Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Analysis of a flop: Hudson Hawk (1991)

I'm going to break from tradition for this entry. Usually on this site I only talk about great (or at least, semi-great) films that I like but I figured every now and then it would good to mix it up and look at something less successful. If nothing else but to put successful films in a context. I was 8 when this film first came out in the cinema and was never a huge Bruce Willis fan in my youth so it took me until last week to get around to checking it out. The reviews for Hudson Hawk were utterly scathing at the time and it's only in the last few years that it's received a little bit of a cult following. So let's see what all the fuss is about.

Bruce Willis plays Eddie Hawkins, a notorious cat burglar nicknamed Hudson Hawk. Having spent the last ten years in prison, he's eager to make a fresh start. But almost immediately after he's released he's co-opted into stealing a priceless horse statue by his old buddy Tommy (Danny Aiello) for a couple of loud yuppies – the Mayflowers (Richard E Grant and Sandra Bernhard). The Mayflowers pressgang him into stealing two further objects that have hidden inside them parts for a secret gold-making machine invented by Leonardo DaVinci. And at every turn James Coburn and his team of weird CIA agents are trying to catch Hawk and make him work for them instead.

Honestly, it's really hard to call judgement on this flick. On the one hand it is excessively loud and self indulgent but on the other hand it's incredibly anarchic and bursting with witty ideas. People thought Schwarzenegger was brave doing Last Action Hero, a film that parodied his on screen persona but arguably Bruce Willis is more brave doing this, a similar parody of action films that doesn't necessarily call attention to the fact it's parodying action films.

I can't think of another film that I've enjoyed and hated in equal measure. At the time it was released, a lot of the backlash was due to the fact that it was billed as a straight action film but really it's like a violent, swear-y live-action cartoon. The set design and over-the-top acting feel like they belong in kids film. But the swearing and explosions make it look like a film for adults. Thus to fully enjoy it you've got to be able to tolerate both kids films and action films and enjoy watching them mashed together.

The film moves at a breakneck pace, literally Hawk is flung from one scene to the next with little time to comprehend what's going on and who's who. The pace both helps and hinders the film. It helps because if one scene doesn't work, the next scene might. But it also makes it really hard to take in the gonzo free-wheeling plot. Bruce Willis gives a quite charming performance as Hawk but the film could have done with giving him a little more time to let us catch his witty one liners (which alternate between great and groan out loud). The worst performance definitely comes from Richard E Grant, who plays the eccentric Darwin Mayflower. Shouting lines and gurning wildly, like he's in a school play - he really brings the whole film down.

According to the credits Bruce Willis and Robert Kraft contributed the story and it really shows. There's a lengthy sequence in which he and Aiello croon along to the entirety of “Swinging on a Star” while they are pull off a heist. As we all now it was around this time that Willis released the album The Return of Bruno. Kraft was the producer of that album and I think if this film proves anything, it's that actors and record producers shouldn't write plots for movies.

I can quite see where this film went wrong. Kraft and Willis wrote an amateurish outline for a movie about a singing thief. Then Joel Silver, an action film producer hired Steven E De Souza (who wrote Commando and Die Hard) to turn it into an action film about a singing thief. Then Michael Lehmann was hired to direct and obviously got Daniel Waters, who wrote the darkly comic Heathers for him a few years earlier, who added an extra layer of quirky humour. So what you get is the finished film which is actually three films all vying for attention. It's like going to KFC, Burger King and Pizza Hut and buying a full meal from each and then trying to eat a chicken double cheeseburger, dipped in special sauce with pizza slices instead of buns!

Okay, enough analogies. Is there anything that works about this film? Well, yeah, a few. David Caruso is pretty funny as a mute CIA agent called hitman who constantly imitates people, the music is nice and the bare bones of the script seem interesting, if a little thin. The whole globe trotting heist aspect reminded me a lot of the Japanese anime Lupin III – whose most famous feature film was Castle of Cagliostro. I don't know if that character was an influence but there's a huge amount of similarities.

So, did Hawk deserve to flop. Yeah, as much as I like little elements it's a Frankenstein picture, stitched together from disparate parts. I can admire it from a distance for trying to break the mold of 90s movies, a lot of them felt very interchangeable and too generic, but it tried to do it by accident rather than careful planning.


  1. Although I haven't seen Hudson Hawk yet, I love Michael Lehmann and Daniel Waters' Heathers. I've seen another movie directed by Lehmann (Airheads) which I liked too.

    Eventually I will be doing a post on box office bombs I liked. While looking up a lot of these flops it seems that most of them weren't *that* bad but just had budgets that were too big, were poorly marketed, and/or didn't know what kind of movie they wanted to be. It sounds like the last one definitely fits Hudson Hawk and it also seems to fit the first two criteria.

  2. To me this film is the quintessential 'guilty pleasure', like you I both love it and loath it. It has some good things going for it, but then others bring it down. One things for sure, I dont hate it as much as people did when it was first released. I was a kid, and I guess I was 'sort of' the target audience.

    As you mentioned, this one is one of those weird movies that doesnt know if it wants to be a film for kids or adults, kind of like The Monster Squad or Robot Jox. This ambiguity always spells certain death for a film at the box office.

    Still, I'm going to be adding this one to my dvd collection!

  3. RVChris: Yeah, I've seen plenty of movies that weren't sure what they wanted to be but never seen one as expensive as this. It's definitely worth seeing once, just to say you've seen it. Lehmann's Heathers is a great film - a modern classic - but he's never managed to recapture that greatness.

    Franco: Yeah, totally get a copy on DVD - for me it totally captures that early 90s feeling. Also I love weird films like this that don't fit the mold, makes the world more interesting.

  4. "Frankenstein" picture is the perfect term for this flick. I happen to enjoy it quite a bit, but I do agree it's all over the place. In the end, the good outweighs the bad; at least for me. In some ways though, it's the ultimate Bruce flick just because so much of his personality is invested in the film. If you're a (ahem) die hard Bruce fan, you sorta have to love it; warts and all.

  5. Totally, it's clear that this was Willis' passion project. It tried to combine the action of Die Hard with the comedy of Moonlighting and the music of his solo albums.

    I think if he'd attempted it a bit later in his career and developed the idea a bit more he might have made a "better" movie.

  6. Oddly, I've never seen this one, and I'm a huge Willis fan. I think because when it was hitting the theaters and getting ripped apart, even the trailers made it look like an odd mix of genre's that didn't do anything for me. I remember seeing action, and then seeing Bruce singing and dancing I think? Too much for my young mind to comprehend I think. lol.

    I was just as much a filmgeek back then in my teens as I am now and knew all the behind the scenes players here and though I'm a fan of De Souza, Lehmann and Waters respectively, putting them all together doesn't guarantee success I guess. Always thoroughly enjoy your posts. Keep it up!

  7. Thanks man. Yeah, even the trailers can't disguise how schizophrenic this film is.

    As a Willis fan I think you owe it to yourself to watch it once - it doesn't come together but there's enough good to outweigh the bad (just).

  8. So I finally sat down to watch this and honestly, I couldn't finish it. Not for me. As I was doing my review and looking up images, your's popped up and wow, this was 5 years ago! It took me 5 years from when we last discussed it to finally try it, and ugh, I hated it with a passion. Such a mess, and not in a fun way. I will be posting my final thoughts tomorrow.