“Hudson Hawk” is one of the more interesting curios in recent Hollywood history. Bruce Willis was beyond famous at this point – the first two Die Hards, Look Who’s Talking and Moonlighting gave him a huge fanbase and meant he could pretty much do whatever he wanted. What he wanted, it turns out, was to make a knockabout comedy about a famous cat burglar and the world-domination plot he gets himself involved with.
Willis is the titular character, just finishing a decade or so in prison; and Danny Aiello is his old partner, waiting on the outside for him. Hawk is blackmailed (by his parole officer, no less) into stealing Leonardo da Vinci’s famous “Sforza” statue from an auction house, and from that meets an undercover Nun (Andie MacDowell, never more beautiful), a group of CIA agents with a rather confusing agenda (led by James Coburn, with a very young David Caruso as part of the team), and the insane billionaire Mayflowers (Richard E Grant and Sandra Bernhard, who appear to be loving every overacting minute of their time on screen).
The action relates to a mechanism Da Vinci invented to perfect the art of alchemy, with the pieces hidden inside other works of his. There’s a lovely bit at the beginning where we see Da Vinci, a torrent of ideas coming out of his head, with a nice Mona Lisa joke, but most of it is the scrapes Hawk gets into, and his continuing quest to get a cappucinno. The world domination plan is sort of a good idea, if only alchemy worked. I’d like to live in a world run by the Mayflowers.
I love this film, and think its critical mauling is ridiculous. Firstly, it was a huge box office disaster ($17 million, from a production budget of around $70 million) which means it was safe to have a dig at – if it made double its budget back, do you think the press would have insulted it in such droves? Willis was sensible enough to not defend it too strongly, and Richard E Grant’s autobiography gave it an absolute pasting, insulting everything about it.
Also, it seems a lot of critics have a problem with comedies that are deliberately over the top. There’s this idea that the weird style moments – for example, Willis enters the next scene several times by falling from somewhere completely different in the last scene – are the result of bad editing, and not just a deliberate choice. It’s an unrealistic world, and there are some self-indulgent choices – like, the two thieves time their jobs by singing old songs, just an excuse for Willis to crowbar some singing into his movie. Richard E Grant and Sandra Bernhard are amazing, starting at 1000mph bonkers and getting worse, and it saddens me that Grant hated the experience. They do put in some sequences that work in their own right, though, like the ambulance gurney chase and the raid on the castle at the end, even if they are full of Willis cracking jokes.
I imagine it wasn’t a great set to work on – director Michael Lehmann, who made “Heathers” and “The Truth About Cats And Dogs” before becoming pretty much exclusively a TV director, was frozen out of most of the decision making by Willis and producer Joel Silver; and Willis was apparently not all that bothered by being on the set – if you ever see him from the back in a scene, it’ll be his double. But we can’t really go on that, all we can judge it on is what’s on the screen, and it’s a fun, deliberately logic-free, lunatic comic caper movie.
I’d not watched this film in years, and revisiting it made me realise what I’d missed as a younger man. I appreciated its willingness to not care even more; but there’s also some unpleasant casual racism and homophobia tossed about, and one of the CIA agents (Andrew Bryniarski, last seen by us in “Cyborg 3”), while wondering about how they can keep Hawk in line, asks his boss, “Do you want me to rape him?” It’s very odd, as are the very large amount of Nintendo references, but as the sort of film that doesn’t get made any more – the super A-lister’s weird passion project – if nothing else, it’s worth a watch.
Rating: thumbs up