We revisit Bruce Willis’s much-maligned but now somewhat beloved Hudson Hawk, a comedy/crime caper that was ahead of its time.
THE STORY: Eddie Hawkins (Bruce Willis) aka the Hudson Hawk is a master cat burglar recently released from prison after a long stretch. Determined to go straight, he’s nonetheless blackmailed by the psychotic Darwin (Richard E. Grant) and Minerva Mayflower (Sandra Bernhard) to undertake a series of jobs in Rome involving the components of a machine designed by Leonardo da Vinci that converts lead into gold.
THE PLAYERS: Starring: Bruce Willis, Andie MacDowell, Danny Aiello, James Coburn, Richard E. Grant and Sandra Bernhard. Directed by Michael Lehman.
THE HISTORY: With Bruce Willis’s sad health situation forcing him into retirement, it’s worth digging into his filmography to examine some of his less-seen gems. For me, one of the big ones is Hudson Hawk. In 1991, Bruce Willis was arguably at the peak of his fame. “Moonlighting” was done and Die Hard had made him into one of the biggest action stars in town, a status reaffirmed by the smash success of the sequel, Die Hard 2: Die Harder. Sure, he’d had a few flops, including the infamous The Bonfire of the Vanities, but no one blamed Willis. As long as he was doing action flicks he was golden, and with producer Joel Silver, he could get whatever he wanted made.
Enter Hudson Hawk. Originally written by Die Hard scribe Steven E. de Souza, but then reworked by Heathers’ writer Daniel Waters (with the director of said film, Michael Lehman, also signing on as director), Hudson Hawk proved to be an unwieldy mix of genres. Part comedy, part action, part sci-fi, part musical and all camp, audiences stayed away in droves. It only grossed $17 million compared to the $65 million budget while it also took the year’s Razzie Award for “worst picture.” Yet, on home video/ cable it developed something of a cult following.
WHY IT’S GREAT: I first saw Hudson Hawk on the Canadian version of HBO, First Choice (later – The Movie Network). Despite being R-rated in the U.S, on First Choice, Hudson Hawk only merited an “A” rating, basically PG-13, which meant it could air during the daytime (R-rated movies only aired after 9p). Thus, the summer of 1992, I saw Hudson Hawk over and over (and over) and to this day I have a certain fondness for it.
On the page my script was certainly not like anything you had ever read. I think people looked at that in a good way as we went into pre-production. I started to know we were in trouble when in dailies Joel and Bruce would say ”You know what this is? This is a Pink Panther movie. ” The next day they’d say ”You know what this is? This is an American James Bond movie. ” Another day they’d say ”You know what this is? This is a Flint movie. Let’s get James Coburn in the movie. ” Then it would be ”You know what this is? This is NORTH BY NORTHWEST with David Addison from Moonlighting. ” I even remember someone saying ”You know what, this is CASINO ROYALE (the 1967 version). ” I thought ”Mmmm, I remember that being fun. ” I had someone get it for me in Rome and I watched it and realized ”Oh, my God. It IS CASINO ROYALE, but not in a good way. ” Eventually I realized that if every day at dailies they were saying it was something different, by the time we got to the editing room, we were going to be in trouble. – Daniel Waters – Money Into Light Interview
To understand Hudson Hawk, you really have to get exactly who Bruce Willis was at the time. We think of him now as somewhat humorless, but back then he was the wise guy action hero. In fact, throughout much of the film, he seems to be playing Hudson Hawk as an extension of his “Bruno” character, which is a long-forgotten chapter of his career where he tried to pull a Don Johnson and become a pop star, releasing an infamous album called “The Return of Bruno” where he adopted a pop star “character” (Garth Brooks did the same silly thing years later for “The Life of Chris Gaines”).
To audiences expecting John McClane, Willis and the late Danny Aiello waltzing around singing Bing Crosby songs to each other must have been a put-off. Yet, the movie is campy fun, with a breakneck pace and a witty script. It’s crazy the movie ever got made. To give you an example of how odd it is, the love interest (played by Andie MacDowell) is a nun. While a comedy, it also has a massive body count, making it an oddball mix of genres, perhaps most like co-star James Coburn’s Our Man Flint series.
The fact is, Hudson Hawk is an ego-drenched mess, but it’s also wildly entertaining and Willis lights up the screen with his mega-watt charisma. Watch this and you can see why he became such an icon. Hudson Hawk would never get made on this scale nowadays and it’s a bold, experimental Hollywood blockbuster that deserves more appreciation than it gets.