Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Catch the Hawk!

Our February episode fast approaches, which means it’s an ideal time to say a word or two about the minor classic that is Hudson Hawk. This movie is a favorite within the Fantasmo inner circle, which may come as a surprise to folks tempted to think that we wouldn’t give much credit to a big budget Bruce Willis action/comedy. After all it’s not one of our favorite genres, and it didn’t originate in the 70’s or 80’s. Still this one is very worthy of admiration. Despite its pedigree, Hudson Hawk is one of the most bizarre “mainstream” films to emerge from the studios. This is especially surprising given that it was filmed in the early 90’s, when Hollywood was really beginning to churn out more and more tiresome, cookie cutter blockbusters. Indeed, the summer of 1991 was a particularly foul season, which saw glut of less than stellar releases including: Dying Young, Backdraft, City Slickers, Doc Hollywood, Naked Gun 2 ½, Nothing But Trouble, Point Break, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, etc. It was a dark time for the rebellion. Taken in that context, Hudson Hawk was a breath of fresh air. In order to understand just how much of a miracle the film was/is, a little background info is necessary.

Hudson Hawk was essentially a vanity project on the part of Bruce Willis, who was in many ways just at the beginning of his rise to super stardom. Although he had two major successes in the form of Die Hard and Die Hard 2, Willis still had strong ties to the quirky humor of Moonlighting (still fresh in everyone’s memory at the time), and to a lesser extent his odd foray into music with The Return of Bruno. Furthermore, outside of the Die Hard films he had not fared too well at the box office at that point (e.g. Sunset, Blind Date, etc.). Even so, the first couple of Die Hards were so wildly successful, they cemented him as an A-list action star. In a move not unlike that perpetrated by Steven Seagal with On Deadly Ground, Willis used his substantial clout to launch Hudson Hawk. The problem was it resembled a standard action movie, but was nothing of the sort.

The basic plot of the film doesn’t sound all that unusual. Willis plays cat burglar Eddie Hawkins (a.k.a. Hudson Hawk), who is just being released from prison at the start of the film. Unfortunately, he has a crooked parole officer who forces him into stealing Da Vinci statue only days after his release. As it turns out, this is part of a larger plot orchestrated by an evil billionaire who is trying to piece together a machine that Da Vinci designed to create gold from lead. Okay, that’s a little weird but nothing that out of line with what you might see in a Bond film. What sets Hudson Hawk apart however, is that it is also a slapstick comedy/musical. You read that right. And the comic aspect is totally out there (in a good way). You’ll see everything from secret agents named after candy bars, to Andie MacDowell imitating a dolphin (convincingly). Even better you have Richard E. Grant and Sandra Bernhard as the primary villains, turning in performances that are as outrageous as anything they’ve ever done (which is saying something). And at the center of it all you have Willis who seems more concerned with getting a cappuccino and unraveling the mysteries of Nintendo, than he is with the goings on of the main story.

Willis and company might have gotten away with this madness if the film had employed an honest marketing campaign. It was promoted as the next Bruce Willis action movie, completely obscuring the fact that the film was a wacky comedy/musical hybrid. Consequently, Hudson Hawk left audiences confused, and became a legendary flop. I myself remember going to see this on opening weekend, and being completely baffled. I was so busy being surprised that it wasn’t Die Hard 3, that I missed the boat on that first viewing. When I saw it again on video a year or so later, I fell under its spell and have been there ever since. Even though many folks have discovered what a great film it is, Hudson Hawk still has a bit of a dark cloud over it, and hasn’t become a strong cult classic just yet. At the time, it was extremely expensive with a budget of $65 million (paltry by today’s standards), and quickly became one of the biggest financial failures in Hollywood history. This has caused it to become synonymous with folly, and (I believe) has prevented a re-examination by cult film enthusiasts. Hopefully with time that will change, but in the meantime Rob and I will continue to sing its praises.

It’s worth noting that unlike Willis, who managed to rebound with the help of The Last Boy Scout and Pulp Fiction, most of the other primary players didn’t escape unscathed. Andie MacDowell, Danny Aiello, Richard E. Grant, Sandra Bernhard, etc. never really did anything big after this. Furthermore, director Michael Lehmann, who had a monster initial success with Heathers, went on to do a string of not so great films afterward before eventually settling into television work. Although they might not look back on Hudson Hawk fondly (Grant has extensively written about what a negative experience it was), it is an undeniably unique film that is difficult to classify . . . and we’re really glad they all made the mistake of starring in it! So be sure to join us in a proper screening on February 1, complete with cappuccinos and astute Team Fantasmo commentary (not to mention the Clue warm-up)!


Chris Johnson said...

Are you dissing The Naked Gun 2 1/2: The Smell of Fear?? I think it is a worthy successor to the original. Also, TMNT 2: Secret of the Ooze features both David Warner AND Vanilla Ice! How can you go wrong with that? Go ninjas go ninijas go!

Jim Blanton said...

I'll say this of that batch, Naked Gun 2 1/2 is the best of the bunch. But Robert Goulet is no Ricardo Montalban my friend : ) As for Secret of the Ooze, I'll give them credit for the genius of casting Warner and Vanilla Ice, but their presence could not salvage the film.

That summer was even more disappointing when you consider it followed on the heels of a summer that offered us Total Recall, Die Hard 2, Robocop 2, Gremlins 2, etc. And 1989 gave us Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Batman, The Abyss, Star Trek 5, etc. When taken in that perspective, it just didn't measure up.