Looking back at Hudson Hawk

An infamous moment in Bruce Willis' film career, 1991's Hudson Hawk didn't deserve its critical drubbing, Simon argues...

“It has very intellectual hip humor in it; it has very sophomoric broad slapstick comedy; it has elements of a road picture; it has more romance than any film that I have ever done; it has action; it has big stunts; it has a very dark sensibility… It’s a film that needs to be experienced more than explained…” – Bruce Willis on Hudson Hawk.

One of the complaints levelled by director Peter Farrelly at the reception ot 2013’s Movie 43, was that it wasn’t the film its critics were expecting. And, to paraphrase Farrelly, when they got something different, they slaughtered it.

Back in 1991, director Michael Lehmann may have had similar feelings towards the feeding frenzy that ensued when his Bruce Willis vehicle, Hudson Hawk, was released. Arriving months after the widely ridiculed The Bonfire Of The Vanities (do check out the fascinating book, The Devil’s Candy, which details the making of that particular film), it threatened to put Willis’ burgeoning movie star career in turnaround. It would ultimately take Quentin Tarantino and a third Die Hard movie to lift it once more (oh, and one M Night Shyamalan also lent a hand).

In some quarters, Hudson Hawk is one of Hollywood’s most infamous flops, although as is often the case, a closer look at the numbers reveals that, although things weren’t brilliant, they were at least salvageable. After all, Waterworld is often glibly discussed as one of the biggest failures of all time, yet it quickly turned a profit, and was a solid hit on first release. Hudson Hawk certainly wasn’t, but it’s remained a slow and steady catalogue title for some time. And for those who think Hollywood blockbusters never throw caution to the wind, it stands with Last Action Hero as a double bill worth checking out.

With Hudson Hawk, the initial box office was still pretty damning, though. The year before, 20th Century Fox had spent a then-staggering $75m making Die Hard 2: Die Harder, an amount at the time that led some in the press to question, with good reason, whether a film so expensive could ever turn a profit. A $75m blockbuster now, of course, seems like small change, and something of a novelty.

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In his marvellous 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. And fuss there would be. 

Things didn’t quite go to plan. Hudson Hawk cost around $65-70m for the negative (running heavily over its original budget), and it brought in just over $17m at the US box office. We can’t find the worldwide figures, but given Willis’ global star power, we’d imagine they closed the gap somewhat. But still: no matter how you spin it, Hudson Hawk was not the commercial juggernaut it was primed to be.

So what is it instead? Well, for all the curious excesses of Hudson Hawk, and there’s no shortage of them, it always was, and remains, a more interesting and ambitious summer movie than it was ever really given credit for. In fact, tracking back over the past 20 years or so, it’s hard to find a major, star-driven film that’s anywhere near this strange.

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, and it’s clear that this is a film that wouldn’t have been made had he not so passionately advocated it.

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.

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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, were and 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, and are really well staged by Michael Lehmann.

For Lehmann, this was his sole venture into blockbuster filmmaking, and you sense that it was not a happy time. Chosen off the back of the marvellous Heathers, Lehmann admitted around the time of the film’s release that, as the New York Times put it in 1991, “he was often challenged by his high price star”.

This has been an accusation levelled at Willis before of course, with the aforementioned book The Devil’s Candy, by Julie Solomon, detailing the making of his 1990 flop The Bonfire Of The Vanities, and describing Willis’ keenness to move beyond being an actor for hire. In more recent times, 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. I remember enjoying it at the time, but had it not been a star vehicle, surely the many eccentricities of the film wouldn’t have made it off the drawing board.

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.

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Da Vinci proves crucial to the plot – heck, you can almost imagine Dan Brown scribbling down notes down at his local Odeon. Also crucial is arguably the most off the chart odd villainous pairing this writer has ever seen in a mainstream film. Richard E Grant and Sandra Bernhard play the couple who ultimately blackmail the Hawk into stealing the works of Da Vinci, and the letters W, T and F could easily have been introduced just to help describe them. 

There are, in truth, many moments where you can’t help but sit there and wonder how the whole thing managed to happen. The aforementioned villains are tonally 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, though, that Hudson Hawk is simply impossible to second guess. You can work out that Willis will get to the end of the movie intact and defeat the bad guys, certainly, but 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, we shit you not, named after chocolate bars (David Caruso, in an early role, plays Kit Kat, although he fares better than Emily Eby’s Peppermint Patty).

But we come back to this: 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. We’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. After all, around the time of release, producer Joel Silver described Lehmann to the Los Angeles Times as “a very skilful kid who really understood the kind of off-center, irreverent, off-base sense of humor that Bruce saw in this movie”. A kid. He said that.

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Lehmann’s career since Hudson Hawk has been patchy. Airheads was certainly fun and The Truth About Cats & Dogs is hugely underrated. We can think of few Hollywood comedies that leave such a nasty taste as 40 Days And 40 Nights, though. 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.

It seems right that this piece ends on a positive note. Hudson Hawk has flaws right the way through it, and if you try to make sense of the script, you’re giving yourself a thankless task. But it’s worth sitting back and enjoying, and appreciating a film with character, risks, an abundance of leftfield ideas, lots of practical effects and Richard E Grant hamming it up like nobody’s business. It might have left a commercial crater behind it, but Hudson Hawk didn’t deserve to leave a critical one as well.

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