Hollywood filmmaking to it elementals.
As producer Lynda Obst says of the Simpson/Bruckheimer style: “He
(Don) did create this. He created the three-act structure we all use the one
that Robert McKee and Syd Field take credit for. Don made up this logarithm.
There is the hot first act, with an exciting incident, and the second act with
the crisis, and the third act with the triumphant moment and the redemption and
the freeze frame ending. Don created the framework for the high concept
So we have some proof that Don Simpson pioneered the contemporary
Hollywood blockbuster structure, but what was in that structure that made their
films so successful? It is, I think, a combination of technology and music video
style, music itself, basic character development (which includes a laundry list
of character types such the stern/absent father figure and maverick hero), off
beat, sometimes risky casting choices, and a basic understanding of the cultural
The Simpson and Bruckheimer films are filled with the latest in
military technology (think of “Top Gun” and its use of brand new fighter jets or
“The Rock” in which a Humvee is smashed to bits), and special effects
technology. But more so than the technology on the screen is the technology
behind the screen.
A Film Comment article about how commercial and video
technology has influenced filmmaking theorizes, quite astutely, that the huge
budgets of commercials and by extension Hollywood movies allow “shooting
ratios…to maximize the ability to achieve perfection.” On top of that, Simpson
and Bruckheimer use such technologies to utilize enormous coverage of even
standard shots. The best example of this is the scene in “The Rock” when Sean
Connery is reunited with his daughter. What should be a quiet scene of a father
and daughter meeting is instead feverishly paced with sweeping camera moves and
multiple cuts. It, in effect, turns every scene into a climax, one of the keys
of a Simpson/Bruckheimer production.
As far as borrowing the technology of music videos and creating a
climax for every scene, one need not look further than the first blockbuster
Simpson/Bruckheimer production, “Flashdance.” Essentially a 90-minute video
complete with lots of girls in wet T-shirts and lots of factories that seem to
manufacture only sparks and big long steel rods, “Flashdance” looks as if it
were shot on an abandoned Duran Duran set.
The music video was all about flash and selling an image. What
Simpson and Bruckheimer sold in their films was all surface and image-cool boys
with cool toys meeting hot chicks and then blowing junk up. It was a perfect
recipe for the go-go 80’s.
Simpson and Bruckheimer were the first producers to realize that
MTV would be a valuable tool for marketing. And marketing is a valuable part of
the Simpson/Bruckheimer structure.
What Simpson and Bruckheimer did with MTV was use it as a
commercial force to get the word out about their movies. It was a giant feedback
loop. Simpson and Bruckheimer would borrow plenty of music video style, which in
turn made it easier to advertise their films on MTV, which in turn let the music
video style continue to evolve and develop new techniques for their pictures.
More so than that, music videos were an ideal vehicle to sell songs from a
Charles Fleming writes that Simpson and Bruckheimer were the first
to exploit MTV’s power. Their early films all feature songs that
were destined to chart on the top 40 thanks to exposure on MTV. By packing
their films full of marketable songs, it was easier to get the word out
to the MTV audience. It was, in effect, extremely cheap advertising. And
nearly every Simpson/Bruckheimer productions features a moment where the
action slows down to focus on a montage of the main characters being put
on display while the hit single from the soundtrack blares. It was a strategy
that worked with “Flashdance” helped to make “Dangerous
Minds” a huge hit, and made “Coyote Ugly” a defacto
sequel to “Flashdance.” It is quite apparent that Bruckheimer
understood the power of a soundtrack as an integral part of the formula,
when a movie like “Con Air” has a touching love theme by Trisha
Yearwood and Leann Rimes. Character Types and Casting: If
there is one thing that Simpsonand Bruckheimer are masters at, it is their
casting. They successfully cast Nicolas Cage as an action hero in both
“The Rock” and “Con Air,” have put untested talent
into huge box office successes (such as Will Smith and Martin Lawrence
in “Bad Boys”), and put off beat character actors into big-budget
environs they are not quite accustomed to. Actors like Billy Bob Thornton,
Steve Buscemi, Phillip Baker Hall, John Cusack, and Ving Rhames are all
actors used to performing in character driven pieces and instead are cast
action heroes or comic relief. They bring an aura of respectability to
the Simpson/Bruckheimer films, and help to flesh out less than developed
The roles they inhabit are also fit very easily into specific
types that are common to nearly every Simpson and Bruckheimer production.
The most common Simpson and Bruckheimer character type, is the
maverick hero. In the early 80’s when Simpson and Bruckheimer were in their
salad days was the start of the Reagan era, an era in which there would be an
enormous backlash (amply detailed by Susan Faludi in her book of the same name)
to the strides of feminism and equal rights. This backlash in many ways seemed
to place the middle class white male in opposition to forces of government
interference with social ills as well as in opposition to political correctness.
While this image of the lonely white guy would take full fruition in the 1990’s
with films like “American Beauty” Simpson and Bruckheimer were fashioning male
characters whose world views were decidedly old fashioned.
The hero of “Top Gun,” the aptly named Maverick (Tom Cruise) was a
devil may care pilot whose strict moral code ran counter to the strides of the
counterculture. He was a distinctly American creature-an individual who worked
within the system and bent the system to cater to his wills.
This image of the little boy lost who finds his way and himself
through some rigorous mission or challenge is constantly repeated throughout the
Simpson/Bruckheimer canon. Even when the character is female as in “Dangerous
Minds” or “Coyote Ugly” she is still a being whose beliefs in justice and
righteousness are blocked at all sides by a society and (another common
character type in Simpson/Bruckheimer movies) a domineering father figure. In
“Top Gun” Maverick must live up to the looming spectre of his heroic father. In
“The Rock” Nicolas Cage’s Stanley Goodspeed must learn from his mentor/father
figure Sean Connery, who teaches him such traditionally male things as how to
fight and adhere to many common masculine codes. In “Pearl Harbor” all the
characters are children who either do not have fathers or the fathers they do
have are absentee, abusive louts.
While these character types are not unique to film, they are
integral to the structure of a Simpson/Bruckheimer picture.
Cultural Trends and Simpson/Bruckheimer Films: For
all of explosions and cool technologies on display Simpson/Bruckheimer movies,
the most common aspect of their most successful films is their unerring eye for
cultural trends. Obviously, much of their success is sheer luck, but in their
most ridiculously successful films (“Top Gun,” “The Rock,” “Remember the
Titans,” “Beverly Hills Cop,” and “Crimson Tide”) the movies have had its hand
on the pulse of the culture like no other popular entertainments.
“Top Gun” came out in an era of military jingoism and enormous
military spending. It was cool to be in the military and the presentation of
flying planes was presented like a high-end video game. Film critic John
Wrathall dubbed “Top Gun” an “ unadulterated paen to the products of the Navy
Fighter Weapons School.”
Even “Flashdance” and “Coyote Ugly,” with their tons of jiggle and
T & A, taps into the idea of the Madonna/Whore, that ladies can be strippers
and yet still be cooing innocents.
Of course, Simpson and Bruckheimer have failed, and when they do,
the bellyflop is usually spectacular. “Days of Thunder” (or “Top Gun 2: Cars
Instead of Planes”) came out in early 1990, when America was sliding towards
economic depression. The movie bombed precisely because “Top Gun” style
pyrotechnics were falling by the wayside as audiences tired of big, flashy empty
entertainments. Instead audiences flocked to relatively normal, blue-class
heroes like Bruce Willis in the “Die Hard” films. And “Gone in 60 Seconds” was a
movie that seemed to adhere to the Simpson/Bruckheimer formula of lots of speed,
good casting, and hyper masculinity. Instead the movie tried to be some kind of
weird family values piece, instead of the comic book it truly is.
So when Simpson/Bruckheimer’s fortunes began to take a downturn in
the early 90’s, they rejiggered their formula. James M. Welsh’s insightful
piece, “Action Films: the Serious, the Ironic, and the Post-Modern,” essentially
sums up in its title what Simpson and Bruckheimer began doing with their films
after the Quentin Tarantino explosion in the early 90’s. They began to adopt a
cynical detachment. Their films were snarky, ironic, satiric pieces all dressed
up to look like a big-budget action flick. It is quite brilliant, really. It
allows for an element of subversion in a decidedly non-subversive genre. Simpson
and Bruckheimer went so far to hire Tarantino to do a script polish on both
“Crimson Tide” and “The Rock,” to give the film a type of credibility their
films had been sorely lacking. Now those who slammed them for crafting hollow,
dunderheaded action pics, could at least take comfort in the fact that there was
an element in their pictures that if did not necessarily promise depth, promised
at leastwittier scripts.
Even Simpson and Bruckheimer’s
typical uber-patriotism was replaced with a darker view of the government.
In the 80’s at the height of their success, the military was viewed
as a force of good against unseemly evils (usually Russians), now in the
90’s they made the government the enemy. As cynicism toward the
military grew, in light of the Gulf War, Tailhook scandal, and a president
who represented the views of the 60’s counterculture, Simpson and
Bruckheimer developed scripts like “Crimson Tide” and “The
Rock” where the liars and enemies were in the government and military,
not the Communists. Even the Russian menace in “Crimson Tide”
takes the backseat to the machinations of a tyrannical submarine captain.
There are also countless other cultural factors atwork with the
90’s films of Simpson and Bruckheimer. Factors such as African-American heroes
(in “Bad Boys,” “Remember the Titans,” and “Dangerous Minds”) and female
heroines such as the ones in “Coyote Ugly,” all were contributors to the renewed
success of Simpson and Bruckheimer. The genius of the Simpson and Bruckheimer,
though, is that even though these minority characters are represented as heroes,
they still conform to traditional stereotypes. The African-American heroes still
mug and ham it up humorously (to call Martin Lawrence a contemporary Sambo is
not far off the mark), and the female characters are still sexy lost children
who simply the need the guiding hand of a man. It is a brilliant reworking of
their traditional formulas that led to some enormous financial
So what does this structural illustration of Simpson and
Bruckheimer’s films prove?
For starters it demonstrates that no other producers outside of
maybe Roger Corman, Troma Team, and AIP have so adhered to an assembly line
mentality quite as successfully. And more so than that, the Simpson and
Bruckheimer high concept formula truly revolutionized Hollywood
Producers like Joel Silver now borrow many of their techniques and
casting theories (for example Silver’s latest, “Swordfish” was a
Simpson/Bruckheimer movie with a different production team attached). Their
knack for soundtracks has also spawned an entire industry that revolves around
getting a soundtrack produced and marketed even before a movie is
A lot of people will criticize Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer for their movies, which can rightfully be called shallow and violent, but one thing is certain and that is that their knack for producing, crafting, and marketing movies is unparalleled in Hollywood history. Simpson and Bruckheimer revolutionized the moviemaking industry. Whether that is a good or bad thing, whether or not it has dumbed down cinema, it still remains a remarkable thing.
Faludi, Susan. “Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women.” Doubleday Books, New York, 1991.
Fleming, Charles. “High Concept: Don Simpson and the Hollywood
Culture of Excess.” Doubleday Books, New York, 1998.
Gleiberman, Owen. “Con Air,” Entertainment Weekly, June 13, 1997.
Klinger, Barbara. “Melodrama and Meaning: History, Culture, and the Films of Douglas Sirk.” Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 1994.
Welsh, James M. “Action Films: The Serious, the Ironic, the Postmodern.” Excerpted from Film Genre 2000, edited by Wheeler Winston Dixon.
Wrathall, John. “The Rock,” Sight & Sound, August 1996.
“Bad Boys,” dir. Michael Bay, Columbia Pictures, 1995.
“Beverly Hills Cop,” dir. Martin Brest, Paramount Pictures, 1984.
“Con Air,” dir. Simon West, Touchstone Pictures, 1997.
“Coyote Ugly,” dir. David McNally, Touchstone Pictures, 2000.
“Crimson Tide,” dir. Tony Scott, Touchstone Pictures, 1995.
“Dangerous Minds,” dir. John N. Smith, Touchstone Pictures, 1995.
“Days of Thunder,” dir. Tony Scott, Paramount Pictures, 1990.
“Flashdance,” dir. Adrian Lyne, Paramount Pictures, 1983.
“Gone in 60 Seconds,” dir. Dominic Sena, Touchstone Pictures, 2000.
“The Rock,” dir. Michael Bay, Touchstone Pictures, 1996.
“Top Gun,” dir. Tony Scott, Paramount Pictures, 1986.