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‘Hudson Hawk’ Is A Majestically Awful Film, But Also One That’s Deeply Weird And Totally Delightful

It’s natural to want to know what happened, to dust the scene of the crime, to do a post-mortem on the body, even if it’s been almost thirty years since the corpse was delivered into wide release. But what if reports of the patient’s death were premature?

Hudson Hawk is to Bruce Willis what Waterworld was to Kevin Costner: a massive vanity project trading on a long win streak that failed so completely it effectively killed a bona fide A-lister’s hard-won momentum. Over-priced, over-long, I’m not sure anyone was ever completely glad they let Bruno take the lead on creative decisions —it’s readily apparent that Willis’ wardrobe in this film came right from his own closet— and yet… and yet there’s something about Hudson Hawk that’s aged well.

A lot of it has to do with Willis recruiting director Michael Lehmann and screenwriter Daniel Waters, the pair behind evergreen Heathers, to helm this dream project. They bring a certain elan to the piece, suggesting Waters was perhaps already thinking ahead to writing Tim Burton’s masterpiece to be released the next year, Batman Returns – and that for all of the very fine “straight” work Lehmann has done over the years, he’s got a specific gift for the surrealism that marked his first three features: the vastly underappreciated Meet the Applegates, Heathers and yes, Hudson Hawk.

Here, Willis plays Hudson Hawk, a world-famous cat burglar (yes) who, as the film opens, is released back into the wild after a long stint in prison. He’s been in so long he doesn’t know what a Nintendo is and hence it becomes one of the film’s two running jokes; the other is how all Hawk wants is a nice cappuccino but they keep getting shot out of his hand or destroyed in car mishaps or something. It’s not hilarious, but it is at this point a fascinating historical touchpoint at a point in time where Starbucks was still a relatively modest franchise, meaning that when I first saw Hudson Hawk when I was eighteen and hoping for another Heathers, I had never heard of a cappuccino. I hadn’t, but from context, I knew it was cool and maybe a little posh and that here was John McClain himself poking some very safe fun at himself for being spoiled at the top of the world. Willis’ performance throughout reminds me of Eddie Murphy’s period of extreme self-indulgent superstardom. They are both like Picasso at the end of his life, signing napkins to pay for meals, knowing that their stars were so bright that all they really needed to do was deliver their trademark whatevers to collect a paycheck.

Easy to scoff, but Willis’ nearly noxious cockiness is the element of Hudson Hawk that makes the rest of it so uniquely peculiar. Hawk is not a day out of the slam before he’s recruited by gangsters the Mario Brothers (you heard me) to steal a priceless Leonardo Da Vinci horse sculpture from an auction house. I forgot to mention how Hudson Hawk opens with none other than Leonardo Da Vinci (Stefano Molinari) inventing a doodad that changes lead into gold and deciding that it’s too dangerous to keep intact so splits into three pieces he then hides in three separate masterpieces of his. Why doesn’t he destroy them if they’re so dangerous, you ask? Don’t get distracted. Turns out the Mario Brothers are working for an ex-CIA spook named George Kaplan (James Coburn) after the imaginary spy created in North by Northwest. Kaplan has henchmen, too, each of them named after a candy bar: Kit Kat (David Caruso sans sunglasses), Snickers (Don Harvey), Butterfinger (Andrew Bryniarski) and Almond Joy (Lorraine Toussaint). There’s also an evil butler named Alfred (Donald Burton) and evil billionaire couple Darwin and Minerva Mayflower (Richard E. Grant and Sandra Bernhard) who are either siblings or married or both because it’s exactly that kind of movie. If you’re having trouble following along, fear not, as there’s also a nun (Andie MacDowell) that’s undercover on a secret assignment from the Pope (Massimo Ciprari) to, I’m not sure. It doesn’t matter. Mostly fall in love with Hawk, I think, and break her vows naughtily.

Hawk’s partner is genial Tommy Five-Tone (the late Danny Aiello). The two of them have developed a way to “synchronize watches” that involves an encyclopedic knowledge of how long certain songs are. The Da Vinci horse heist, in my favorite sequence in the film, is “about five minutes and change,” the exact length I guess of some version of Burke/Van Huesen’s “Swinging on a Star.” The problem is the longest popular version of this tune is Frank Sinatra’s and it’s just shy of three minutes – the exact length of the scene in the film as it happens in which, off on their separate missions, Hawk and Tommy sing the song as a way to time their shenanigans. There’s joy here, lightness in the framing and the cutting between the two antiheroes about their business. Willis’ star power is at its maximum wattage here, reminding of that (thankfully) brief period of time where Willis thought his blockbuster movies made him a singer. (See also Dennis Quaid and Patrick Swayze.) It did not. What it does do, though, is it makes it impossible not to be charmed by him. The sweetness, the lightness of this scene is at complete, jarring odds with the next sequence that includes a graphic throat-slitting, and then the next scene that finds a hapless auctioneer obliterated by explosives hidden in his gavel.

The violence in Hudson Hawk is jarring, entirely off-putting, vile even – or it would be if it this picture’s closest analogue is Who Framed Roger Rabbit?. Consider a late sequence in which Hawk is getting the life slapped out of him that’s clearly staged like a Looney Tune. Or how whimsical “boing” and “bong” noises accompany people getting face-fulls of hypodermic needles, decapitated, exploded in massive fireballs and so on. Maybe the problem is that despite the massive success of Tim Burton’s Batman, the world had not yet acclimated to comic book exaggeration at the movies. Maybe the problem was that people were already getting a little tired of Bruce Willis’ bullshit?

Whatever the case, Hudson Hawk, viewed today, has about it the gleam of something almost entirely unique in wide-release, major studio, mega-movie history. It’s deeply weird, indisputably the product of extreme hubris and misplaced confidence, and totally delightful for exactly all of those reasons. It’s unafraid to be corny (there’s a joke about why the Mona Lisa isn’t smiling that is so stupid it made me smile), balls out in its freedom to do any damn thing that comes into its head, and has a scene where David Caruso dressed as a marble cupid gets murdered by a Sandra Bernhard shooting a crossbow. It’s majestically awful. I’ve seen it at least a dozen times.

HUDSON HAWK DOUBLE CROSSBOW

Walter Chaw is the Senior Film Critic for filmfreakcentral.net. His book on the films of Walter Hill, with introduction by James Ellroy, is due in 2020. His monograph for the 1988 film MIRACLE MILE is available now.

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