The Guilty Treasure Trove: Hudson Hawk
“Hey, man. Yeah, buon giorno. I’m being blackmailed into robbing the Vatican by a psychotic American corporation and the C.I.A.”
– Eddie “Hudson Hawk” Hawkins
Take it for granted that Hudson Hawk’s failure was well-earned. By all accounts, it was a slipshod production from start to finish, fueled to completion by Hollywood money and Bruce Willis’s vanity. Advance buzz framed it as an out-of-control disaster, and its promotional campaign could never quite nail down an angle that could effectively sell an unmarketable film. Despite its reputation, the implosion of a major would-be blockbuster was never an uncommon occurrence in show business. Nor is the eventual attempt to rescue such films from infamy an uncommon quest among younger, probably amateur critics who, from the perspective of the future (removed from those death-sentence advance screening reports and savage contemporary reviews), see a film that really isn’t all that bad. Not that Hudson Hawk was ahead of its time. Its roots are firmly entrenched in the past, invoking screwball comedy and the genre spoofs of the 1960s. I suspect that at the time it came out in 1991, however, audiences may not have been prepared for an outrageous spoof to expect to be so damn sincere in its own self-love. This is the trait that lets films like Topkapi1 be genuinely exciting, even as they parody their own tropes.
As a star who rose to prominence in comedy — as the lead in Blake Edwards’s Blind Date, the weirdly popular and thoroughly gimmicky Look Who’s Talking, and TV’s Nick and Nora-ish Moonlighting — Willis cemented his status as a leading man in an iconic action role. Die Hard remains one of the finest American “high action” films ever made; its durability owes to many factors, but a big asset was certainly John McClane’s earthiness. McClane’s working class charisma owed itself to Willis’s undeniable, almost inexplicable screen presence. Profane wisecracks and and an increasingly battered, bruised, and bloody physique deflate the image of the Superman action figure, but his endurance is magnified by his gritty, blue collar determination. This balancing act hinged upon another basic component of stardom: cool. Who else but Bruce Willis could plausibly write, “Ho ho ho now I have a machine gun” on a corpse and not have it come across as the least bit perverse? None of his contemporaries; not unless they were in a comedy. That natural comic sensibility fit so naturally with the macho images of Die Hard that it became nearly impossible for action films to deliver one-liners the same way afterward.2 Willis virtually created his own style of blockbuster stardom, and from that entitlement grew the ego that finally burst onto screen as Eddie “Hudson Hawk” Hawkins.
Obviously, vanity projects have a long history of yielding bad crops. Some never see fruition, and those that do are often egregious paeans to the star as Star, with spectacularly risible scenes and bloated budgets. Directors can be just as guilty of such vanity, of course, especially if they’ve attained a sort of star status in their own right. What we don’t often like to talk about is the fact that the stars that wield enough clout to make these pet projects happen have earned that clout by lending their stardust to financially and critically successful movies. Audiences and critics love these people, and the gamble that the artist’s instincts will prove rewarding is a fair bet as these things go. Five years ago, Mel Gibson bet his name and fortune on a brutal, esoterically religious (and allegedly racist) Biblical epic that grossed ten times its budget. Likewise, some of the earliest silent comedians, Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin, leveraged their status as screen icons and became some of the most influential and artistically respected filmmakers in cinema history. A volatile, extraordinarily gifted stage and radio actor and director was handed carte blanche to make his first feature film, which flopped initially, but proved to be what many scholars consider the best feature film ever made. (His name was Orson Welles; the film was Citizen Kane, natch.) Then there were the legendary stories of James Cameron’s cost overruns and nitpicking attention to detail on Titanic, for which he forfeited his salary. We all know how that turned out. Suffice it to say that vanity projects are not necessarily doomed. Nor is any notoriously troubled production: the studio system’s finest achievement, Casablanca, survived a troubled production, and it endures as an effortless piece of entertainment that bears no markings of its hectic shoot.
Yet the conventional wisdom remains that a disastrous production makes for a disastrous film. Audiences and industry watchdogs take such advance buzz and formulate potential responses to films that promise to be epically bad. The distant, shimmering scraping you hear is the sound of critics sharpening their knives.
Yes, Hudson Hawk failed as everyone expected it would. Most involved with the film pretended that it didn’t exist for several years, and its few initial apologists spoke none too loudly. My own exposure to the film didn’t occur until years after its release, when I happened to catch it on cable during the Fourth of July holidays. The film’s self-aware goofiness, modestly kinetic set pieces, and celebration of raw screen presence for its own sake hooked me immediately. Later, after repeated viewings, I connected with the way the utter lack of subtlety compounded upon itself, sort of like a continuous shout muffled to greater or lesser degrees by clapping earmuffs over your head.
Michael Lehmann was a serendipitous choice as director. Despite the creative control exercised by Willis and Joel Silver over the production, Lehmann’s passive-aggressive style allowed the camera to settle back into rather routine compositions (which often look silky and varnished, thanks to Dante Spinotti), while the cartoonish hither-thither performances and pyrotechnics assaulted the lens with gleeful abandon. Despite having directed several feature films of various levels of eccentricity and success (Heathers, Meet the Applegates, My Giant, The Truth About Cats and Dogs, Airheads, Because I Said So), most of his work has been in television, where his anti-auteurist craftsmanship has been put to use on cable shows such as The Larry Sanders Show, Big Love, and True Blood. Lehmann’s overriding characteristic has been a propensity toward slight naughtiness, without ever really pushing the envelope, turning any potentially subversive idea into something safe and digestible.
No matter how anarchic Hudson Hawk pretends to be, there’s an overriding familiarity — a sort of lackluster homogeneity — that unifies the film’s tendency to play each scene as it lays, which holds the potential to be tonally all over the place. This homogeneity has been mistaken for mediocrity for nearly twenty years, rather than recognized as a prankster-craftsman trying to hold an off-the-rails production together with spit and polish. In a way, this tenacious unity is what justified the instinct to write the film off as another disaster. If the film truly had been an unmitigated disaster, perhaps its cult following would have firmly entrenched itself from the start — after all, there’s no underestimating the appetite for the bizarre among cult enthusiasts. Hudson Hawk is unusual, but it is never really all that bizarre.
Perhaps the oddest thing about Hudson Hawk is the fact that, for a film that isn’t all that strange or inaccessible, it still fails to connect with audiences. More accurately, it doesn’t make a concerted effort. Willis and his cohorts made a film that was so out-of-synch with the mainstream (both in concept and as an inevitable result of the troubled production) that it could possibly only appeal to a limited viewership. In point of fact, it was really made to appeal to the sensibilities of… the people that made it. And apparently a lot of them hate it to this day.3 It’s not simply that the audience didn’t “get” the film. The filmmakers didn’t “get” the audience. They confused personal satisfaction with crowd-pleasing. Hudson Hawk is such a hermetically sealed universe that it double-dares the audience to let the film take it for a ride, rather than just whisking them off their feet. Consequently, the audience may feel like they just had the rug pulled out from under them. Instead of evincing the style of the older films to which it owes its debts (in high postmodern fashion), it mirrors them, producing a faithful-to-a-fault facsimile. In other words, was a comedy according to Hollywood S.O.P…. twenty-five or fifty years ago.
Hudson Hawk was a parody, but not contemporary beyond building upon Willis’s rising star persona. It reworked tropes, making a few direct references, but it attempted to be a semi-original film following in a tradition (or business model?) that had been out of fashion for years. Contrast this to Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery six years later, which not only parodied specific films (and more directly), but parodied the parodies. Mike Myers also had the foresight at the time not to build the film upon his own comic persona; Austin Powers was an original creation that drew inspiration from legions of spies and spoof-spies before him, but from much more famous ones than Derek Flint — James Bond is a Western cultural icon; 60s psychadelia was enjoying a hipster resurgence. Myers struck while the iron was hot, playing to the zeitgeist as broadly as possible, while still playing a character with sincerity. Of course, he completely destroyed this delicate balance with the sequels, in which his mugging and unimaginative sex jokes trumped the original film’s roots in retro chic as well as the earnest affection that made such a silly film so palatable and resonant.
Whereas Austin Powers stroked and lampooned the baby boomers’ nostalgic iconography,4 Eddie Hawkins stroked and lampooned the contemporary audience’s Bruce Willis iconography. At the time, that iconography was less than a generation old, and despite his overwhelming success as a magnetic comic leading man-cum-action hero, it was also very limited. The only way in which Hudson Hawk was ahead of its time is that, in the years since its release, Willis has become something of a benchmark. Branching out as a dramatic actor as well as continuing to appear in genre roles has cemented and magnified his star status. Willis, after a couple decades, has finally generated an iconography capable of supporting “Hudson” Hawkins. That’s why Hudson Hawk works better now, in retrospect, than it possibly could have worked at the time.
Now that Willis’s assured legacy as a genuine Hollywood star has been secured, 5 it frees up the film to offer and self-reflexively revel in its multitude of other pleasures. Dozens of moments emerge as witty bon mots, my favorite being the conclusion of an early chase scene (of sorts), in which an ambulance crashes and flips over, exploding in midair, apropos of absolutely nothing — as vehicles are wont to do in action flicks, although the absurdity of Hawk clearly laughs at the tendency even as the camera drinks up the billowing flames and the editing short circuits continuity to protract the explosion. The stalwart James Coburn6 appears as rogue C.I.A. agent George Kaplan, whom we recognize as the fraudulent spook for whom Cary Grant is mistaken in North by Northwest. The obligatory henchman, a butler who entreats us to “forgive his dry, British humor” after slicing a corrupt parole officer’s throat and remarking, “So much for his cut,” is decapitated in the film’s explosive climax. Hudson Hawk dutifully delivers an ironic one-liner (“Looks like you won’t be attending that hat convention in July!”), a wince flashing across his face in acknowledgement of the wearying obligation to spout such awful lines after each villain he dispatches (as every action hero must do). Then there’s the scene of the Pontiff himself attempting to fix his TV set with his scepter when the Hawk’s adventures interrupt an Italian-dubbed episode of Mr. Ed.
The film’s greatest set pieces, of course (of course) are the musical heists. Perhaps the best use of “Swingin’ on a Star” ever — including any/all Bing Crosby projects — Eddie and his partner, Tommy Two-Tone, time and coordinate their heist of a New York auction house to the tune. Both men sing as they infiltrate and purloin, a magisterial deployment of fluid camerawork and cross-cutting, the heist of the century turned into a joyous duet. Obviously, Willis finding an excuse to sing in a film panders to his own side-career as a would-be rock star (he’s the bandleader of blues band The Accelerators, singing lead vocals and playing harmonica), but turning moments of dramatic impact into musical numbers — rather than resorting to more dumb gags — emphasizes the Hawk’s retro-coolness. Not only is he good at what he does, but he looks good doing it. It’s a sly perversion of the song’s most famous original context: a Catholic padre illustrating to his young choir (in song) how bad behavior and habits inexorably lead one to becoming the person one’s actions define one as being. (Bad boys grow into bad men.) Reframing the song in the context of Hudson Hawk clearly paints Eddie as one of the kids that didn’t listen to old Father O’Malley — he went on to lead a life of crime, gleefully flaunting the message of the song as he does all the naughty things as an adult that probably got him into trouble as a kid. Still, he knows he’s bad, and wants to be good, sort of like the film in which he finds himself, knowing that a great song-and-dance can get you out of just about anything if those watching happen to enjoy a good show.
Paying tribute to a dead genre was another miscalculation of what audiences would find entertaining, but it yokes the Hudson Hawk mythos not only to screwball comedy, heist films, action thrillers, and farcical parody, but to the musicals of the 40s and 50s. Constructing the legend of Eddie Hawkins isn’t just a kiss blown to Willis’s stardom and vanity, it’s rooted in blending the genres that excite and inspire Willis and his filmmakers — genres that were at their height during the days when the studio system still made stars the old-fashioned way: larger than life and inseparable from the mythos of their screen characters.
To bolster this mythos, Hudson Hawk plunders the American tourist’s version of that most venerable of Italian institutions: the Roman Catholic Church. Exhibiting an ex-Lutheran boy’s fascination with Catholic trappings (and Catholic girls), Willis’s hero takes what he needs from the Church and leaves the rest. Even the love interest, a Vatican double-agent, is played by Andie MacDowell — about as un-Catholic a nun as you’re likely to see. Even with crucifixes serving as two-way radio communicators and a cappuccino machine that serves poison foam, the mystery and scope of the RCC and its traditions is granted the same status in the Hudson Hawk legend as Captain Bob’s steering wheel. As Eddie remarks when he first sees the remains of the ancient Roman forum, “Hey, Tommy. Why do they leave all these rocks laying around in their back yard?” The joke undercuts any pretension that film may harbor, just as the steampunk gold machine supposedly invented by Leonardo Da Vinci is undercut by the implication that the Mona Lisa’s smile is due to really bad dentistry, even though the spectacular, on-location Italian vistas present a level of authenticity that does more to keep the film off-kilter than its dizzyingly ridiculous plot.
About the only one who seemed to realize the full potential of all this mythmaking and vanity-assuaging was Michael Kamen, whose gloriously insistent score flits from sweeping string sections of heroic adventure to Addams Family harpsichord, with long intervals sliding up and down various tempos of impish oom-pah. Overblown as it sometimes is (and other times a bit undercooked), the music is the only subtle instrument in the film, commenting upon and reinforcing the action with deadpan sincerity. As far as you can get from experimental or innovative, Kamen’s Hudson Hawk score exemplifies the Hollywood tradition of score composition: adding a propulsive layer to what we see on screen, mixing with the visual image and soundscape so inimitably that these series of notes can never be extracted from them. Kamen really understood the impact of the “Swingin’ on a Star” and “Side by Side” sequences better than anyone, because the visual dynamism and whimsical appropriation of these standards has given them new meaning, possibly even eclipsing the old. Since the characters have memorized and love the songs, indicating a strong nostalgic bond, the use of them in the film suggests the desire to create a new nostalgia — even one built on ego. Kamen flatters Willis’s hubris, celebrating its goofy excesses and inadvertently heroic moments.
The film is rather lucky that any kind of audience decided to embrace it at all — and those that did followed in Kamen’s footsteps. A film essentially made for the amusement and flattery of a handful of people deserves whatever its commercial and critical fate may be; perhaps meretricious disaster. The emergence of Hudson Hawk as a cult film is due in part to the audience’s willingness to tune into its wavelength and claim ownership and identification. The ultimate artistic success of the film depends on people choosing to see it for what it wanted to be as well as what it is — that nebulous nether-region in which the demands of the original concept, the whims of the filmmakers, and the vicissitudes of a tumultuous production converge to make the actual film. This isn’t just taking the film on its own terms; it actively supplies enthusiasm and energy because something about the film speaks to something the viewer needs and wants to see, which is why not every viewer “gets” the film — they just don’t want to, and I don’t mean that in a pejorative, close-minded sense.
The fact is, the film is so endearingly honest and aggressive about its narcissism and senselessness (as well as its almost total lack of true ambition) that the scene where Hudson Hawk strolls into the Vatican and tells an uncomprehending guard that he plans to rip the place off is a strange metaphor for the relationship between Hudson Hawk and its viewers. Some of us are so taken with the film’s baldfaced, relaxed absurdity and Bruce Willis’s swagger that we blindly follow along because, well, what could be a better way to spend the afternoon? Others, those who can’t take that leap because they are understandably locked out of the film’s reflexive world, will take Eddie Hawkins at his word when he says, “It’s okay, colonel. Just keep an eye on all the art.” There are certainly better, more ambitious, well-crafted “art” films out there that many viewers would rather watch, films worth watching and appreciating and thinking about. Then there’s Hudson Hawk. If it’s not art, it’s the most fun I’ve ever had watching one man’s quest for the perfect cup of cappuccino. Sometimes a guy on donkey’s just a guy on a donkey, and when he gets blown off his saddle, it’s okay to laugh. Not everyone is seeking illumination.
Edited and annotated by (not to mention conceptually indebted to) Tracy McCusker.
- Which informed the central set piece of Brian De Palma’s Mission: Impossible. ↩
- “Shop smart. Shop S-mart.” ↩
- Three words: Richard E. Grant. ↩
- And the ironic ownership of multigeneration kitsch exhibited by the boomers’ children: the Simpsons and Seinfeld generation. ↩
- i.e. Willis’s vanity has proven to be well-founded ↩
- Whose career survived and triumphed over the vagaries of starring in more than a hundred film and television roles. ↩