Movie fans often complain that Hollywood should make fewer remakes, reboots and sequels and come up with more original ideas instead. The sad story of Hudson Hawk provides some explanation of why Hollywood sticks to remakes and franchises.
Hudson Hawk was based on an original idea, it cost an enormous amount of money and it tanked at the box office.
This is actually a case where the reasons for the film’s failure were fairly complicated but this was one of a series of big-budget box-office disasters that hit Hollywood in the late 80s and early 90s (Howard the Duck in 1986, Ishtar in 1987, Cutthroat Island in 1992, Waterworld and Showgirls in 1995). Careers were destroyed, studios collapsed. Hollywood has really been running scared ever since. Studio executives console themselves with the thought that no-one is going to lose their job for authorising yet another Batman movie.
So why was Hudson Hawk such a box-office bomb?
The main reason of course was that what started out as a moderately budgeted movie ended up costing $65 million, a huge budget by 1991 standards. It seem to be a truism that any movie that suffers from enormous budget blowouts and well-publicised production problems will get savaged by mainstream film critics. This may be simply another symptom of the declining standards of journalism. Such movies are an easy target, and the reviews practically write themselves (just throw together a few snarky comments about out-of-control egos and Hollywood excess and you have your review). In some cases these movies really are as frightful as the reviews suggest, in others they’re really not deserving of the critical mauling they received (Waterworld is certainly a colossal stinker, Cutthroat Island is harmless fun and Showgirls is of course a masterpiece).
In this case a further problem was that with the big budget and an ill-conceived publicity campaign by TriStar Pictures and with Bruce Willis as the star audiences assumed they were going to be getting a summer blockbuster in the style of Die Hard. They weren’t expecting Bruce Willis singing old Bing Crosby’s hits like Swinging on a Star. What might have done moderately well as a quirky mid-budget release was now seen as a failed blockbuster.
That may sound suspiciously like I’m about to tell you that Hudson Hawk really isn’t that bad. Which I am, sort of.
So on to the plot. Hudson Hawk (Bruce Willis) is a famed cat-burglar who’s just been released from prison, and he’s recruited for what turns out to be a fateful robbery. He actually wants to go straight, but he isn’t given a choice. He has to steal a Leonardo da Vinci sculpture, the Sforza Horse. The plot from this point on becomes ludicrously over-complicated but that’s more of an asset than a hindrance - the movie is supposed to be and the plot is inventive and engagingly screwy. Hudson Hawk will find himself involved with New York mobsters, the CIA, the Vatican and a couple of crazed billionaires. There are 15th century flying machines, and there is a gigantic machine that produces gold by means of alchemy. And there are lots of explosions. And show tunes.
It’s a movie of spectacular contrasts. Some sequences are not merely delightful, they’re almost inspired. Other scenes fail dismally and annoyingly. I love the first robbery, which becomes a bizarre musical number with Hudson and his sidekick singing Swinging on a Star to time the robbery. On the other hand I will spend the rest of my life trying to forget the dolphin-speaking scene.
The DVD comes with a commentary track by director Michael Lehmann which certainly helps to explain why the movie is the way it is. Bruce Willis came up with the original idea and Steven de Sousa’s first draft screenplay was apparently a fairly conventional comedy/action movie. Then Willis and Lehmann decided it would be more fun to take a few more risks, to try to make a much more unconventional film. So part of the film’s anarchic and at times surreal feel was intentional. On the other hand as the production careered out of control it undoubtedly ended up even more chaotic than planned. The movie damaged Lehmann’s career severely but he seems oddly fond of it.
Bruce Willis is OK as Hudson Hawk. Andie McDowell provides the love interest, as a sexy secret agent nun working for the Vatican, and she’s pretty good. James Coburn is the head CIA agent, a piece of casting clearly intended as a tribute to the spy spoof movies he made in the 60s such as Our Man Flint. And then we have Richard E. Grant and Sandra Bernhard as the kinky megalomaniacal billionaires, Darwin and Minerva Mayflower. That the movie succeeds in being entertaining and weirdly fascinating despite its many flaws is mostly due to these two. Their performances are crazed and over-the-top to a truly awe-inspiring and terrifying degree but when they’re onscreen the movie is a lot more fun.
Overall the movie is a strange and uneasy mixture of slapstick, action and general weirdness but if you’re in the right frame of mind it’s enjoyable. Getting drunk also helps. And it’s hard to dislike a movie that features a macho action hero who sings show tunes and is in lust with a sexy secret agent nun. They don’t make movies like this any more. I kind of liked it.