The line separating fantasy from fairytales can be a tricky one to figure out, determined largely by the tone and setting of the film and its usage of the fanciful, whether for romance or misfortune. There aren't many better stress-tests to the boundary separating the broad genre and its sub-group than Ladyhawke, where a curse over a couple that turns each one into different animals depending on the time of day -- the lady's a bird by day, her warrior's a wolf by night -- leads into a melancholy tale that's mostly about their thwarted romance instead of adventure. Superman and Goonies director Richard Donner evokes his bubbly, energetic style into this largely straightforward yarn of magic, love, and twisted use of religious authority, hinged on the mediation of a thief thrown between them by coincidence. Highly divisive music and an inclination towards melodramatic romance be damned: it remains a splendid addition to the genre with a lot of confidence behind what it wants to accomplish.
That thief is, of course, Phillipe the Mouse, a charming little performance from Matthew Broderick sandwiched in between his star-making roles in WarGames and Ferris Bueller's Day Off. He doesn't need to deliver much beyond his charisma as the imprisoned pickpocket freshly escaped from jail in Aquila, letting his endearingly sarcastic attitude shape him during his escape, where he aided by the handsome, intense knight Etienne Navarre (Blade Runner's Rutger Hauer). As the two ride away together after their meeting, along with the knight's pet hawk, it's only a matter of time before Phillipe discovers the secret his fellow traveler harbors night after night, revealed organically over a few sundowns when Navarre disappears and a beautiful woman, Isabeau (Michelle Pfeiffer, Scarface), and her wolf companion appears in his absence. Throughout their adventures, Phillipe learns the truth about why they've been saddled with this mystical burden, why Navarre's headed back to Aquila on a quest for vengeance ... and why he needs The Mouse.
Over the years, I've found that there are two ways to absorb Ladyhawke, either with a sympathetic and nostalgic outlook on '80s aesthetics or completely on its merits as a fantasy film, which will tweak the viewer's overall impressions towards the tale. Taken straight without a little subjective charity, some of the period-bound artistic decisions clash with the film's medieval essence, from dated hairstyles and garments to heavy color gradients layered atop the image for a whimsical effect. Of course, the most prominent of these disruptive anachronisms would be the varied score from Andrew Powell and the Alan Parsons Project, whose peppier, synth-driven melodies and grooves -- in contrast with more traditional elements featuring Gregorian chants and orchestral drama -- can yank someone out of the fanciful spell Donner's casting. Viewed as the sum of products of the era and given a little leeway, however, the film still conjures a unique magnetism despite moments of waywardness, aided greatly by the grandeur and scope of Vittorio Storaro's cinematography throughout the Italian landscape.
Ladyhawke's perseverance has a lot to do with the simple, fanciful charms of the premise laid out by Edward Khmara's story, featuring the literal star-crossed lovers Nevarre and Isabeau changing forms into animal companions for their human selves . Around that, the story largely takes shape through the relationship Phillipe develops between them as a scrawny keeper and medium for their communications, hitting both humorous and tender notes as he discusses -- sometimes honestly and other times embellished for effect -- what the other has said and done in the thief's presence, since they don't retain memories as their animal selves. Longing gazes into the abyss from both Rutger Hauer and Michelle Pfeiffer aren't in short supply as they muse about one another, yet both wear those melancholy looks with a lot of poise, convincing those watching of both their sorrow and their submission to the demands of their situation. As one can expect, there's a melodramatic streak at work amid their reflections, but there's something to both of 'em that elevates the romantic overtures.
There's little use denying the flightiness and triviality of Ladyhawke's story, one with a very clear, anticipated ending that moves into view as soon as Navarre lays out the particulars of the curse. Conflicts and drama emerge that throw everyone in the line of fire, sustaining a fine pace across its two-hour runtime, but the events never really break free from a certain comfort zone to up the stakes; haughty dialogue and pulled punches in the action keep it from being an edge-of-your-seat kind of experience. Ultimately, that doesn't really matter, though: the roundabout path that the adventure takes through the beautifully-photographed Italian landscape keeps a clear eye on its valiant tone and intention, nailing its storybook quality in a grand showdown filled with jousting knights, roguish scheming, and plenty of tears. It's a welcome reprieve from the dour, morally-complex notes of Game of Thrones and other medieval fantasies that have ascended in popularity as of late, one whose upbeat fusion of misfortune and romance works because of the spirit jammed into the execution.
Warner Bros. have released Ladyhawke through their Archive Collection line in a standard Blu-ray keepcase, with its cover artwork and disc design lifted from the old snapper DVD. It's a straightforward presentation even down to the menus, featuring a still shot of Broderick holding the hawk and a black menu strip at the bottom of the image.
Video and Audio:
Warner Bros. have been beaten to the punch in terms of a Ladyhawke Blu-ray playable in North America by an excellent multi-region import distributed by Fox, which sports impressive depth, clarity, and natural color representation. Having looked at the discs side by side, WB's presentation of Storario's 2.35:1 cinematography appears largely the same, but their Archive Collection release ekes out some mild superiority in its 1080p AVC encode, with incrementally better grain structure, compression, and some reduced flickering. Contrast also seems better balanced in WB's disc, too, which enhances the dimensions of interior sequences. This presentation, by and large, is a few steps away from immaculate: the metallic sheen of chain armor, the folds and texture of cloth, and the feathers and fur of the focal animals are robust and never lacking visible detail. The Italian landscape exhibits stunning green foliage, blue skies, and snow-capped mountain shades, while skin tones are rich and convincing. Grain gets a little heavy at points and there's still some imbalanced contrast, but, put simply, Ladyhawke looks stunning.
The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track for Ladyhawke reflects more of the same: both presentations are incredibly satisfying considering the film's vintage and limitations, but some side-by-side scrutiny gives the edge to the Archive Collection release. The kitschy '80s music commands a more delicate, smooth presence in this track, whether it's full-throttle rhythms or the delicate synth effects, and the surround channels see broader, yet convincing, responses to both the score and ambient effects like galloping hooves and rainfall. In general, the sound effects are incrementally stronger and more faithful, from the squawking of a hawk and the movement of horses to the clang of blades and snapping of hooves. Dialogue might be a little less prominent in this track, but it's still predominately discernible in complex scenes, such as one where the bishop's central enforcer has to content with both horse hooves and the music for its clarity. Some signs of age can be pinpointed in areas, of course, but they really don't weaken this rather commendable aural treatment and the way it really embraces what's there. English subtitles are all that's available on this disc, though, along with the English Master Audio track.
Just like the foreign release, which also contains the same number of chapter stops (but in slightly different places at a few points), all we've got is a Trailer.
"Ladyhawke is canon." -- Wade Watts, Ready Player One
Just like in Ernst Cline's book hinged on reverence to the '80s, Richard Donner's film can be a point of contention with some due to its insistent romantic presence and its shaky musical accompaniment, criticisms that aren't undeserved. Yet, there are enough winning qualities embedded in its rich, dramatic setting -- the simply but fluently-realized presence of the curse; the melancholy performances from Rutger Hauer and Michelle Pfeiffer; the rapport they build with the unadorned charms of Matthew Broderick's Mouse -- that it withstands the test of time as a cleverly well-balanced fantasy. Warner Bros. have finally released the film via their Archive Collection series, which delivers nearly impeccably audiovisual properties but, as expected, nothing in the ways of extras. Highly Recommended, though those who already imported the Fox Blu-ray from overseas will only see marginal boosts in quality.