“Certainly I am a lot to blame for the film but I can’t say the alchemy of it was well balanced. What I have always said about my participation in action films in general is that I like to cut the head off of a rhinoceros and put a giraffe’s head on it. For some people, a rhinoceros with a giraffe’s head on it is interesting and something to look at. ‘Wow, you don’t see that every day!’ Other people will say ‘That is wrong! That is an abomination against nature! Kill it now! Get it out of my sight!’”
—HUDSON HAWK screenwriter Daniel Waters to Money Into Light, 2016
I reviewed HUDSON HAWK 11 years ago, and I stand by that review. There are many things about the movie that don’t work, but none of them overshadow how much it makes me laugh or how much I enjoy seeing, as the quote above puts it, “a rhinoceros with a giraffe’s head on it.” So read that review if you’d like to hear more detail, including my theory about its flop status being partly caused by Eddie “Hudson” Hawk being in many ways the opposite of John McClane. But this is so much the type of movie I love to look at in a summer retrospective – an attempted blockbuster, using star power and production value to try to draw normal people into something kinda weird – that I felt I should rewatch it and add further thoughts in the context of the other 1991 releases.
According to the excellent above-quoted interview with co-writer Daniel Waters, producer Joel Silver had been a big fan of his movie HEATHERS, which led Silver to hire Waters for THE ADVENTURES OF FORD FAIRLANE (1990) and then director Michael Lehmann for HUDSON HAWK. Willis first developed a more serious script with his DIE HARD/DIE HARD 2 writer Steven E. De Souza, but according to a Den of Geek interview with De Souza, “Lehmann and Bruce wanted to make it crazier. I had already done two drafts and a polish at that point, when I was hired elsewhere and they wanted to make it much crazier, so [Waters] came in for several passes.” Waters says he turned the job down until Willis assured him “he wasn’t interested in doing a traditional action movie. He felt his character from Moonlighting had never been in a movie.”
Waters was on set doing rewrites for half of the filming, but had to leave to do BATMAN RETURNS, which must be when, according to De Souza, “the studio brought me back because they decided that it had gotten too crazy! So they flew me to Italy to sort of ‘un-crazy’ it. Very little progress in un-crazying it was made.”
It would’ve been seen as A Bruce Willis Movie even if it hadn’t been a pet project inspired by a song he wrote with co-composer Robert Kraft back in the day. He’d finished Moonlighting, and was fulfilling his destiny of transcending from the small to the big screen (not as common in those days). Along with DIE HARD and DIE HARD 2 reinventing him as an action star came a new level of celebrity, and magazines covering his marriage to Demi Moore, who had just had a huge year starring in GHOST. Many writers were ready to take him down a peg, BONFIRE OF THE VANITIES having not yet satisfied those cravings, and newspaper-critics-with-their-knives-out plus cult-movie-masquerading-as-summer-blockbuster are not usually a good mix. Definitely not in those days.
There’s a little bit of indulgence in Bruce’s working class background – he used to work as a bartender, so of course owning a bar, worrying about it being taken over by yuppies, and trying to preserve touches that remind him of the old days would be part of his passion project. I wonder if the steering wheel wall decoration he keeps mentioning is based on a true story?
But we also see him wearing pleated slacks with his shirt tucked in. Note the full screen credit for “Selected Men’s Wardrobe for ‘Hudson Hawk’ By Cerruti 1881, Paris.” Other actors wearing the Paris-based Italian designer’s clothes include Richard Gere in PRETTY WOMAN, Jack Nicholson in THE WITCHES OF EASTWICK and, most telling, Christian Bale in AMERICAN PSYCHO (who even namedrops the brand: “You can’t bleach a Cerruti. Out of the question.”) To fit the bill of a legendary cat burglar, Eddie has to seem more like a rich movie star than the scrappy underdog image that had rocketed Willis to the top.
Eddie gets out of Sing Sing already wearing three earrings and with some fresh clipping on the sides of his head, and then he puts on a fedora? Of course people primed to dislike Willis were gonna hate this shit. And then he starts singing old timey standards.
That heist sequence that kind of works as a musical sequence because they time it by singing is one of the many goofy touches that come to mind when I think of the movie. But let’s look at which of them sort of line up with a blockbuster template. For starters, we have some big action sequences. My favorite involves a battle on an ambulance that leaves Eddie dragged behind on a gurney – this could be compared to the amazing freeway chase scene in LETHAL WEAPON 4, also produced by Silver, except that it has the absurd touch that he comes loose from the ambulance and then the chase continues as he somehow weaves through traffic on the gurney, just rolling on momentum. I laugh at the randomness of the young women in a car who yell “Hey mister – are you going to die?,” at his realization that he’s about to hit a toll bridge that requires exact change, and at his success in throwing said change into the slot.
And there are some of the ol’ special effects. At the end we have them flying away on the Da Vinci flying machine – some ILM model work along with the composited green screen footage, I believe – but this feels more like a THE GOONIES style “didn’t we just have a fun adventure?” wrap up than a set piece. Or like the glider scenes in HOWARD THE DUCK. It could use an equivalent to HOWARD’s “Dark Overlord” monster, I think. Don’t ask me how. Just do it.
I’m not sure I made the connection before that the DA VINCI CODE movies – much more successful but, if you ask me, vastly inferior blockbusters – have a few superficial similarities. Both THE DA VINCI CODE and HUDSON HAWK have nefarious international conspiracies tied to fictional secrets hidden in the works of Leonardo Da Vinci. Both have crimes committed at the Louvre, though HUDSON’s ended up off screen because Silver wanted to save money. Both HUDSON and ANGELS AND DEMONS involve Vatican City. Through Andie MacDowell’s nun character Anna we learn of the Pope’s secret subway system equipped with crucifix-shaped intercoms. Anyway my point is Dan Brown is a fraud.
Of course if HUDSON HAWK is gonna be a big summer movie it’s gonna have to have a good villain or villains. BATMAN had The Joker, DARKMAN had Durant, THE DA VINCI CODE had someone, I’m sure, but obviously that has been lost to time along with any other memory other than I think Tom Hanks or Jim Belushi or one of those guys might’ve been in it, with maybe the lady from RUN LOLA RUN or somebody. HUDSON HAWK has some very fun and colorful villains, including James Coburn’s sinister CIA guy Kaplan and his candy bar themed agents. Something about them strikes me Shane Black-esque, but taken another step or two into absurdity. Lorraine Toussaint (later in DANGEROUS MINDS and FAST COLOR) is pretty badass as Almond Joy, but David Caruso (the year after KING OF NEW YORK) obviously steals the show as Kit Kat, a mimic who will randomly show up disguised as a statue, or wearing a dress identical to Anna’s, and speaks only in writing, on little cards he somehow has prepared for when he needs them.
But the real blessing is that a major studio sort-of-action-adventure movie would cast Richard E. Grant (WARLOCK) and Sandra Bernhard (SHOGUN ASSASSIN) as its hammy villains. They have so much fun being decadent, sinister assholes. Bernhard had evolved from a standup into more of a performance artist, known for her off-Broadway one woman show, as well as her weird stalker role in THE KING OF COMEDY. Her humor was wry and biting, she was openly bisexual, and her combination of attitude, offbeat beauty, and cartoonishly expressive lips were kind of intimidating. Not somebody you’d expect to show up in A Bruce Willis Movie.
De Souza argues that the villains are what turn people off, that for it to work they needed to be played straight against Eddie’s comedy. In theory it makes sense, but I’m not sure it computes, because what is HUDSON HAWK if not a movie where one of the villains likes to lay on the dining table singing “I’ve Got the Power” by Snap?
Mathematically speaking, most HUDSON HAWK fans came to it with the advantage of it already being a punchline, and therefore an underdog. It didn’t need to clear the hurdle of “exciting new movie,” but merely “better than they said.” So I was surprised to find there were at least three major outlets that gave it positive reviews. Though I couldn’t find the full reviews, Metacritic lists Joe Berry’s review in Empire (“certainly one of the more original blockbusters coming out this summer”) as a 60 and Richard Schickel’s in Time (“quite a funny movie… with a hip undertone all its own”) as a 70.
I was able to find Hal Hinson’s review in the Washington Post, which is an unqualified rave. He describes Willis as “part James Bond, part Cary Grant and part Buster Keaton — a one-of-a-kind combination for sure, and just the right sort of hero for this exhilarating, one-of-a-kind movie.” He goes on to call it “a precision universe of wiseacre high jinks” and “an action picture packed dense with the wit of a screwball comedy” “and “bizarrely inventive” with “a teasingly absurdist point of view” and “a crafty satire, but with a swashbuckling soul.” Full disclosure: he even liked the Mona Lisa joke (I can’t relate) and ends his review with “This Hawk flies,” with only the lack of an exclamation point as cover for a shameless plea to be quoted in advertising. But his over-the-top praise really does accurately describe what’s good about the movie.
Of course, The Post also ran a dueling review by Joe Brown, who called it a “Major Turkey” (capitalized for some reason) and says that “to say this megamillion Bruce Willis vehicle doesn’t fly is understatement in the extreme.” Since he refers to “the multi-talentless Willis” and claims that Andie MacDowell “still hasn’t learned how to speak in front of the camera” I think he might actually be a Razzies voter. And that was more representative of the overall critical reaction.
Bernhard’s presence is a connection to an earlier summer of ’91 phenomenon, MADONNA: TRUTH OR DARE, where she had a scene discussing dating and meeting celebrities with her friend Madonna. So let’s talk about HUDSON HAWK’s parallels to other movies we’ve reviewed in the series so far. FX2 and MANNEQUIN ON THE MOVE have both had vague allusions to Arnold Schwarzenegger, who will have a major sequel coming out later in the summer. HUDSON HAWK sets its sights on a more under-the-radar summer of ’91 action classic: STONE COLD.
Okay, maybe that’s not the intention, but dumb C.I.A. (or “MTV-I.A.”) muscleman Butterfinger sporting a Boz Cut is definitely a good detail that gets better the more time passes. One thing I didn’t mention in the previous review – maybe I didn’t realize it – is that the bodybuilder who plays Butterfinger is Andrew Bryniarski, who I mainly know as the Leatherface in the 2004 TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE and its prequel. This was his first major movie role, after a bit part in DRAGONFIGHT, but he’d go on to be Max Schreck’s son in BATMAN RETURNS (also co-written by Waters) and Zangief in STREET FIGHTER (written and directed by De Souza), plus parts in CYBORG 3, HIGHER LEARNING, PEARL HARBOR, ROLLERBALL, SCOOBY-DOO and Tsui Hark’s BLACK MASK 2: CITY OF MASKS.
HUDSON HAWK also has a joke about another action star who does not have a film coming out during the summer. When Frank Stallone, as the gangster Cesar Mario, says “Come on, Hawk. It’s one night’s work, you take their thingy and put it in this thingy,” Eddie says, “Directions even your brother can understand.”
Everyone seems to take it as a meta jab at Sylvester Stallone (who Waters later wrote for in DEMOLITION MAN), and I’m sure that was intentional, but that’s kind of a shame that it steps on the way better joke of the character’s brother within the movie Antony (Carmine Zozzora, producer and/or bit part in several Willis films) saying, “Yeah! Directions even I can understand!”
When I do these retrospectives I like to look for dated references that tie the movies specifically to the time they were released. This one has a mention of Gumby and a joke about the Pope watching Mr. Ed on TV – these are both TV references from three decades earlier that for some reason we were strangely fascinated with in the ‘80s and early ‘90s. We couldn’t believe there had been a sitcom about a talking horse, so we laughed about it and then watched it on Nick at Nite and kind of liked it. There’s also a joke about To Tell the Truth, but I didn’t even get that that’s what it was, I had to look it up. Even more before my time.
The most ‘90s-specific reference is a running gag that starts when Tommy picks up Eddie from Sing Sing and asks him what he wants to do – “Play Nintendo? Bone some chicks?” At the end “play Nintendo” is used as a euphemism for boning a nun. And of course the mobsters being named “the Mario Brothers” is a related reference.
What I didn’t realize until researching the movie for this piece is that there was a Hudson Hawk tie-in game for the Nintendo Entertainment System, Gameboy and other systems. I guess you sneak around on platforms trying to steal Da Vinci artifacts at the auction house, then the Vatican, then the castle without getting nabbed by security guards or dogs. Too bad it doesn’t have the hospital bed freeway chase or the flying machine.
I doubt it was some sort of product placement type deal. It was just a joke in a movie that coincidentally had a video game tie-in. It’s an R-rated movie – is there cursing or something? Or maybe it’s the guy getting his throat slit. I don’t know. But it would be funny if they’d made action figures and trading cards and stuff. Bruce Willis and Danny Aiello shaped like Ninja Turtles, in the tradition of those hideous DICK TRACY figures. I wouldn’t mind something like that to put on my desk. Too bad.
What influence did HUDSON HAWK have, if any (not including inspiring the worldwide book and movie sensation Da The Vinci Code)? It could be argued that the 1994 gem ED WOOD is part of the HUDSON HAWK legacy. Its screenwriters, Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, had dreamed of an Ed Wood biopic since film school, but it was after their PROBLEM CHILD and classmate Lehmann’s HUDSON HAWK had been declared “worst movie of all time” that they tried to team up to make a movie about “the worst director of all time.” Tim Burton was originally recruited to produce, but decided he wanted to direct while Lehmann moved on to AIRHEADS.
HUDSON HAWK was also ahead of its time in having a funny gag about a yappy little dog flying out a window. Later in the decade, after THERE’S SOMETHING ABOUT MARY did the same thing, wacky animal violence became a comedy prerequisite for a couple years.
Unfortunately, its biggest effect was likely just teaching everyone involved to never do anything like that again. If you read that interview with Waters, he thinks it stopped Willis from doing comedy for years. It also taught Lehmann that he didn’t like directing big movies like that, which he never did again. But I’m glad they tried it that one time.