The 26 greatest Jerry Bruckheimer productions
Jason Kempin/WireImage

The 26 greatest Jerry Bruckheimer productions

Two of Hollywood's favorite pastimes are comebacks and grave dancing. The town got to do both with Jerry Bruckheimer. Bruckheimer and his erstwhile partner, Don Simpson, were the hottest producers of the 1980s. They established the decade's style-over-substance template with "Flashdance," "Beverly Hills Cop," "Top Gun" and "Beverly Hills Cop II" and, behind the scenes, were the epitome of have-it-all, do-it-all excess (particularly Simpson). When they hit the wall with the underperforming "Days of Thunder" in 1990, their jealous rivals delighted in their misfortune. When they signed a performance-contingent deal with Disney in 1991 and then failed to make a movie for three years, everyone broke out their shovels. Then in 1995, they hired a couple of TV stars and transformed a troubled project called "Bad Boys" into a surprise hit, and by the end of the year, they had three box office smashes. Simpson didn't live to see "The Rock" break $100 million in 1996, but Bruckheimer took his second chance and turned himself into a film and TV mogul (the latter behind "CSI", "Cold Case" and "The Amazing Race"). Bruckheimer has constantly stated that he is in "the transportation business." On the 25th anniversary of his "Bad Boys"-fueled comeback, here are his 25 most memorable trips.

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26. "Coyote Ugly" (2000)

"Coyote Ugly" (2000)
Touchstone Pictures

Look… no one, save for director David McNally’s mother, probably thinks “Coyote Ugly” is a great movie. But screenwriter Gina Wendkos (“The Princess Diaries”) is good at this type of inspirational, girl-chases-dream narrative. And while it takes place in the same fantastical universe as “Cocktail”, where thirsty saloon patrons will happily wait on their drinks for five minutes while their bartenders put on a show behind or, in this case, on top of the bar, if you embrace the silliness you’ll have a fun time. This film launched the career of Ohio University’s Piper Perabo, and she strikes up a lively student-teacher chemistry with Maria Bello. Adam Garcia provides ample eye candy for the ladies, and John Goodman gets in on the bar dancing fun. It’s Bruckheimer’s PG-13 “Flashdance."

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25. "Days of Thunder" (1990)

"Days of Thunder" (1990)
Paramount Pictures

The making of “Days of Thunder” is far more interesting than the movie itself. The Simpson-Bruckheimer production, which reunited the duo with the “Top Gun” team of star Tom Cruise and director Tony Scott, was supposed to be the slam-dunk blockbuster of summer 1990. Paramount planted its flag on the all-important Memorial Day weekend and let its in-house, superstar producers, who’d recently signed a five-picture deal worth $300 million, take it from there. Nothing went as planned. The film barely made a June 27 release date and, unsurprisingly, failed to attract a majority of moviegoers who had zero interest in NASCAR. Even with the great Robert Towne (“Chinatown”) delivering rewrites on set, it’s an obvious rush job held together by Scott’s madman craftsmanship and Cruise’s cocksure charisma. And damn if that isn’t enough.

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24. "Gemini Man" (2019)

"Gemini Man" (2019)
Skydance Media

Conceived by writer Darren Lemke in 1997, this high-concept action film about an aging hitman being stalked by a younger version of himself was nearly made with just about every A-list male movie star in Hollywood. Harrison Ford, Denzel Washington, Kevin Costner, Brad Pitt, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Clint Eastwood are just a handful of the names that flirted with the project. It didn’t move forward until Skydance acquired the script from Disney in 2016, and it certainly didn’t hurt that Jerry Bruckheimer remained attached as a producer. Given his previous relationship with Will Smith, he got the film steaming ahead with three-time-Oscar-winner Ang Lee. Was it worth the wait? Lee’s insistence on shooting the entire movie at 120fps makes scenes shot on location look like greenscreen work. The script isn’t terribly involving, but the set pieces, particularly a motorcycle duel, are as good as it gets. 

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23. "Flashdance" (1983)

"Flashdance" (1983)
Paramount Pictures

Success has many fathers, and you can bet all six “Flashdance” producers — Don Simpson, Jerry Bruckheimer, Tom Jacobson, Lynda Obst, Peter Guber and Jon Peters — have claimed their share of credit over the years. While Obst should be considered the production’s MVP for having developed the concept and the script, the film is also notable as the first Simpson-Bruckheimer collaboration. This is the first movie to flaunt their style-over-substance ‘80s formula, right down to the hit-packed soundtrack. (Both Irene Cara’s “Flashdance… What a Feeling” and Michael Sembello’s “Maniac” topped the Billboard Hot 100.) As a movie, it’s a step back artistically for director Adrian Lyne, who’d just made the excellent “Foxes," but its rousing working-girl-makes-good narrative packed in audiences to the tune of $92 million domestic (making it the third-highest-grossing movie of 1983). So what if the critics largely abhorred it?

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22. "Beverly Hills Cop II" (1987)

"Beverly Hills Cop II" (1987)
Paramount Pictures

Oddly, if anyone needed a hit coming into this movie, it was Eddie Murphy. His bid to broaden his audience by making a PG-13 movie had resulted in a domestic gross equivalent to his breakout hit (“48 Hrs.”) and well short of “Beverly Hills Cop." Meanwhile, Simpson-Bruckheimer and their ace director, Tony Scott, soaring off the high of “Top Gun” and were dead-set on turning the crucial elements of Axel Foley’s first adventure all the way up to 11. In terms of production value, they deliver a visual and aural assault that makes the original look like a random episode of “Beretta”; as for the comedy, Murphy riffs up a storm, but the biggest laughs belong to Paul Reiser’s Det. Friedman and Gilbert Gottfried as a vituperative accountant. The movie’s still a tremendous amount of fun, but the emphasis is definitely on the action.

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21. "Armageddon" (1998)

"Armageddon" (1998)
Touchstone Pictures

1998 was the year of the killer meteor movie. Dreamworks and Mimi Leder kicked off the ELE fun in May with “Deep Impact," but when it came to blowing up the planet, all eyes were on Michael Bay and Jerry Bruckheimer. And, boy, did they deliver…a lot of movie. It’s important to remember that there didn’t used to be a constitutional amendment decreeing that all Hollywood event movies had to run a minimum of 140 minutes. Once upon a time, under two hours was not only fine, but it also was desirable. While “Armageddon” gets away with some of its bloat via wackadoodle performances from Steve Buscemi, Owen Wilson and Peter Stormare, it’s not the compulsively rewatchable save-the-world epic it should’ve been.

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20. "American Gigolo" (1980)

"American Gigolo" (1980)
Paramount Pictures

Paul Schrader punctures the smug exterior of Maverick and Cole Trickle in this curiously shallow portrait of a male prostitute who gets tangled up in the murder of a wealthy client. This is Richard Gere’s “Pretty Woman” in its way, though it plays a lot rougher, boasts a magnificent Giorgio Moroder/Blondie score and is competently shot. The Armani of it all is intoxicating, and Gere sets off mad sparks with Lauren Hutton, but Schrader’s insistence on turning every damn movie into a Bresson homage has never been more annoying. It’s such a strange movie. Bruckheimer’s style-conscious instincts probably made this film a hit, but Schrader had his producer’s aesthetic and worldview pegged going forward.

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19. "Con Air" (1997)

"Con Air" (1997)
Touchstone Pictures

American action movies were in an empty-calorie arms race in the 1990s. Big, dumb and fun was the order of the day; if a top-flight auteur found a way to smuggle meaning into the madness (e.g. John Woo and “Face/Off”), just pray it recouped. The premise of “Con Air” is reasonable enough: an air-bound prison transport gets hijacked by its badass passengers, and only a recently paroled good guy (Nicolas Cage) desperate to reunite with his wife and child can stop the plane from flying to a non-extradition country. But Bruckheimer, screenwriter Scott Rosenberg and director Simon West launch this yarn into the realm of pricey implausibility, concluding with a crash landing on the Las Vegas Strip. We’re not saying this is a bad thing. At all.

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18. "The Lone Ranger" (2013)

"The Lone Ranger" (2013)
Walt Disney Pictures

Whereas George Lucas and Steven Spielberg made their careers by paying homage to the escapist yarns of their youth, other filmmakers have thrown a considerable dent into theirs whilst chasing the same nostalgic high. Warren Beatty cost Disney a fortune with his underperforming comic-strip-brought-to-life “Dick Tracy," and Jerry Bruckheimer put a hurting on the Mouse House’s bottom line with this hugely expensive revival of Fran Striker and George W. Trendle’s heroic masked man. The film’s biggest misstep is giving Johnny Depp a Peter Sellers degree of leeway with his zany portrayal of Tonto. Fortunately, Gore Verbinski corrals a trio of hissable villains (Tom Wilkinson, William Fichtner and Barry Pepper) and wraps up the adventure with an exuberant railroad set piece worthy (albeit via CG) of Buster Keaton. Bruckheimer didn’t get the franchise he wanted, but his faith in Verbinski’s visual imagination was amply rewarded.

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17. "Cat People" (1982)

"Cat People" (1982)
Universal Pictures

Bruckheimer reteamed with his “American Gigolo” writer-director, Paul Schrader, for this erotic reworking of the Jacques Tourneur classic. Schrader honors the original by emphasizing mood over jump scares and showy makeup f/x (the latter being all the rage in the early ‘80s), which allows it to get under your skin and carry you over some dull patches. It’s heightened pulp, which is anathema to Bruckheimer’s crowd-pleasing taste, and it didn’t exactly set the box office ablaze; if he ever had auteurist ambitions, they probably died here. But he at least got a nifty Giorgio Moroder score and a fantastic David Bowie theme song out of it. 

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16. "Bad Boys for Life" (2019)

"Bad Boys for Life" (2019)
Columbia Pictures

Turns out you can separate the Bay from the “Bad Boys” and still wind up with a damn good action movie. The Belgian directing duo of Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah imbue this third go-round with detectives Marcus Burnett (Martin Lawrence) and Mike Lowrey (Will Smith) with the heart of the first installment while trying to keep pace with the wanton mayhem of the second. If they fall short of the anti-human highs of “Bad Boys II”… that’s fine, really, because the world needs only one “Bad Boys II." The screenplay credited to Chris Bremner, Peter Craig and Joe Carnahan (who was once attached to direct) scrapes together a smarter-than-necessary murder plot, but it’s window dressing for the Smith and Lawrence show, which still sizzles 25 years later. Given that this is now the highest-grossing film in the franchise, you best believe Bruckheimer and the Boys will be back.

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15. "March or Die" (1977)

"March or Die" (1977)
Associated General Films

Bruckheimer cut his teeth as a producer on a quartet of movies from filmmaker Dick Francis, and this post-WWI North African adventure offers an intermittently rousing preview of his more wholesome, post-Simpson actioners. Gene Hackman stars as the leader of a French Foreign Legion detachment tasked with providing armed cover to a group of archaeologists from the Louvre (led by Max von Sydow). The film takes flight whenever Terence Hill, as a former jewel thief, swings in to stick up for his fellow recruits or romance Catherine Deneuve. Like the Bruckheimer-produced “Black Hawk Down," it’s a paean to the camaraderie of combat; when all hell breaks loose, all that matters is the man next to you. With desert cinematography from frequent Kubrick collaborator John Alcott, a lush score by Maurice Jarre and a ferocious finale, it’s well worth your time.

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14. "Déjà Vu" (2006)

"Déjà Vu" (2006)
Touchstone Pictures

Denzel Washington stars as an ATF agent who works with an ultra-clandestine unit of the FBI to foil a terrorist attack that has already happened. There are two ways to make a good time travel movie, and Tony Scott takes the route that prioritizes thrills and emotion over hard logic (which, unless you’re making “Primer” is bound to fall apart along the way). Co-writer Terry Rossio screamed bloody murder over Scott’s blithe treatment of his “air-tight” script, but the film’s funky incorporation of the wormhole tech (which is a work-in-progress for all involved) gives it a rough tech feel reminiscent of Terry Gilliam. No one’s quite sure how all of this is going to work. Denzel’s infatuation with one of the victims (Paula Patton) is surprisingly touching and pays off nicely at the end, while the post-Katrina New Orleans setting feels more supportive than exploitative.

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13. "Farewell, My Lovely" (1975)

"Farewell, My Lovely" (1975)
ITC Films

Bruckheimer earned his first full-fledged producer credit on Dick Richards’ “Chinatown”-influenced revisit of Raymond Chandler’s finest Philip Marlowe mystery. Though it qualifies as neo-noir in its flaunting of nudity and R-rated violence (e.g. big-screen bruiser Jack O'Halloran repeatedly bashes a henchman’s face into a closed door), its cynicism is all Chandler. With its omnipresent voiceover (courtesy of star Robert Mitchum, so who’s complaining) and hard-boiled banter, it feels forever on the verge of turning into a “Police Squad!” episode. But that’s part of the fun. They don’t make ‘em like this anymore (and they shattered the mold with Mitchum), so settle in and enjoy a well-told crime flick shot by John A. Alonzo (“Chinatown), designed by Dean Tavoularis) and scored by David Shire (“All the President’s Men”).

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12. "The Rock" (1996)

"The Rock" (1996)
Hollywood Pictures

In which Michael Bay gets a budget and damn near destroys San Francisco. Simpson died of “heart failure caused by combined drug intoxication” five months before the release of “The Rock," which marked the end of a full-throttle style of Hollywood filmmaking. At least he went out on a film with a line that embodies his spiritual outlook on life: “Losers always whine about their best. Winners go home and f*** the prom queen.” “The Rock” was Bruckheimer’s first $100 million domestic grosser since “Beverly Hills Cop II”; it also established Bay as his new staff ace over Tony Scott, who would make two more films with the producer but never again hit the culture-molding heights of “Top Gun."

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11. "National Treasure" (2004)

"National Treasure" (2004)
Walt Disney Pictures

This thoroughly enjoyable blockbuster is just a couple of spunky kids short of being an old-school Disney adventure. It plays fast and loose with the historical record, but in a way that’ll leave young viewers eager to know the real stories behind the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the Revolutionary War and, of course, the Freemasons. In the meantime, the Jim Kouf/Cormac Wibberley/Marianne Wibberley screenplay works two levels of intrigue: one that will keep children engaged and one that pays off for parents who paid attention in history class. Director Jon Turteltaub keeps the plates spinning fairly effortlessly, while Nicolas Cage, Diane Kruger and Justin Bartha bicker and brainstorm with aplomb. Throw in the invaluable Sean Bean as the baddie, and you’ve got a classic Bruckheimer crowd pleaser. 

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10. "Bad Boys" (1995)

"Bad Boys" (1995)
Columbia Pictures

Three years into the Clinton Era, audiences weren’t exactly clamoring for a return to the wretched excess glory days of ‘80s action blockbusters, but Simpson and Bruckheimer had three aces in the hole: Will Smith, Martin Lawrence and an upstart music video/commercial director named Michael Bay. Though Smith and Lawrence were both coming off long-running sitcoms, they were completely unproven as movie stars. That changed in the opening scene, where the pair bickers their way through an attempted carjacking. Add in Bay making his reported $23 million budget look like $100 million (shooting in the glitzy confines of Miami certainly helps), and you’ve got a swaggering action-comedy smash. Now try to imagine the initial iteration of this movie, which was developed for “SNL” vets Dana Carvey and Jon Lovitz.

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9. Gore Verbinski's "Pirates of the Caribbean" Trilogy (2003 - 2007)

Gore Verbinski's "Pirates of the Caribbean" Trilogy (2003 - 2007)
Walt Disney Pictures

There was a time, children, when Disney’s decision to make movies based on theme park rides was considered the nadir of studio creativity . And had the Mouse House entrusted this nascent franchise to, say, Rob Marshall, this filmmaking strategy might’ve been dead on arrival (like, say, Rob Marshall’s “Nine”). But Bruckheimer had to go and pair “Aladdin” screenwriters Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio with the gifted Gore Verbinski, which resulted in a surprisingly sharp and thrilling event film that has thus far spawned five sequels (with a sixth on the way, coronavirus willing). Johnny Depp’s Keith Richards-ian portrayal of Captain Jack Sparrow gave the four-quadrant film an uncommonly boozy kick, but its rollicking pace and inventively conceived-and-staged set pieces are Verbinski at his explosively imaginative best. Though the next two movies got bigger and darker and, sadly, more bloated narratively, Verbinski’s visual playfulness at least kept them engaging. When Verbinski moved on, Bruckheimer and Disney handed the wheel over to Rob Marshall, which yielded Rob Marshall results. 

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8. "Enemy of the State" (1998)

"Enemy of the State" (1998)
Touchstone Pictures

This high-octane, smarter-than-average action-thriller from Bruckheimer and Tony Scott stars Will Smith as a labor lawyer who gets caught up in the murder of a U.S. congressman over a piece of counterintelligence legislation that would violate the privacy of U.S. citizens. (This was two years before 9/11.) To clear his name, Smith seeks the assistance of an hyper-paranoid surveillance expert played by Gene Hackman, who pays canny homage to his character from “The Conversation." Scott deftly balances the espionage elements with the obligatory smash-‘em-up set pieces. Add in a first-rate supporting ensemble of Regina King, Jon Voight, Loren Dean, Gabriel Byrne and Scott Caan, and you’ve got an immensely pleasurable blockbuster that earns every minute of its two-hour-plus runtime.

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7. "Bad Boys II" (2003)

"Bad Boys II" (2003)
Columbia Pictures

After a brief flirtation with respectability, Michael Bay followed up the PG-13 “Pearl Harbor” with this eight-years-late “Bad Boys” sequel that has as much to do with “Grand Theft Auto: Vice City” as the first film. This is the kind of movie where our ostensible heroes initiate a gun battle on a civilian-thronged road (with considerable collateral damage, but, to be fair, no one you know), and, in one how-did-this-get-past-the-scripting-stage sequence, ogle a big-breasted corpse in a morgue. The reverence of “Pearl Harbor” must’ve really chafed Bay, because this movie has zero regard for human life. Fortunately, it places a high premium on the viewers’ enjoyment, so if you swallow its mega-budget nihilism, you’re in for the wildest of rides. You may need to chase it with an emergency viewing of “E.T.," but it’s worth it.

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6. "Top Gun" (1986)

"Top Gun" (1986)
Paramount Pictures

The platonic ideal of a Don Simpson-Jerry Bruckheimer production: The style is so dazzlingly propulsive, and the star (Tom Cruise) is so blazingly charismatic, that you don’t care the plot is formulaic to the point of parody. While the involvement of the U.S. Navy forced the filmmakers to cut elements that might’ve cast the military branch in a negative light, this access did allow director Tony Scott to shoot some of the most spectacular aerial sequences ever put to film. Everything about this movie hums with outrageous confidence: Cruise’s smirking sex appeal, Harold Faltermeyer’s synth-and-electric-guitar score, the nine-times platinum soundtrack powered by two Giorgio Moroder-Tom Whitlock classics (“Danger Zone” and the Oscar-winning “Take My Breath Away”). You may loathe the film’s politics or lack of substance, but resistance is futile when Cruise, Scott, Simpson and Bruckheimer are at the top of their crowd-pleasing game.

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5. "The Ref" (1994)

"The Ref" (1994)
Touchstone Pictures

The chain-smoking, motor-mouthed vitriol of Denis Leary took MTV and the comedy world by storm in the early 1990s, which meant the studios had to get in on the action somehow. Following toe-dip cameos in “Who’s the Man?” and “Demolition Man," Leary teamed with his MTV cohort Ted Demme to topline this Simpson-Bruckheimer-produced black comedy about a thief who hides out in a viciously contentious household over Christmas Eve. A bomb upon release in 1994, this atypical Simpson-Bruckheimer joint has become a cult Yuletide classic spiked with deliciously acerbic banter from Leary, Judy Davis and, cringe, Kevin Spacey. This was Bruckheimer’s first producing credit since the disappointment of “Days of Thunder," and there was talk at the time that he’d lost his hit-maker touch.

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4. "Crimson Tide" (1995)

"Crimson Tide" (1995)
Hollywood Pictures

This critically and commercially successful submarine thriller top-lined by Oscar winners Denzel Washington and Gene Hackman hit theaters a month after “Bad Boys” and put the industry on notice that Simpson and Bruckheimer were back and had their sights trained on greater glory. This was the second production under their Disney deal (after “The Ref”), and, with its literate screenplay (punched up by Quentin Tarantino), it signaled a newfound seriousness: In today’s expanded Best Picture field, “Crimson Tide” would’ve been an Oscar contender. Was this the start of a smarter, more sophisticated Simpson-Bruckheimer phase? Not really. But it is the best film they made as a duo, and in the running for greatest submarine movie of all time. It bears a proud name. Very proud. 

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3. "Beverly Hills Cop" (1984)

"Beverly Hills Cop" (1984)
Paramount Pictures

Based on an idea by Don Simpson, this fish-out-of-water smash — the top grossing film of 1984; yes, it made more than “Ghostbusters” — went through different permutations before getting greenlit as an Eddie Murphy vehicle. The producers first offered the role to Mickey Rourke, who eventually passed due to production delays. Sylvester Stallone, arguably the biggest movie star on the planet, was next up, and he tailored Daniel Petrie Jr.’s action-comedy screenplay to his humorless, Rambo-esque sensibilities. (He rechristened the protagonist Axel Cobretti, a fierce moniker that would resurface in 1986’s “Cobra”). When Sly’s take sailed over budget, Paramount paired director Martin Brest with its newly minted in-house star and wound up with one of the most tightly constructed, eminently rewatchable blockbusters of all time. 

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2. "Black Hawk Down" (2001)

"Black Hawk Down" (2001)
Revolution Studios

2001 was all about war for Jerry Bruckheimer, but only this Ridley Scott-directed adaptation of Mark Bowden’s bestseller about the U.S. military’s botched raid on Mogadishu, Somalia had a shot at one industry honor that had long eluded the power producer: a Best Picture nomination (Michael Bay’s “Pearl Harbor” was strictly a commercial play). It should’ve happened, but Scott’s concussive portrayal of the protracted firefight, combined with an absence of the conventional character development that made the brutality of “Saving Private Ryan” palatable, might’ve been too much for some Academy members. Oscars notwithstanding, “Black Hawk Down” is a crucially unsentimental depiction of modern combat and straight-up one of the finest war films ever made.

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1. "Thief" 1981)

"Thief" 1981)
Mann/Caan Productions

Michael Mann’s first theatrical feature set the style and narrative template for the filmmaker going forward: James Caan stars as a professional thief eager to walk away from a life of crime and start a family. To do so, he needs to pull off one last job, which, of course, goes haywire in ways he couldn’t possibly expect. Mann’s aesthetic preference for gleaming surfaces and ruminative music (provided here by Tangerine Dream) is in evidence here as is his fatalistic plotting. Though the film performed solidly at the box office, Bruckheimer never worked with Mann again and, aside from the critically reviled “Thief of Hearts," avoided making films in this chilly emotional register. Mann thrived, which makes this Bruckheimer's greatest gift to cinema.

Jeremy Smith is a freelance entertainment writer and the author of "George Clooney: Anatomy of an Actor". His second book, "When It Was Cool", is due out in 2021.

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