Is the world finally ready for Hudson Hawk? I don’t know, but it should be.
Hudson Hawk came out in 1991, and was an infamous box-office bomb, although it looked like it should have been have a huge hit: Bruce Willis had just done the first two Die Hard movies to great success, and Die Hard’s Joel Silver was on board as the producer as well. The concept for the film actually came from Willis and his friend, composer Robert Kraft. But then something happened… they decided to hire the director of Heathers, Michael Lehmann, and its screenwriter, Daniel Waters. Given that reunion, the film may have gone in a very different direction than the original plan.
The public had perhaps forgotten that Willis originally made his name as a comedic actor, especially on the TV show Moonlighting and in films like Blind Date—Die Hard has its share of laughs too, which are down to his and Alan Rickman’s comic interplay. But although there’s action in Hudson Hawk, it doesn’t meet anyone’s preconception of what a “Bruce Willis action/caper film” should be. And that’s what it was sold as. Instead, it was actually a surreal comedy with musical numbers, wrapped up in a sort of 60s-esque espionage thriller, starring Bruce Willis as a cat burglar.
Willis is said to have been somewhat difficult at times, and it was his pet project. In fact, it remains his only writing credit. It was a complicated shoot with recasting and rewrites. I’ve been told that the last day Dan Waters was on set, as he was about to fly off to do Batman Returns, a big movie that was going to be successful (no matter how fucked up he made), everyone shunned him because they felt he was leaving them with a turkey. And apparently the first preview screening was a disaster beyond belief. But trouble can breed creativity, and Hudson Hawk has that, plus some hilarious performances.
Hawk has been in prison, and after his release he is blackmailed by various people into doing art thefts. Hawk’s singing partner in crime is played by Danny Aiello, and each of their heists becomes a musical number. Richard E. Grant and Sandra Bernhardt appear as Darwin and Minerva Mayflower, as a husband and wife team who heads up an evil corporation. Also in the mix is the CIA (whose head is played by James Coburn), the Vatican (represented by an agent played by Andie MacDowell), and there’s also a whole sub-plot about Leonardo Da Vinci… Basically, it’s one of the most unhinged films ever made by an American film studio.
All of the performances are cranked up to 11, resulting in a completely absurdist movie with musical numbers, slapstick humour, and lots of references to Coburn’s Flint movies. It subverts any of idea of what a Bruce Willis vehicle should be, instead coming off like a live-action Chuck Jones cartoon. It’s also far more subversive than anyone understood at the time. It looks pretty good as well, as top cinematographer Dante Spinotti (best known for his work with Michael Mann) was on board and the action sequences are incredibly well shot.
The film won numerous Razzies—Worst Director, Worst Screenplay—but the Razzies were never received… and apparently some critics rewrote their reviews to give it a kicking to avoid looking out of step. Although both Waters and Lehmann admit it has it’s flaws, they and many critics have become fond of it over time (although Grant has not come round to a positive view, slating it in his book With Nails).
It probably didn’t help Lehmann’s career, but the time is right to revisit Hudson Hawk. It’s extremely funny, and has the right amount of foam—it deserves a second chance.
The special features have been ported over: the original commentary with Lehmann, an enthusiastic 25-minute interview with Willis, an overly dramatic interview with Bernhardt, the Hudson Hawk theme music video from Dr. John, deleted scenes, a stills gallery, and the original theatrical trailer.