A movie star vanity project going down in flames is usually met with open delight from press and critics alike. Even fans of the star can nurse secret disappointment that they were failed on this occasion. But, never mind, soon they will return to something safe and certain. Sometimes the vehicle is the result of a major star attaching themselves to a project where they are handed too much creative control, where costs spiral and everyone ends up wet (Waterworld, The Postman, Ishtar). In other cases, they bring to screen a passion project that is met with derision (Battlefield Earth). Hudson Hawk was a character created by Bruce Willis, about whom Willis suddenly had the post-Die Hard clout to make a feature.
But, rather than bowing down in veneration towards its star, Hawk relentlessly deconstructs and mocks its lead. This is the wise-cracking Bruce Willis of Moonlighting, slightly disbelieving of his new status as an action icon, let loose in a toy box with a bag full of cash. Chaperoned by Joel Silver, never one to rein in excess, the budget ballooned along with the constantly under-revision script. Ironically, the chastening effect of the film’s failure (this, and another picture Willis saw as a chance to increase his acting credibility where the changes he ushered in were widely seen as contributing to its failure; Bonfire of the Vanities) resulted in its star leaving behind his anarchic sense of humour (something that also fed into the first Die Hard) and concentrating on sombre, smirk-free fare. Far more in line with what one might have expected of someone with a lack of self-awareness and an unchecked ego. Bruce became boring, basically.
Maybe Willis always caused difficulties on his sets; notoriously restrained Kevin Smith gave him short shrift following comedy classic Cop Out. Antoine Fuqua reportedly found him such a pain he said he’d never work with him again. Richard E Grant documented the disastrous production of Hawk in his With Nails memoir. Reports at the time suggested Willis’ bald spot had been touched up by hand, frame-by-frame. On the other hand, Bruno shows up on Letterman regularly and seems like a fun, self-deprecating guy. Who knows, it’s Hollywood. If two people clash there, invariably both have large egos. Much about his instincts for Hawk cannot be faulted; he brought on Steven E de Souza (Die Hard), then Daniel Walters (Heathers). Although the latter was a result of enlisting director Michael Lehmann, which means Bruce must have seen an enjoyed Heathers. Likewise, Richard E Grant’s casting suggests an awareness of Withnail & I; Willis may be a right-leaning curmudgeon, but he clearly knew what was funny (and let’s not forget he was key to Moonlighting’s success).
Critics, and the general public, disagreed with this. Hawk bombed; it didn’t satisfy as an action movie (which was how it was misleadingly promoted) and the comedy was too anarchic, too cartoonish and unconcerned with sticking to formula. How dare characters suddenly break into song, acknowledge the camera, question plot logic? It was as if the Marx Brothers had been let loose on the set of Die Hard. Of such failures, cult movies are made. It’s rare that you’ll find discussion on the internet of the film without coming across unbridled adoration for it.
But the legacy for those involved was one of difficulty in getting the stink off. Lehmann and Walters had shone so brightly with Heathers, but the former ended up steering lacklustre big screen comedies before finding a current niche in TV (including True Blood, Californication and Dexter). Walters has directed a couple of times, and Sex and Death 101 displayed the same acid humour as Heathers, but there can be little doubt that Hawk adversely affected their careers. Ironically, Arnie would come unstuck with a more calculated piece of post-modern deconstruction a few years later. Last Action Hero attempted to be a commentary on the action genre, but made a number of fundamental mistakes; the director was unable to tonally distinguish between the parodic and the “straight” worlds, the script wanted to be clever but couldn’t escape the shackles of formula structuring. And the child actor stank. Action Hero double-thought itself into oblivion. Hawk, in contrast, did exactly as it saw fit. For better or worse. In my view, consistently for better. A few years earlier, John Carpenter’s Big Trouble in Little China also mocked action heroics. It also flopped, but it wasn’t nearly as expensive as the other two would be.
The assembled cast is suitably divergent in backgrounds and styles. Grant has been noted; his cachet was on the rise at the time as more and more people discovered Withnail & I, all of whom considered themselves in on a private joke. Around this time he was a cult actor, and it seems entirely appropriate that he ended up in a cult blockbuster. A couple of years later, Grant’s mannered vibrancy had worn thin although I’d maintain that much of that is to do with directors not knowing how to get the best out of him (as his founder, Bruce Robinson clearly did).
Sandra Bernhard came from stand-up, and the two (outrageously indiscreet luvvies, both) bonded off screen and on. In contrast, the down-to-earth Danny Aiello was one of Bruce’s real life buddies; at the time, I’ll admit he seemed a bit out of place, as if he was a last minute replacement (he wasn’t). He also seemed to be in every other film you watched during that period. Now, it’s clear that he brought essential warmth to the main relationships; which may sound redundant given the film’s rule breaking remit, but you still need to touch some bases.
Andie McDowell replaced Maruschka Detmers, who in turn had replaced Isabella Rossellini. I’ve never been McDowell’s biggest fan, to the extent that there are several films where you’d swear the leading man went off with the wrong lady (Green Card, Four Weddings and a Funeral, even Sex, Lies and Videotape), but she deserves much credit in this for her deadpan playing, comic timing, and dolphin impressions.
Anna: I feel like a dolphin who's never tasted melted snow. What does the color blue taste like? Bobo knows? Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha! I must speak with the dolphins now. Eeeee-eeee-eee-eeeeeee!
Probably my favourite cast member (and from the evidence of the DVD commentary, it sounds like he was tops with Lehmann) is veteran James Coburn. Lehmann acknowledges the debt the film owes to Coburn’s ‘60s persona (Our Man Flint and The President’s Analyst in particular, with the passcode on Hawk’s electronic cuffs quoting Flint). Coburn’s screen presence during the ‘80s had been patchy, having suffered (and professed to have cured himself of) rheumatoid arthritis. Coburn has a wonderful, inviting screen presence, and his toothy grin at times seems to suggest genuine delight in the witty lines Waters gives him.
George Kaplan: The last time you saw me, I was bald, with a beard and no mustache, and I had a different nose. So if you don't recognize me, I won't be offended.
Hudson Hawk: My high school science teacher?
George Kaplan, of course, references the man Cary Grant is mistaken for in North By Northwest. Also appearing are Donald Burton as a vicious butler (Alfred) and David Caruso in a pre-fame role as Kit Kat, one of Kaplan’s CIA team. Frank Stallone, Sly’s brother plays one of the Mario brothers (just one of the film’s overt Nintendo references; these were cut down, but represent a running gag as to how out of touch Hawk is with the modern world).
The ostensible plot sees Hawk pressed back into service to purloin works of art created by Leonardo Da Vinci; these contain the key to a device that will convert lead into gold. That’s all you really need to know, except that the Mayflowers (Grant and Bernhard) are out to get it along with the CIA and the Vatican. The prologue shows Da Vinci hiding the secret to his device (while deciding what to do about his Mona Lisa portrait – his model has a ghastly smile, of course); the voice over comes from William Conrad, known for Rocky and Bullwinkle (as a British viewer I was unaware of this, although readily able to appreciate Conrad’s distinctive delivery).
The introduction of Willis, exiting prison, sets up a number of elements that undermine his presumed status as an action star. While we see him get one-up on his parole officer, his self-conscious badinage with Aiello’s Tommy “Five-Tone” has homo-erotic undertones, underscored by the jabs at each other’s sexuality. Hawk has a preference for “unmasculine European coffee” (Cappuccinos were not as widely known at the time, and there was even talk of whether this should be changed as the audience wouldn’t get it; hard to believe today). This sets the tone for Hawk, who gets his fair share of “heroic” moments, but is consistently undermined and beaten and bested by other characters. He is even knocked out by a model winged horse, just as he is extoling his heroic virtues (“Because danger, doc, is my middle na…”). He and Tommy are paralysed, then “modelled” displaying effete hand positions. He is roundly mocked (by heroes and villains alike) for not realising that Anna is a nun.
But, crucially, he is the inimitable Bruce Willis who we knew and loved as David Addison in Moonlighting. In a classic set piece, he flies out of the back of an ambulance on Brooklyn Bridge, clinging to a gurney. He catches a discarded cigarette and tosses it away in disgust (“Menthol?!) before giving a bemused look as a bimbo in a sports car asks, “Hey, mister, are you going to die?”
The comedy in Hudson Hawk is scattershot, both base and highbrow, at times within the same sequence of gags. I mentioned The Marx Brothers, but a more accurate reference point would be The Three Stooges (curiously, also a touchstone of action star and current persona non grata Mel Gibson) for the sight gags, and the Road… movies (Hope and Crosby) for the Willis/Aiello chemistry.
As a result we go from incredibly lowbrow culture gags (“That’s a lot of Wong numbers” notes a security guard, leafing through the telephone directory), to similar but more surreal (an Italian security guard empties spaghetti from his thermos flask, Hawk orders a dish with perfect Italian pronunciation then adds, “Oh, and bring me a bottle of ketchup, will ya?” Copious fat gags (“Big Stan”) nudge next to those teetering on the surreal (the Pope’s TV reception acting up, so he can’t watch Mr Ed in peace). Hawk lands on the top of a lamp post, before falling backwards into a truck full of chickens. As it careers around a corner he is ejected and lands, perfectly seated, at dinner with Anna. Coughing, feathers fly out of his mouth. Either you’re on board with the tone or you’re not. There is little middleground. On the commentary track Walters suggested the feather-coughing was a beat to far (as he does later when a sprung spring noise is used for Alfred being hit with a tennis board. All I can say is, he’s wrong. The feathers are the perfect punchline to the sequence.
Unlike Coburn’s The President Analyst, there is no serious attempt at satire or commentary. As Kaplan plunges to his death, his last words are “MY PENSION!”Any spikey remarks are as absurdist as the flashing crucifix intercom that Anna (the nun) speaks into (“Catholic girls are scary!”).
Cardinal: Oh, the Pope warned me never to trust the CIA!
Darwin Mayflower introduces his intentions with “I’m the villain!” It’s a film that can be that flippant about its artifice. Yet Walters cannot just right gags, great lines flow from his pen (apologies if this was a de Souza).
Darwin Mayflower: I’ll torture you so slowly, you’ll think it’s a career.
As Lehmann also notes during his commentary, Hawk did the dog flying out of a window gag seven years before There’s Something About Mary. It also indulged cruelty to soft toys, namely Pokey (“Can you believe that kooky little elephant?”)
When all else fails, and the unlikeliness of the plot is exposed (Tommy’s escape from a fiery wreck) there’s nothing else to do but acknowledge it.
Hudson Hawk: Yeah, that’s probably what happened.
And tonally, once you’ve been introduced to the surrealistic tendencies, the sudden lurches into gore still come as a jolt; when the parole officer request his cut, Alfred slashes his throat open (“So much for his “cut”. Forgive my dry, British humour”). When Minerva takes Darwin literally and shoots Ig and Ook, Darwin exclaims, “God, Minerva! I was only joking!” before leading her on an impromptu waltz. There’s even a rape joke. It’s the kind of ramshackle, take-no-prisoners approach that recalls John Landis at his peak.
Back, briefly, to George Kaplan. Not only is Coburn’s performance a joy, his lines are solid gold. From quoting “the late, great” Karen Carpenter, to reminiscing about the heady days of the Cold War.
George Kaplan: Yes, I have always had a soft spot in my heart for Rome. I did my first bare-handed strangulation here. Communist politician.
Hudson Hawk: Why George, you big softie.
As noted, the musical numbers didn’t go down well. Lehmann notes that they debated how big to go with it (sung or given the full orchestral backing) but he was absolutely right with his choices. There’s an unfettered glee in the way that, as the “number” finishes, Hawk and Tommy are not even paying attention to their surroundings any more (they are supposed to be engaged in a robbery).
Dante Spinotti’s cinematography is gorgeous, although it’s never certain where he begins and originally contracted Jost Vacano (a frequent Verhoeven collaborator) ends. Then there are the jump cut scene transitions, which are a willful affront to narrative logic; Hawk falls from the roof of a building towards an awning, “landing” in a chair in front of the Mario brothers.
It is nearly 22 years since Hudson Hawk was released, and it seems unlikely that it will ever be fully rehabilitated as a neglected comic masterpiece. It has a dedicated cult following though, which may not seem like much given that any old crap can have an underswell of appreciation. I don’t know if Willis has ever spoken about the film, but he should embrace it to his bosom in the knowledge that other comedy flops that have been recognised as classics in the fullness of time (Duck Soup, Bringing Up Baby) and still more remain tantalizingly on the periphery of wider acclaim or acceptance. Yes, there are elements that don’t work, gags that fizzle and moments that are over-played, but Hudson Hawk is the most lovely of failures; one that reveals not an empty carcass, bereft of life, but a strange, unruly, crazed creature that just needs a little openness and understanding to appreciate.