1991: Looking Back At HUDSON HAWK - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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1991: Looking Back At HUDSON HAWK

Martin Rayburn swings on a star.
Let me begin by saying, I've got a lot of time for Bruce Willis. He proved in Moonlighting that he has a knack for comedy and more range than he's often given credit for. In Die Hard he almost effortlessly reinvented himself as an action star, and for a brief period of time was one of the finest Hollywood had ever seen. The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable paved a way for Willis the Everyman, just a relatable guy in a totally unrelatable world, and that might be the biggest challenge for any actor. I also love watching comedies of all kinds; spoofs, black comedies, trash, generally everything on the cult shelf at your now-extinct video store, and all the many you find streaming today on Netflix, Hulu or your site of choice.

When Hudson Hawk came out back in 1991 it had a lot of mixed marketing messages. Was it an action film like Die Hard? Was it a comedy like Blind Date (which is a top little movie of Willis' and deserves more praise)? Was it a romantic escapade, harking back to the Hollywood of old? Was it something entirely different that couldn't be pigeonholed? Was it purely a vanity project for golden boy Bruce?

It is in so many ways the latter
Hudson Hawk is not entirely without merit but it's just so very muddled with no clear direction. Disjointed in tone, it drifts between slapstick to R-rated humour, never knowing which way to lean next. You can only think that this was the result of a then-megastar having his every whim catered to, as Bruce Willis, despite displaying occasional moments of genuine emotional investment, creates a sensory-numbing ego trip in which he tries to be everything; the action hero, the comic relief, the romantic lead, the song and dance man, and the narrator all at the same time. And I feel quite certain it is Willis who created this, rather than director Michael Lehmann or either of the screenwriters. The film is based on a story by Willis, and Hudson Hawk is his imagined character/alter-ego; a sorta golden-age Rat Pack cat burglar - Willis romatacising himself as a reincarnate of Sinatra. And you can completely imagine him overriding anything he didn't like on-set any given day and rewriting/shooting scenes that fitted his vision. I just don't think he knew what his vision was.

Throughout the film, Willis affords himself the luxury of drifting between every facet of his performing talent. And I'm not knocking that talent at all, the guy does have range, but by including it all here the end result feels like a Vegas variety show special where all aspects of the performer are on display. Long known to be a wannabe singer (Under the Boardwalk anyone?), it's actually that aspect which gives Hudson Hawk its stand-out moment. The scene where Willis as cat burglar Eddie "Hudson" Hawkins times a precision robbery with his partner, not by synchronising watches but by singing the standard Swinging On A Star while skateboarding past security guards, is an absolute gem. Had the movie remained this gentle, this clever, this much of a kick, we might have had something. Sadly, this is as good as it gets in the entire 100 minutes, and the filmmakers know it so we're cleverly reminded with a reprise of the earworm at movie's end. Sadly, it's not enough to help you forget the majority of the production.
The plot is nonsensical; an unoriginal blackmail scenario to pull-off 'one last job' hodgepodged together so that we can cheer for the art-thief who just wants to go straight. That's actually about the most straightforward aspect of the plot as throughout it's complicated through a combination of conspiracy theories, secret societies, historic mysteries, and outlandish "clockpunk" technology. It's brought to the screen through cartoon-style, and slapstick heavy cinematography, with sound effects used to add, one assumes, a level of surreal humour to counterbalance the unnecessary overuse of profanity. Gangsters and goons appear and disappear with no logical progression. Among them is David Caruso whose character is mute, he holds up a card that reads: "My name is Kit-Kat. This is not a dream,". Willis, channeling the spirit of Moonlighting's David Addison, breaks the fourth wall by smirking directly to the audience. Other times he delivers very Addison-esque wry one-liners about the quality of the film. That worked in Moonlighting as it was, in the large part, very good. It's cringe-inducing here. Add to that the occasional touch of John 'yippee ki-yay' McLane as Willis rides a gurney through the streets of Rome whilst dangling from the back of an ambulance, in one of the better realised scenes in the movie, and it's like Bruce's greatest hits collection, adding further to that whole variety show sensation.

If it wasn't apparent already, Hudson Hawk is very much a Bruce Willis film. He alone has the decent quips and retorts, and he's clearly been given the lion-share of the 'talent' budget. Danny Aiello plays Tommy 'Five-Tone' Messina, Hawk's partner in crime, and he's by far and away the best of the supporting cast. Absolutely everyone else is either just plain terrible or has clearly just shown up for the paycheque, leaving all enthusiasm at the door. The worst offender is the stone-faced Andie MacDowell. A late replacement for Isabella Rossellini, MacDowell simply cannot express any emotion, whenever she tries she looks like she's in pain. It's the beigest of beige performances among a cast that includes the brief uber-nothing Sandra Bernhard and Frank Stallone as one of the Mario Bros. (yes, that's funny, isn't it? A pair of brothers with the surname Mario. Quality stuff there). Richard E. Grant is dreadfully cast, and its fortunate this didn't entirely kill his career as he's far better than his wincing villainous character Darwin Mayflower ever has the chance to be.
Of course, the one who had the most to lose from this was Bruce Willis. The reception and box-office disappointment of Hudson Hawk wiped the smirk off his face for a good period of time. Perhaps it was exactly what he needed though? Reinvention through Pulp Fiction and his teaming with M. Night Shyamalan delivered a far better, more focused Willis and his strongest performances to date. Yes, he's been phoning it in for the last 20 years and obviously bored with the industry now, but he's still watchable in most films. Even here there are glimmers of something. As few and far between as they may be. And he never stops trying. Perhaps too hard, but he is trying.

Watching Hudson Hawk 30 years later does nothing to help its legacy. It's not matured like a fine wine or become a fashionable cult experience. Of course, as everything is subjective there will be those who loved the movie first time round and they will likely still think fondly of it now. My point being, age is not going to change your opinion. If you thought Hudson Hawk sucked in 1991, then guess what? It'll still suck for you now! Me? There are the occasional moments of oddball madness which I find enjoyable, some OK-ish action scenes and times when the out-of-control Willis is more bearable than others. I'm mainly just left wishing someone had given Willis the cappuccino his character so longs for much earlier on, calming his nerves a little and allowing him to steer this production with a little more control and focus.

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