Day 146: Hudson Hawk

"Is looking like a constipated warthog a prerequisite for getting a job in the art world?"

There's a very strange phenomenon surrounding Bruce Willis, and it's very hard for me to figure out. Somehow the man churns out a major bomb every couple of years, yet never loses his A-list status. He's starred in such unmitigated disasters as Bonfire of the Vanities, North, Breakfast of Champions, Perfect Stranger & Color of Night, but without a doubt, his most memorable failure has got to be 1991's Hudson Hawk. How is it that Willis remains bankable, even, dare I say it, likable, in spite of his track record? Well, he has starred in a lot more hits than he has bombs, but it's almost as if people just forget about the bombs and focus on the hits.

Hudson Hawk is a doozy of a film. It's not the catastrophic failure that people have made it out to be, but it's also not very good either. I have fond memories of the film, it's always been a guilty pleasure of mine, but revisiting it after more than a decade, I'm here to tell you, it hasn't aged well. At all. It's a ballsy movie, and it's not hard to see why it failed. It's a wacky, almost post-modern riff on the jet-setting James Bond knock-offs that were so ubiquitous in the 60s. I say almost because it's actually a lot stupider than I think the filmmakers realized. It is, by no means, a smart or savvy satire, but it does a lot of things well, which helps to cement its status as a cult classic.

Willis plays the eponymous safe-cracker, just let out of prison, but finding himself getting dragged back in for the proverbial "one last job," that involves the CIA, the mafia, the Vatican & two deranged billionaires (Richard E. Grant & Sandra Bernhard). They're trying to track down relics from Leonardo DaVinci's work that hold the key to some sort of doomsday device. To say that the plot is secondary to the action & set-pieces is an understatement. The plot is so convoluted, it doesn't even seem to have been a concern to anyone involved.

Either way, Hawk's old partner Tommy (Danny Aiello) comes along for the ride, as does an art historian (Andie MacDowell) working for the Vatican. The CIA agents are all code-named for candy bars (Kit Kat, Butterfinger, etc), the mafia representatives are Cesar & Anthony Mario, or the Mario Brothers. In other words, the film has allusions to being clever, but doesn't actually do anything with these set-ups to pay off the presumed cleverness. It's just being clever for its own sake. Which is fine, but it's also an example of why the film, as a whole, just doesn't work.

It seems like an issue of too many creative forces coming together, all bringing their own ideas, and none of them willing to compromise. Therefore, the film ends up being a pastiche of random assorted nonsense, of the kind that would appeal endlessly to my twelve year old self, but as an adult, it's a less than satisfying endeavor. My adult self did delight in the odd casting choices however, like Frank Stallone & James Coburn, both of whom seem to know how bad the movie is, but neither of whom seem to give a shit.

There's plenty of things to like here, such as the crooks timing their jobs to old standards rather than using a watch, or the scene transitions that keep things moving to the point where the film feels as if it's never going to slow down enough to even end. But more than anything else, it's just a convoluted mess of jokes that don't work, pop culture references that fall flat, and Willis smirking his way through the film as if he's sharing a joke with the audience that they don't seem to be in on.

And I guess that's the reason Willis has managed to maintain his likability, no matter how bad the project around him seems to be. He knowingly places himself above the material, even if it's material he conceived, as is the case here. In other words, if you love Hudson Hawk, you love it because Bruce Willis knows how bad it is, and is in on the joke with you, and if you hate it, you're able to recognize that even the film's star knew how bad it was. He gets to have it both ways, and how many other people in Hollywood have that luxury? Not many. In fact, he might be the only one.

[Header Image]