Bruce Willis’ infamous megaflop may have been greeted with a collective “whuh?”, but it rather rules as a movie.
In the 30 years since it made its infamous debut, there have been bigger critical and commercial catastrophes unleashed upon multiplexes than Hudson Hawk (1991). And yet, while most of those disasters have been duly forgotten, it continues to loom large as the ultimate Hollywood cautionary tale of what can happen when a performer riding the absolute peak of their cultural ascendancy is given the chance to make literally anything that they want and it turns out to be something that evidently no one else wanted.
Even in an industry where ego and self-indulgence are not exactly rare, the stories that emerged about its chaotic production and catastrophic reception were so jaw-dropping that if someone encountered them without knowing that the film existed would dismiss them as wildly implausible fiction designed to chill the spines of studio executives who are getting just a little too comfortable with themselves for their own good.
And yet, while there are many strange and inexplicable things about Hudson Hawk, the strangest of them all may be the fact that it is actually kind of great. Okay, this may be a minority opinion that I am offering here (although there have been defenses of it in recent years in such places as Sight & Sound, The New Yorker and The Guardian) but it is one that I have been voicing ever since it came out.
Sure, the film may have only lasted about three weeks in theaters before getting the hook, but I paid to see it four times during that time and have done what I could to get other people to give it a chance as well—several of whom ended up liking it as well. Yes, it may be an exercise in massive self-indulgence sprung from the mind of someone who was simply too powerful at the time for anyone to risk saying “no” to but as such things go, the crackpot absurdities on display in every frame have a certain—I’m not sure if “charm” is quite the right word but it will have to do for now until a more apt one comes to mind.
The brainchild behind the project was Bruce Willis, who had first burst onto the scene out of nowhere when he was cast opposite Cybil Shepard in the groundbreaking television hit Moonlighting and then confounded the Hollywood experts who deemed it foolish to give him five million dollars to appear in Die Hard (1988) when his only significant film experience had been leads in two middling Blake Edwards comedies, Blind Date (1987) and Sunset (1988).
That film proved to be a smash, as did the inevitable Die Hard 2 (1990) and while it was hardly a hit, he delivered an effective supporting performance in the drama In Country (1989) that showed his chops as a dramatic actor. Hell, the guy was even riding high on the music charts with The Return of Bruno (1987) and his fluke hit cover of “Respect Yourself.”
At this point, Willis could seemingly do no wrong in the eyes of Hollywood—even the wildly over-budget production of Die Hard 2 was deemed justifiable by its eventual success—and so when he brought a story idea that he and friend/music producer Robert Kraft dreamed up that would have him playing a wisecracking cat burglar who finds himself in the middle of international shenanigans that suggested Topkapi (1964) by way of Top Cat, Tri-Star Pictures was only too happy to take it on.
Plenty of other top people signed on ranging from actors like Andie MacDowell (who took over when Isabella Rossellini and Maruschka Detemers fell through), Danny Aiello, Richard E. Grant, Sandra Bernhard, James Coburn, and a then-unknown David Caruso to Daniel Waters and Michael Lehmann, the writer and director of the cult hit Heathers, who were making their first foray into big-studio filmmaking.
Willis plays Eddie “Hudson Hawk” Hawkins, a suave master thief who, as the film opens, is just getting out of prison after serving a ten-year stretch for doing a job that proved to be a set-up and who only wants to relax with one of his beloved cappuccinos. Alas, he and partner Tommy “Five-Tone” Messina (Aiello) find themselves forced to pull off a couple of heists involving artworks created by Leonardo da Vinci.
It turns out that the pieces all conceal elements required to power da Vinci’s most legendary creation, a machine that can turn lead into gold that has been recreated by megalomaniacal power couple Darwin and Minerva Mayflower (Grant and Bernhard) as part of a plot to destroy economies and rule the world. Also involved in the race to find the pieces and save/destroy the world are Sister Anna Baragli (MacDowell), a nun who is part of a secret Vatican counter-espionage task force, and George Kaplan (Coburn), the CIA head who has his own past history with Hawk.
With a screenplay featuring silly jokes, puns and inside jokes, bizarre historical references, goofball characters, a narrative so ramshackle that it seems as if they were literally making it up as they went along (which was evidently not that far from the truth) and even a narration from none other than William Conrad, the central artistic inspiration for Hudson Hawk seems to be the old Rocky & Bullwinkle cartoon show.
The film also shared a certain creative DNA with the old Bob Hope-Bing Crosby Road movies, both in the whole self-referential nature of the enterprise and, in one of the more notorious creative decisions on display, the inclusion of a couple of musical numbers—Hawk and Tommy supposedly synchronize their burglaries to the timings of famous songs and then proceed to sing the likes of “Side by Side” and “Swinging on a Star” while pulling them off.
Essentially, Hudson Hawk was a blockbuster film for viewers who had grown disenchanted with blockbuster films and who were in the mood to see one that pretty much acted like its own Mad Magazine parody.
If you want a blow-by-blow account of what happened with the production, the chapter in Grant’s autobiography, With Nails, dealing with it is probably the most concise and eye-opening. Suffice it to say, Willis evidently ran roughshod over the film’s production, continually adding new and expensive elements to the screenplay and superseding Lehmann’s authority as director.
When it was finally turned in to Tri-Star, the studio, already panicking over both the spiraling budget and the recent failure of The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990), another hugely expensive film featuring Willis, did the only thing they could think of in order to sell it—they took a bizarro post-modern goof on the kind of contemporary action films that made Bruce Willis a movie star and sold it as just another typical Bruce Willis action film, much to the consternation of critics and action fans who were left trying to figure out why the fuck Willis was suddenly singing Bing Crosby songs instead of shooting people in the face.
Of course, even if it had been promoted in a more honest manner, it is unlikely that Hudson Hawk would have found much more favor with critics or audiences. Between a storyline that seems inspired equally by conspiracy theory chat room discussions and knock-knock jokes books, a cast where everyone has been encouraged to act ridiculous and so many plot holes and discrepancies that one suspects that they are actually there on purpose, it is a film where one’s enjoyment depends almost entirely on finding themselves on Willis’s peculiar comedic wavelength for the duration. If you can’t manage that, then I can see how it would come across as simply unendurable.
If you could, as was the case with me, then Hudson Hawk reveals itself to be more of an embarrassment of riches than an embarrassment. As someone who had by and large grown bored with the excesses of American action filmmaking at the time (especially in comparison to the astounding stuff coming out of Hong Kong just then), I found myself oddly delighted with its loony take on the genre. I loved the endlessly quotable bits of dialogue, many of which have a bit of that Heathers snap (“But I want to do community service. I want to teach the handicapped how to yodel.”). I loved the deliberately overscaled performances by Grant and Bernhard, both of whom are legitimately hilarious as the villains. I loved the cheerfully dopey approach to the big action beats, which are so unconcerned with supplying the usual thrills that towards the end, damsel in distress Anna finally just rescues herself while one character plunges to his death in a fiery car crash only to return unscathed a few minutes later.
(“Air bags. Can you believe it?”) Essentially, Hudson Hawk was a blockbuster film for viewers who had grown disenchanted with blockbuster films and who were in the mood to see one that pretty much acted like its own Mad Magazine parody.
Unfortunately, like other films of that period that tried to balance being both an example of and a knowing spoof of blockbuster filmmaking tropes, such as Ishtar (1987), Gremlins 2: The New Batch (1990) and Last Action Hero (1993), Hudson Hawk proved to be too hip for the room and died a miserable death at the box office while receiving many of the year’s worst reviews to boot.
Although Waters would do the screenplays for Batman Returns (1992) and Demolition Man (1993) and Lehmann would direct the likes of Airheads (1994) and The Truth About Cats and Dogs (1996), the heat they had around them in the wake of Heathers had long since cooled. Although Willis would continue to be a dependable movie star for the next couple of decades, he would never again be given so much creative control—at least not officially—over a film project again.
By most applicable standards, Hudson Hawk is pretty much a disaster, the kind that leaves most viewers dumbfounded as to how such a thing can possibly exist. And yet, while it fails to deliver any of the expected goods, there is something both hilarious and oddly inspiring about watching a film that so throughly enjoys biting the hand that feeds it for 95 minutes.
Put it this way—I have seen plenty of smoothly made and utterly conventional big-budget extravaganzas over the years that are ostensibly “better” and certainly more coherent and cohesive that Hudson Hawk ever even attempts to be but that is the one that has stuck with me after all these years while those others have faded from memory. If you give it a chance, my guess is that it will stick in your mind for a long time afterwards as well—whether that is for good or ill will depend on you, of course.
Now I shall take my leave—I suddenly have a hankering for Reindeer Goat Cheese Pizza. . .