Tuesday, May 24, 2011
When a Star Went Swingin' and Landed With a Thud
The following is an article I wrote for the blog Edward Copeland on Film (for which I am a regular contributor) commemorating the 20th anniversary of the release of Hudson Hawk. I also have to credit my fried Ed for coming up with the great title to this piece.
Once in a blue moon, Hollywood releases a movie which, in spite of its huge expectations, fails on such a massive scale that its name becomes indelibly associated with the word “flop” forever after. Films such as Ishtar, Heaven’s Gate, 1941, Howard the Duck, North, Battlefield Earth and Gigli are all notoriously remembered for how embarrassingly they tanked at the box office, how universally they angered critics and how completely they alienated audiences that they have achieved a level of immortality no less enduring than their more acclaimed counterparts (such as Casablanca, Gone With the Wind, Citizen Kane, Star Wars and The Godfather). Well, on this day in the summer of 1991, while Ridley Scott was unveiling Thelma & Louise to critical and financial success, Tri-Star Pictures was releasing another film by the name of Hudson Hawk to theaters and it quickly joined the very exclusive club of infamous box office bombs. For those who have neither seen nor heard of this film, here is a brief description of what it is, how it came to be and why we are still talking about it 20 years later.
Hudson Hawk was the brainchild of Bruce Willis, who in 1991 was at the peak of his popularity. The recently cancelled television show Moonlighting had turned him into a star but the 1988 blockbuster Die Hard (and its equally profitable 1990 sequel) firmly established him as a major box office draw and gave him the kind of clout he needed to produce his own vanity project. As it turns out, for years Willis had been developing a story involving a cat burglar in which he would play the title role. With his action flick-producing buddy Joel Silver footing the bill, Heathers director Michael Lehmann on board to give the film a subversive sensibility, and a hand-picked cast (including Danny Aiello, James Coburn, Andie MacDowell and many more) what could possibly go wrong? Well, as it turned out, everything. The film was plagued with all sorts of problems (many of which are chronicled in Richard E. Grant’s book With Nails) including cost overruns, cast replacements, location difficulties and creative tensions. Although these things were well covered in the press and no doubt helped contribute to the perception that the film was in trouble long before its release, it seems no amount of bad backstage buzz could’ve prepared anyone for what Hawk was actually trying to sell audiences.
I vividly remember looking forward to the movie myself. It was the summer before my sophomore year in high school. I was (and, quite honestly, still am) a big Bruce Willis fan, I was (and, once again, still am) a lover of action/caper movies and the trailers made this one look fun and exciting. My father was planning to take me one afternoon to see it but through a series of mishaps it just didn’t happen. As a fluke, he ended up going with a friend of his soon thereafter and he, to put it bluntly, hated it. Absolutely hated it. He hated it so much that he, knowing how much I wanted to see it, actually felt bad for me and tried to inform me with the utmost delicacy how truly awful it was. I had never, up to that point, seen my dad have such a visceral hostile reaction to a film (though I’ve seen it since). Naturally, I was heartbroken and didn’t end up viewing it until much later when it came to video. I admit I was certainly disappointed by it, but did not think it was quite as bad as I’d heard. It’s actually taken two decades and dozens more viewings for me to formulate a coherent final opinion on it. First of all, while I can admit to having some affection for it and actually enjoying watching it once in a while (Hudson Hawk is one of the few films I consider a genuine “guilty pleasure”), I can simultaneously admit to what a colossal miscalculation it is. The film is indeed bad, but it's bad in such a uniquely strange and jaw-droppingly surreal way that it’s actually hard to put into words what makes it so (although if you're looking for a very extensive analysis of what's wrong with the film, try this scene-by-scene critique at the Agony Booth).
Bruce Willis plays Eddie Hawkins (aka the "Hudson Hawk"), a smarmy, self-satisfied thief — presumably the best in the world — who, after being released from a 10-year stint in prison, tries to go straight but ends up getting blackmailed (though he really doesn’t put up much of a fight) into stealing again. Who precisely is blackmailing him can be confusing as there are far too many villains in the film. These include a psychotic billionaire married couple (the incessantly annoying Richard E. Grant and Sandra Bernhard) and their lethal British butler, four rogue CIA agents named after candy bars (yes, you read that right) and their arrogant leader (gamely played by James Coburn), two Italian mobsters called (sigh) the Mario brothers, a corrupt parole officer, a pair of silent twins and a deadly little dog named Bunny. Furthermore, what Hawk is stealing and why he's stealing it also is somewhat confusing as the plot for Hudson Hawk is so convoluted it's virtually incomprehensible. Suffice it to say, it involves some art treasures of Leonardo DaVinci, a giant machine that can turn lead into gold and a top-secret Vatican organization.
The plot is ultimately unimportant because Hudson Hawk was clearly conceived as a series of comic-action set pieces. Some of them are admittedly unique and memorable (such as an ambulance and hospital gurney chase across the Brooklyn Bridge), but many of them, unfortunately, are outlandishly bizarre and embarrassingly grotesque. It has the feel of a movie where every single idea was considered clever and thrown into the pot while nobody bothered to ask "Hey, are we going too far here? I mean, does any of this make any sense?" For example, one particularly absurd, yet admittedly amusing, conceit is that Hawk and his partner Tommy (the always charismatic Danny Aiello) time their heists by singing songs to which they each know the exact running length. The end result is an honest-to-God musical number wherein two burglars are crooning Bing Crosby's "Swingin' On a Star" while cracking safes and dodging guards. Besides being an utterly ridiculous concept for a variety of reasons (it's an imperfect way to time something given that songs can be sung at different tempos or it can actually be rather noisy when silence might be the best approach to performing a robbery, etc), it's just another example of the wildly inconsistent tone that the film has. One second the characters are belting out showtunes, the next second they're in a thrilling action sequence. In one scene they're involved in a wacky bit of physical comedy, the next they're witnessing a rather ugly act of brutal violence.
Alas, much of the blame has to be directed at Willis himself as many of its flaws clearly originate in the conception stage and Hudson Hawk was his baby from beginning to end. Willis seemed to want the film to be a very specific thing and his ego just got the better of him. This is just speculation on my part, but I suspect Willis was probably spoiled by his experience on Moonlighting, a show that successfully played with the conventions of television (constantly breaking the fourth wall, throwing gags at the audience at lightning speed, etc.) while still telling stories that engaged viewers emotionally. Willis probably thought he could bring the same zany, anarchic spirit to the big screen with a satirical take on action movies that still retained the thrill that great stunt sequences can provide (Joel Silver, John McTiernan and Arnold Schwarzenegger would attempt a similar feat two summers later with Last Action Hero with about the same level of success) and the end result is a rather schizophrenic picture that just can't seem to decide what kind of movie it truly is ("Is it an action-thriller? Is it a comedy-spoof? Is it a musical?") or who it's intended audience would be. ("Who's this for? It's too silly and cartoonish for adults yet too violent and vulgar for kids.")
Willis' career managed to recover from the debacle of Hudson Hawk, but he continues to defend the film to this day (as do the members of its small cult following). It's always interesting to hear filmmakers attribute a film's poor reception to audiences not "getting" their film. On the Hudson Hawk DVD commentary, for example, director Michael Lehmann talks about how the film was not well-received because people, based on the film's advertising, were not expecting a comedy. While this is certainly true, it never seems to occur to Lehmann or Willis that perhaps they also just made a bad movie. Speaking for myself, I think I "get" what they were trying to do. I'm just not sure that what they were trying to do was such a good idea. Yes, I know they were poking fun at the cliches of action movies and deliberately twisting the conventions of the cinematic language (such as changing the time from day to night in the middle of a scene), but those conventions exist for a reason and if you knowingly violate them then you run the risk of confounding your audience who need such conventions to orient themselves to what they're seeing. If, for example, you have a character fall from an enormous height and simply walk away unharmed (or, as in the case of this film, survive an explosion in the back of a car because a sprinkler system was installed), then you remove any element of the threat of danger from your equation. Thus, with nothing at stake there's no suspense and with no suspense there's no emotional investment on the part of the audience. They had to know this was at least a possibility when they decided to break these rules. Either they didn't know or they just didn't care and it's that kind of blatant disregard for logic and sense that got their film trashed. A lot of Hollywood movies require us to suspend disbelief. A lot even ask us to accept nonsense as if it were sense, but very few expect us to accept nonsense simply because it is nonsense. They must have either been giving audiences too much credit or not nearly enough.
So, what's my verdict on Hudson Hawk? Well, despite the fact that the film does possess some stellar elements (such as the gorgeous production design by Jackson DeGovia, the striking cinematography by Dante Spinotti and the wonderful music score by the late great Michael Kamen) and a few truly funny moments that can't help but make me laugh (I get a kick out of the gag where the Italian night watchman pours spaghetti out of his thermos instead of coffee), I mostly enjoy Hudson Hawk precisely for its sheer brazenness in flaunting the well-known and well-established rules of visual storytelling. On those rare occasions when I do watch it, I always wear a big goofy grin on my face as I simultaneously shake my head in disbelief. Twenty years later, Hudson Hawk is perhaps the best "worst movie" I've ever seen and one of the most perfect examples Hollywood has ever produced of how NOT to make a film.