In 1991, Bruce Willis was sitting on top of the world. With the help of two blockbuster "Die Hard" movies and the sleeper success of "Look Who's Talking," the actor found himself in the enviable position of having anything he desired made without a single, solitary fuss raised by Hollywood suits. Would he make a challenging political picture? A controversial abortion drama? A B&W, German-subtitled surrealist comedy? Nope. Willis made "Hudson Hawk."
Eddie Hawkins (Bruce Willis) is a master thief fresh from a ten-year stint in prison. Swearing off crime, The "Hudson Hawk" is pulled in for a massive job when the scheming Mayflowers, Darwin (Richard E. Grant) and Minerva (Sandra Bernhard), decide to blackmail Eddie into a plan to steal iconic Da Vinci artifacts to help build a machine that produces gold. Now off on a globetrotting adventure with partner Tommy Five-Tone (Danny Aiello), Eddie finds himself entangled in a massive conspiracy that involves the Mafia and the CIA (James Coburn), along with some government stooges named after candy bars and a helpful nun (Andie MacDowell) who finds herself falling for Eddie's rapscallion ways.
I must admit, I was a monster fan of "Hawk" way back in 1991. Being both a desperately young devotee of Willis and believing director Michael Lehmann hung the moon with his 1989 masterpiece "Heathers," I was primed to see these talents collide. And collide they sure did.
A strange brew of action, adventure, slapstick, science-fiction, and, gulp, musicals, "Hudson Hawk" was a creation born under great duress. The production of the film was a constant pissing match between egos, while the release of the film was a trainwreck, with too much media emphasis placed on the enormous budget (65 million for this movie was insane at the time, now it's catering on the "Pirates of the Caribbean" sequels) and Willis's indestructibility, and not enough on the atypical moviegoing experience it offered.
In essence, Willis (who dreamed up with the story with pal Robert Kraft) was aiming to make an R-rated cartoon; a film that would somehow collect the exaggerated sensibilities of the Three Stooges, Indiana Jones, and Hope & Crosby and blend them into a farcical soup, hopeful to generate thrills and laughs in equal measure. It's a complicated viewing experience, bluntly executed by Lehmann, who valiantly strived to make a silly movie, perhaps letting the slapstick impulses of the script (by "Heathers" scribe Daniel Waters and 80's action pimp Steve E. de Souza) swallow the film whole. "Hawk" is relentless in its pursuit of absurdity, and that very lust is why it remains a polarizing, but undeniably gusty production worthy of cult status.
Piloted by Willis's cappuccino-thirsty, permo-smirk performance at the titular cat burglar, "Hawk" coasts on a great deal of chaotic smarm. It's a caper in the loosest sense, making more room for madcap bumbling around than kinetic storytelling, which often traps the film in the knotted game of double-crosses and twists the screenplay serves up. Making great use of Italian locations and endlessly enchanted with its own sense of humor, "Hawk" is an acquired taste; a picture willing to bring a cocktail party to the doorstep of any viewer who gives it a shot.
While Willis is the star of the show (a truth the film is not shy communicating) special attention must be paid to Richard E. Grant and his berserk portrayal of Darwin Mayflower. A wealthy madman who seems more in tune with his kinky sex life than extravagant plans for world domination, Grant spins wildly around "Hawk" like an accidently dropped roman candle; his every step gloriously over the top in a simple effort to get the film to notice him. Toss in Sandra Bernhard as his wife, and you have two actors who come damn close to stealing the film away from Willis and his bottomless buffet of buffoonery.
Presented in anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1 aspect ratio), "Hudson Hawk" is something of a visual disappointment. Dante Spinotti's cinematography is rendered a smear when "Hawk" switches to nighttime hijinks, with black levels messy, occasionally clouding the intent of the scene. The film looks far more appealing during daytime adventure sequences.
In the Dolby Digital 2.0 sound mix, the music is served best. Brimming with musical numbers and Michael Kamen's jazzy score, "Hawk" features a lively soundtrack, handed a serviceable, if unremarkable, DVD showcase. The rest of the film blends the action with comedy competently, just not dynamically.
A mixture of extras from the 1999 DVD release and an aborted "15th Anniversary Edition" that was pulled from the schedule last year, this new edition of "Hawk" is one step closer to understanding how this zany film came to be, but falls just short of powerhouse behind-the-scenes revelations.
New to DVD:
"The Story of 'Hudson Hawk'" (30 minutes) boasts participation by Bruce Willis, commentating on one of the most controversial films of his career. What could've been a tightly edited, informative featurette is instead a loose, improvisational patience-tester, where Willis sits down with Robert Kraft, discussing their friendship while tinkling on a piano and singing. They do manage to discuss the musical origin of the character, and Willis takes a moment to deride critics who "didn't get" the film during its theatrical release, stating the film was "ahead of its time" and is now in profit.
Willis never confronts the rumors surrounding the production of the film, instead making it clear he's proud of the picture and holds a general disregard for those who weren't enchanted by the carnival-ride nature of the picture. Overall, it's a dull sit, failing to reveal information worth the 15 years it's taken Willis to properly comment on the film. In fact, you learn more about Kraft's vocational background than the movie. An opportunity wasted.
"My Journey to Minerva" (11 minutes) isn't so much an interview with Sandra Bernhard as it is a performance piece where the actress briefly recalls her time as the wicked queen of gold. If not completely honest about her months on the "Hawk" set (in his book "With Nails," Richard Grant wrote a far more unflattering account of filming) Bernhard still offers hilarious anecdotes and memories, performed in a cutting monologue style.
"Deleted Scenes" (5 minutes) solves the greatest mystery surrounding the production: what happened to Hawk's pet monkey? We find out in a series of short clips. We also learn how Tommy got his nickname and how a certain flying special effect was achieved. Overall, a lackluster mix.
"'Hudson Hawk" Trivia Track" is a standard issue experience, displaying text on the bottom of the screen during the movie that spews simple production and historical facts. Did you know Bruce Willis was often teased as a kid? That Jennifer Jason Leigh was up for the role of Minerva? Or that Bunny, that ball-ball lovin' dog, was deaf?
"'Hudson Hawk' Theme Music Video" (4 minutes) is an embarrassing time capsule from 1991. A video directed by a very young Antoine Fuqua, the lethargic Dr. John track is given overblown noir visual flourishes, while also including Willis and clips from the movie in on the "fun."
Trailers for "Monty Python and the Holy Grail," "The Detonator," and "Ultraviolet" are provided.
Ported over from the 1999 DVD:
A feature-length audio commentary from director Michael Lehmann is an appealing listen, even if the filmmaker declares right at the start of the track that he refuses to dish on the film's troubles. Even without the juicy details, Lehmann is an engaging speaker, keeping the information flowing about the film's comedic intention (an idea he sells a little too desperately), the various Rome and Budapest locations, and discussing the puzzled reaction the movie received upon release.
"Hudson Hawk" nearly destroyed Bruce Willis's career in 1991, but to revisit the film today, without the blinding glare of his stardom and media ubiquity, reveals a goofball comedy that's easy to digest. Sure, the picture is riddled with awful jokes, unhinged performances, and direction that lacks direction, but the overall party-like atmosphere of the film is enchanting. It's a wonderful piece of lunacy that's separated itself from something of a cinematic pariah to become a delightfully outlandish vanity film, capable of eliciting giggles, groans, guffaws, and gagging frequently in the same fanciful instant.
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