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The Misunderstood Ambition of “Hudson Hawk”

This month, Richard Brody reviews classic action movies from the nineteen-eighties that he’s never seen before.

Just as the sixties, as a phenomenon, run from 1963 to 1973, the stretch of eighties action films runs from 1983 (“First Blood”) to 1993 (“The Last Action Hero”). In that decade, there’s a film that I’ve long meant to catch up with—“Hudson Hawk,” from 1991—because its reputation has buried it, and I know from experience that anything the critics despise in lockstep (a robust twenty-six-per-cent rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and seventeen per cent on Metacritic) likely has something going for it, as was the case for such nineteen-eighties films as “Heaven’s Gate,” “One from the Heart,” and “Ishtar.”

“Hudson Hawk,” an action comedy that’s a spoof on the genre but also delivers the expected violence both large-scale and up close, got made on the capital of success. The idea for the film was cooked up by Bruce Willis and Robert Kraft (a longtime friend of Willis’s who co-wrote the film’s music, and also served as its executive producer) before Willis became famous; the director is Michael Lehmann (“Heathers”), and the screenwriters are Daniel Waters (also “Heathers”) and Steven E. de Souza (“Die Hard”). But “Hudson Hawk” also got made with money, and, like the three despised classics of the eighties mentioned above, the story of its troubled production and of its inflated budget circulated well in advance of its release. (A report in the Times sums up the troubles, which involve accusations that Willis was usurping Lehmann’s authority on the set.)

I only knew of “Hudson Hawk” from its reputation, and had long been curious to see what actually resulted. The short answer: it’s far from a masterwork, but, at its best moments, the movie is vastly superior to the earnest classics of the genre, not merely in its satirical imagination but in its cinematic imagination over all, in its power to astonish. The basic problem with “Hudson Hawk” is simple: it’s a comedy that’s not particularly funny. It signifies humor throughout but falls consistently flat; its flashily epigrammatic dialogue is often cringe-worthy, and the comedic performances are flagrantly unmodulated without being sufficiently unhinged. (To me, it looks as if Willis isn’t the only actor on the set who ran roughshod over Lehmann.)

Nonetheless, I had a lot more fun with “Hudson Hawk” than I ever did with “Die Hard” or “The Terminator,” because it offers, from beginning to end, such a prodigious, even profligate, display of imagination. It veers off in directions that are as surprising as they are idiosyncratic; the movie’s identity is distinctive and integral—it really is a unique experience. Its loopy prologue, set in Renaissance Italy, involves Leonardo da Vinci, and links his metallurgical experiments, sculptural artistry, and visionary inventions in a way that sets up the movie’s modern-day plot. A renowned cat burglar from Hoboken named Eddie, who calls himself Hudson Hawk (that’s Willis), is being released after a long stint in prison. But, even as he’s being guided down the long corridor leading out of prison, he’s being forced by, of all people, his parole officer to take part in a heist as soon as he gets out.

His partner in crime, Tommy (Danny Aiello), has gone straight—he and Hawk co-own a bar in midtown, and it became gentrified while Hawk was away. But mobsters (in a video-game wink, the Mario brothers—one of whom is played by Frank Stallone) reinforce the parole officer’s message: if Hawk and Tommy don’t take part in the heist, they’ll be killed. But the job—supposedly just a lifting of the small-scale model for da Vinci’s enormous statue of the Sforza horse, from a New York auction house—spins out of control. There’s a wild chase scene on city streets and thoroughfares; after some grotesque comedy involving a plaquette of syringes, Willis is catapulted from an ambulance on a gurney that speeds over a bridge and through a bank of tollbooths, and the furiously precarious ride includes a great gag involving a cigarette thrown from the window of a moving car.

At the auction house, Hawk cute-meets Anna (Andie MacDowell), who is representing the Vatican. Soon thereafter, he ugly-meets a bunch of miscreants with nicknames borrowed from candy bars, as well as the Mayflowers (Sandra Bernhard and Richard E. Grant), a couple of corporate-plutocratic monsters with fabulously ridiculous wardrobes and even more ridiculous manners, and the head of the C.I.A. (James Coburn), who, in a Hitchcockian wink, is named George Kaplan (the agent for whom Cary Grant’s character is mistaken in “North by Northwest”).

About a half hour in, Hawk is knocked out and awakens in Rome, where he’s again being forced to do another da Vinci heist—at the Vatican, where he again meets Anna (MacDowell steals the film with her understated screwball prowess) and the entire opposing team of evildoers. The movie gives Hawk and Tommy a charming gimmick—a repertory of classic songs that they’ve timed to the second so that, while heisting, they don’t synchronize their watches, they synchronize their voices and sing the songs out loud, turning “Hudson Hawk” into a sort of neo-Rat Pack musical. (If there’s a problem with that trope, it’s only that there isn’t enough of it—Lehmann unfortunately pulls back on the movie’s musical tendencies.) There’s also lots of gory play with guns and knives, some mercurial Three Stooges-ish, punching-bag-like knocks on the noggin, neat tricks with chemistry and electricity, some whimsically offhanded colossal explosions, an eye-catching use of Roman locations not for sheer touristic appeal but for texture and style, and, for a dénouement, a set piece involving a wondrously intricate yet enormous whirling and undulating neo-Renaissance contraption.

In short, the movie is nuts, and the execution of its comic inspirations often falls far short of their conception. Nonetheless, the film’s unpredictably lurching, antic nuttiness is far more energizing and enticing than Willis’s grimly earnest exertions in “Die Hard,” or the pseudo-apocalyptics of “The Terminator.” I’d rather watch the bold failures of “Hudson Hawk” twice. If the film suffered critically, it’s not only, I think, a result of the usual critical habit of reviewing an outsized budget and a reported on-set story rather than the movie that’s on the screen. It’s also due to the mixture of genres: the movie isn’t a pure spoof, but it also delivers the violent action of the genre, leaving viewers in an odd sense of suspended expectations.

What’s more, Lehmann doesn’t only adulterate the drama with his comedic tones and twists—he denatures it with a sense of high artificial style that stands in effete contrast with the macho ruggedness of his protagonists’ personae. There’s a classic precedent for the procedure, one that the very title hints at: the one offered by the films of Howard Hawks. Compare his 1932 gangster film, “Scarface,” to the other classics of the genre, such as “The Public Enemy” or “Little Caesar.” Compare his Westerns to those of John Ford, or his adventure films to those of Raoul Walsh. Hawks’s films, and his characters, have a sense of style, and it’s rooted in gender-tweaking, in an artifice of manner and clothing, of bearing and gesture, that veers from the brazenly sexual to the shivery-delicate. Hawks’s films share the quality of understated but conspicuous artifice in the face of utterly natural violence with the work of another one of his contemporaries, Ernest Hemingway.

What’s missing from canonical action films (including the 007 series) is a sense of style. The recent movies that do their best to fuse physical adventure and dramatic violence with exquisite and eroticized artifice are those of Wes Anderson, who is, in this regard, the artistic heir of Hawks and Hemingway. His first feature, “Bottle Rocket,” was released in 1996 (the short on which it was based screened at Sundance two years earlier). But the other major filmmaker of the era who also succeeded in fusing action with style, comedy with violence, and artifice with danger is Quentin Tarantino, a maximalist whose first feature, “Reservoir Dogs,” premièred in January, 1992, eight months after the release of “Hudson Hawk.” Lehmann, too, perceived the inherent decadence of the genre; his film fails where Tarantino and Anderson’s films succeed, but Lehmann was working in the same vein, laboring bravely to renew the genre’s cinematic inspiration. Tarantino and Anderson, more comprehensive artists, did more: they reconsidered and renewed the moral and intellectual core of cinematic action, and it’s their films that put an end to the cinematic eighties and gave rise to a new era.

Written by Richard Brody of The New Yorker.

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