When Mark Kermode expressed his admiration for the critically maligned Bond spoof Hudson Hawk to Richard E Grant, the actor’s response was that “it was a pile of steaming hot donkey droppings and you are an idiot”. I must confess to Mr Grant that I am also a proud member of the “Hudson Hawk-loving idiots”. This is not simply the rantings of a contrarian. Many share the sentiment that this Bruce Willis flop is an exhilarating, absurdly bonkers showpiece of 90s Hollywood.
A reputation that includes a $90m box-office loss and the Razzies nominating it as one of the worst films of the decade, Hudson Hawk is far too creative, and far too charming to deserve this lambasting. It is not without faults and its silly, cartoonish tone, will turn many off. However, an inventively goofy screenplay, inspired direction and appropriately over-the-top performances from its cast, make it entirely undeserving of its infamous notoriety.
Set between New York and Rome, Eddie “Hudson Hawk” Hawkins (Willis) and his partner Tommy “Five-Tone” (Danny Aiello) are a pair of wisecracking, music-loving cat burglars. They find themselves entangled in the malevolent plans of the billionaire Mayflowers (Grant and Sandra Bernhard) and the CIA (led by James Coburn), who are attempting to use a lost Leonardo DaVinci contraption to turn lead into gold.
Conceived by Willis (his only writing credit) and his old music buddy Robert Kraft, it was brought to life by director Michael Lehmann and screenwriter Daniel Waters, the duo behind the scathing teen satire Heathers. Much like Heathers, Hudson Hawk feels like a fairytale (though with a more light-hearted touch than the former). It is even bookended by a storybook that adds to the pulpy mythos Lehmann and Waters are striving for.
The film is utterly ludicrous and preposterous, but is undeniably entertaining. It feels closer to a live-action Saturday morning cartoon than the Die Hard clone it was falsely advertised as. Subtlety is non-existent in Hudson Hawk, as if Lehman, Willis and Waters had the Spinal Tap amplifier, turning everything up to 11. Grant and Bernhard are not merely chewing the scenery, but engulfing it prop by prop. Willis and Aiello feel like Martin and Lewis mixed with Dick Dastardly and Muttley, a camaraderie that is built upon witty, slightly homoerotic banter (“Where’s the kiss? No tongue this time, I promise.”) Coburn proudly declares he misses communism, whilst surrounded by chocolate bar named henchmen. At first, Andie MacDowell (playing a nun) seems comparatively subdued. Until she starts imitating a dolphin …
This surreal absurdity always keeps the film engaging, though. The humour is slapstick and juvenile, but in a charming Carry On way. Everything feels off limits, as if the entire cast and crew had an entire sandbox to build whatever they please. Scenes such as Hawk shooting a Wire Fox terrier out of a castle window with a tennis ball machine is stitch inducing. Its reminiscent of the Adam West Batman series and Get Smart in all its campy, unabashed glory. Waters and co-writer Steven E de Souza even give the script a certain parodic flavour that paved the way for Austin Powers.
A noteworthy aspect are the film’s two swinging musical numbers, where Willis and Aiello time their heists to American pop standards. Its nonsensical, but exceptionally grin-inducing as Willis and Aiello exhibit a Rat-Pack like charm, emulating Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin. It also reminds us of Willis’s accomplished comedic skill, that he first used in Moonlighting. Furthermore, the work from Kamen and his crew is technically impressive. The action scenes are fun, particularly one sequence where Willis is riding a hospital bed down the Brooklyn Bridge (“How am I driving? 1-800-I’m-gonna-fuckin’-die!”) Dante Spinotti’s adeptly skilled camerawork gives the Rome locations a properly operatic feel, and Kraft and Michael Kamen’s jazzy score has a laidback smoothness, with Hawk’s theme annoyingly catchy.
While its contemporary reception was blamed on the acrimonious relationship between Willis and the press, Hudson Hawk is not the vanity project it was reported as. Thirty years on, it’s the type of bombastic, star-driven film-making that has largely disappeared from Hollywood. But its creativity and technical prowess make for amusing, witty escapism. I sincerely hope Richard E Grant finds it in his heart to become a fellow “Hawkite”, as he will be a welcome addition to the clan. As its poster put it so eloquently: “Catch the excitement, catch the adventure, catch the Hawk.”