Cult Movies

Cult Movie Essentials: Hudson Hawk (1991)

In his marvelous book, With Nails, Richard E Grant describes talking to producer Joel Silver around the time of Die Hard 2‘s release, and being confidently told that this time next year; it’d be Hudson Hawk that all the fuss would be about.

The basic outline came from its star, Bruce Willis. He got a story credit for the movie, although it was Steven E De Souza and Daniel Waters who got final screenplay credit. The origins lay with Willis and his friend, Robert Kraft, who wrote a song together called The Hudson Hawk, which effectively formed the template for the movie.

Tellingly, it’s also the only writing credit that Willis has received.

Willis plays the Hudson Hawk of the title, a cat burglar with a penchant for pulling off robberies to the timings of classic swing songs. He does this with Danny Aiello, and the impressive cast also features the aforementioned Richard E Grant, Sandra Bernhard and James Coburn. Furthermore, there’s the small matter of Andie MacDowell. She was a late addition to the cast, joining a few days into production. Her role was set to be played by Maruschka Detmers, until a problem with her back led to her departure. MacDowell’s late casting, sadly, was not fortune landing in the film’s lap. She’s rarely been an actress to trouble the Oscars, but she really struggles with the pivotal part of Anna. Her character is a nun with expertise in the art world, and she pulls neither part of the character off. Nor is there any notable chemistry with Bruce Willis, which is a problem, given the amount of time invested in the pair as the movie progresses.

Willis fares far better with Aiello, and as implausible as it is, the moments where the pair swing their way through the dead of night, singing songs while undertaking robberies are a hoot. It’s not tricky to punch holes in it all: any security guard worth their salt would surely be able to pick up that someone singing Swinging on a Star after opening hours is a mite suspicious. But a bit of belief suspension doesn’t hurt here. The robberies are arguably the best sequences.

For the director, Michael Lehmann, this was his sole venture into blockbuster film making, and you sense that it was not a happy time. Chosen off the back of the marvelous Heathers, Lehmann admitted around the time of the film’s release that,   “he was often challenged by his high price star”.

This has been an accusation leveled at Willis before of course,   Kevin Smith described Willis on the set of the fourth Die Hard movie (where he reportedly disagreed with Fox on a proposed change for the screenplay, asking them “who is your second choice to play John McClane?”), and has since revealed his own problems with the star on the set of Cop Out. To what extent Lehmann and Willis clashed isn’t clear, but what is more certain is that cohesion was lacking. Richard E Grant’s book details the continually evolving script right through production, and paints a picture of a film whose direction kept changing. That’s reflected in the tonally bizarre final cut. As such, revisiting Hudson Hawk now is fascinating.

From the off, it’s clear that Die Hard this is not (crucial, because Hudson Hawk was originally, and falsely, marketed as an action movie). You wouldn’t expect a modern Bruce Willis blockbuster to open with talk of Leonardo da Vinci being commissioned by the Duke of Milan in 1481 to erect a statue of a horse, and truthfully, you wouldn’t have expected it in 1991 either. There are, in truth, many moments where you can’t help but sit there and wonder how the whole thing managed to happen. The villains are all over the shop, and the scrapes that the Hawk ends up in are similarly puzzling. He’s paralysed at one point, and yet manages to implausibly escape certain death, and not for the only time.

The comedy can’t find an even tone either. Hudson Hawk veers between Airplane! Style slapstick, to variable one liners and the plain surreal. The uneven mix means that Hudson Hawk is simply impossible to second guess. When it comes to filling in the details and the journey to the final act, you’re on your own. Even the character names suggest that several substances may well have been abused in the making of this particular motion picture. The CIA agents are named after chocolate bars (David Caruso, in an early role, plays Kit Kat.)

It’s easy to shoot holes in Hudson Hawk, but that overlooks the fact that it’s deceptively good fun. You’d struggle to find someone to build a case to suggest it’s a classic, but it’s a genuinely individual quirk of the 90s, wrapped in a massive budget and big blockbuster clothes. It’s a fascinating, enjoyable film, and one that doesn’t really deserve its notoriety. I’d take Hudson Hawk over any number of crappy Rush Hour sequels.

Sadly, Hudson Hawk’s critical and commercial reception had significant ramifications. Bruce Willis has stayed away, at least overtly, from screenplays, as we’ve discussed. Of greater impact was the fact that Hudson Hawk brought the TriStar pictures name to an end. The firm was soon fully absorbed into Columbia Pictures under the Sony Pictures Entertainment banner. Finally, Michael Lehmann never went near big films again. Whether he ultimately got proper respect on this one isn’t clear, but doesn’t sound likely. Lehmann’s career since Hudson Hawk has been patchy. Airheads was certainly fun but The Truth about Cats & Dogs is a pile of crap.  There’s been nothing that’s come close to the marvel of Heathers, although to be fair, there are few filmmakers who ever get something that good on their CV. He was, according to the oracle that is IMDb, originally set to make Ed Wood.

As a side note, Hudson Hawk did inspire a half decent computer game from Ocean Software. The firm had snapped up the licence before they saw the film though, clearly. For a film not shy of the odd Nintendo reference, it was probably inevitable that a game would follow.

Yes, it’s primarily a Bruce Willis ego-trip. Who cares? It’s a fun Bruce Willis ego-trip. He smirks, smart mouths, struts, sings, and strides through every scene. I find it charming and harmless, other people find it cruel (Bunny Ball Ball!). I can’t say which camp you’ll fall into, but I think that you should ignore the critics and just see this movie. Its mindless fun of the highest order.

What other movie has “the guy on the donkey” listed in its credits?

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