Hudson Hawk

(1991)

by Matt Wedge, Managing Editor

If you’ve ever stumbled across a notorious critical and commercial bomb on cable and thought, Hey, this isn’t so bad, this is the column for you. Each month, we’ll examine a new failed film that’s worth a second look.

Right up front, let me get this out of the way: Hudson Hawk is not a good movie. In fact, it’s a spectacularly stupid movie featuring a mess of a story riddled with plot holes and silly one-liners. Like many of the films we will feature on The Movie Defender, it’s easy to understand why critics would beat up on the film. But Hudson Hawk is not an attempt to create high art. It’s a Joel Silver production starring Bruce Willis. The only thing that matters when we are talking about a film of that pedigree is the answer to the question: Is it entertaining? And it is with this quality that the film redeems itself, clocking in a surprisingly high number of laughs per minute.

It’s certainly entertaining to imagine the conversation that led to Hudson Hawk becoming a reality. I like to believe it went something like this:

INT. MEGA-PRODUCER JOEL SILVER’S OFFICE - DAY

Large. Danish modern décor. Posters for Die Hard, Lethal Weapon, and Road House adorn the walls. JOEL SILVER sits at a huge oak desk, silhouetted against the smoggy Los Angeles sky visible through the large windows behind him. He talks on the phone, staring wistfully at a Scarface-esque mound of cocaine on his blotter.

SILVER

…yeah, Jerry, it’ll be great. We’re gonna call it The Adventures of Ford Fairlane.

(beat)

What do you mean “creatively bankrupt”? That’s rich, coming from Mr. Beverly Hills Cop II. How many times are people gonna fall for that banana-in-the-tailpipe —

BRUCE WILLIS bursts into the office, a bundle of manic energy. He plays an uptempo whitebread blues song on a harmonica as he strides across the office.

SILVER

I gotta go, Jer.

WILLIS

Joel! Hey, how ya doin’, buddy?

SILVER

Bruce, my golden boy of the moment! What can I do for you? Do you need some money? Blow? Hookers?

WILLIS

No, no. It’s not what you can do for me, it’s what I can do for you.

Silver’s face falls as he prepares himself for the worst. Just as quickly, he puts a happy face back on and feigns ignorance.

SILVER

I don’t think I follow.

WILLIS

I’m here to pitch you a story — you know what? Not just a story. It’s the greatest story ever told.

SILVER

You wanna remake the Jesus picture?

WILLIS

No. Even better. I wanna tell the story of Hudson Hawk.

SILVER

Hudson who?

WILLIS

Hudson Hawk. The greatest cat burglar/safe-cracker/lady’s man to ever live.

Silver covers his mouth with his hand, trying to muffle the audible groan that escapes from his lips.

SILVER

Is he a real guy?

WILLIS

Nah, I just made him up. Great name, huh?

SILVER

Yeah, terrific. Very alliterative.

WILLIS

No, he can read.

SILVER

That’s not what I — You know what, why don’t you tell me more about the story?

WILLIS

Well, you know, I’d play a wisecracking thief with a heart of gold and then we can just wing it.

SILVER

Wing it?

WILLIS

Yeah, you know, I can just ad lib all of my lines. I did that a lot for Look Who’s Talking.

SILVER

Right, the talking baby movie. You know, I’ve been meaning to have a talk with you about taking the long view of things. At least where your career is concerned.

Caught up in the momentum of pitching his story, Willis ignores Silver and starts pacing the room as he brainstorms.

WILLIS

But I’ll need a sidekick, someone to feed me set-ups for the hilarious zingers I will undoubtedly come up with on the spot.

SILVER

Right, right. A straight man. I think Carl Weathers is available.

WILLIS

No, I was thinkin’ more along the lines of Danny Aiello.

SILVER

The middle-aged Italian guy from Do the Right Thing?

WILLIS

Yeah, I think he’d be perfect.

SILVER

Has he ever done comedy?

WILLIS

It doesn’t matter. I’m gonna be bringing the laughs and the thrills.

SILVER

Gee, I don’t know, Bruce. That’s a lot for you to take on.

Willis gets a steely glint in his eye.

WILLIS

Joel, just out of curiosity, how much did the two Die Hard movies take in?

SILVER

Around 275 million?

WILLIS

$380,799,050 worldwide.

SILVER

Can you start preproduction tomorrow?

Without a doubt, this film was Willis’s ego run rampant. At the time of its production, he was arguably the biggest box office draw in America, if not the world. So it’s not surprising that Silver would toss him a bone, agreeing to help make his silly comedy/heist/musical a reality. But in probably the most notorious case of a film skyrocketing over its initial budget since Heaven’s Gate managed to all but sink United Artists, Willis’s vision of the film being shot on location in Italy, with explosions worthy of a Joel Silver production, pushed what should have been a comedy budgeted at a modest $20-$30 million into a then astronomical $65 million plus.

In a shrewd move, Silver brought on Michael Lehmann as director. Hot off his success with the brilliant black comedy Heathers, Lehmann seemed poised to bring the perfect mix of edginess and cartoon-hijinks to wrangle Willis’s pet project to the screen. But even with his Heathers writer, Daniel Waters, taking on co-scripting duties, the film turned out to be not much more than Willis’s sense of humor and ego run rampant over two continents.

The plot is impossible to recount in less than a thousand words, so let’s just say that it involves Leonardo da Vinci, alchemy, mobsters from New Jersey, CIA agents named after candy bars, exploding auctioneers, megalomaniacal corporation owners, two-way radio crucifixes, a lethal butler, decapitations, The Vatican, a folksy narrator, singing, and dancing. Not necessarily in that order.

As the title character, Willis spends most of his time smirking. It seems to be the lone trait he brings to the character. His performance quickly becomes the weakest aspect of the film. Had he played him with a bit of a more hangdog attitude, he might have been a more sympathetic character. Much more suited to the material are Danny Aiello and James Coburn. Aiello spends most of his time on screen opposite Willis and manages to counteract Willis’s incessant smirk with a performance that’s sympathetic and fun. He gets more laughs than his thin material deserves. Coburn is the film’s secret weapon. With his resonant voice, he lends authority to his scenes as a CIA agent who may or may not be crooked. He also rips off some of the film’s best pieces of dialogue. His wistful remembrance of Rome as the sight of his first barehanded strangulation still manages to draw laugh-out-loud responses.

The rest of the cast does not fare as well. MacDowell and Bernhard, in particular, reach career nadirs with their awful performances. MacDowell may never live down her scenes in the third act when she talks like a dolphin. It’s a horrifying moment where everything about the scene was miscalculated and it still somehow made its way into the final cut.

But even with these complaints, the fact remains that Hudson Hawk never fails to make me laugh. Between the good one-liners, the groan-worthy one-liners, the good performances, the bad performances, the cartoon sound effects, and the self-referential mocking of the required happy ending, the film finds the good-natured tone of an early Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker production. It only exists to entertain and needle the action audience that recoiled at its manic comedic energy. What’s not to like about that?

Matt Wedge is a writer and film critic currently doing time in the suburbs of Connecticut.

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