Today’s feature is the infamous Bruce Willis cat burglar passion project, “Hudson Hawk.”
“Hudson Hawk” was directed by Michael Lehmann, who was best known at the time for 1988’s “Heathers.” However, “Hudson Hawk” was only his third directorial feature. and his first with a significant budget.
The story of “Hudson Hawk” is credited to Bruce Willis and Robert Kraft, and went through a number of screenplay iterations before getting made. The writing credits ultimately went to Steven de Souza (“Die Hard,” “Judge Dredd,” “The Running Man,” “Street Fighter”) and Daniel Waters (“Heathers,” “Batman Returns,” “Demolition Man”).
The cinematography on “Hudson Hawk” was provided by Dante Spinotti (“Red Dragon,” “The Quick and The Dead,” “Slipstream”), who took over the project after Jost Vacano (“Robocop,” “Starship Troopers,” “Showgirls,” “Total Recall”) had to leave for other commitments due to production delays.
The cast of “Hudson Hawk” features, beyond Bruce Willis, a number of recognizable faces. Andie MacDowell (“Groundhog Day,” “Sex, Lies, and Videotape”) and Danny Aiello (“Once Upon A Time In America,” “The Godfather: Part II”) providing the secondary roles, with the accessory cast being filled out by actors such as James Coburn (“The Great Escape”), Richard E. Grant (“Withnail & I”), Sandra Bernhard (“King of Comedy”), David Caruso (“King of New York,” “CSI: Miami”), and Frank Stallone (“Lethal Games,” “The Roller Blade Seven”).
The story of “Hudson Hawk” centers around a master thief who has been recently released from prison, and tries to turn his life around. Over the course of the film, he is not only brought back into crime, but wrapped up in a convoluted plot for world domination involving covert agencies, alchemy, and a lost invention of Leonardo Da Vinci.
“Hudson Hawk” was undoubtedly a passion project for Bruce Willis, who served as an executive producer and co-writer on the movie as well as the star. To this day, he adamantly defends the film against the harsh criticisms against it.
The bizarre and genre-defying tone to “Hudson Hawk,” combined with Bruce Willis’s existing image as an action star, created some serious difficulties in marketing the feature. Just looking at the various posters and home video release covers, you see a lot of differences in how the movie is portrayed .
“Hudson Hawk” suffered from a variety of production problems, particularly tied to the inflation of the budget, which was estimated to have reached upwards of 65 million dollars. The massive financial failure and skyrocketed budget of the film (which only grossed a total of $17 million) wound up leading to TriStar being bought out by Sony, joining Columbia into what became Sony Pictures Entertainment.
Mike Medavoy, who took over as head of TriStar during early production on “Hudson Hawk,” claimed in his book You’re Only As Good As Your Next One that he attempted to back out of the film, but that by the time he was in authority, over $12 million was sunk into the flick. In addition, both Bruce Willis and producer Joel Silver had “pay or play” deals, meaning that they were going to be paid for the film regardless of whether the project was finished. Thus, the studio was essentially stuck with a film seemingly destined to go poorly. Medavoy has stated that the movie had “three classic problems: 1) the star is the co-writer, 2) the producer is more powerful than the director, and 3) the director had never done a big film…there was no way to stop the train wreck.”
The introduction narration on “Hudson Hawk” is provided by William Conrad, who was brought on specifically because he also provided the narration for the “Rocky and Bullwinkle” cartoon, which was also cited as an influence on the story.
The gurney chase on the Brooklyn Bridge was inspired by “The Disorderly Orderly,” a 1964 Jerry Lewis comedy. Filming was done on location, and required shutting down the bridge for consecutive nights for filming, which reportedly enraged locals.
The reception by critics and audiences was overwhelmingly poor: it holds a 24% critic rating and a 57% audience rating on Rotten Tomatoes at the time of this writing. However, it does have an interesting cult following that has developed over the years, due to its oddball sensibilities and cracked style of humor.
For whatever it is worth, I have kept thinking about “Hudson Hawk” since I first saw it recently. It may be many negative things, but it is undoubtedly memorable.
Personally, I don’t hate the music included throughout the film, which is a big sore spot with many critics. I actually thought that the “Swinging on a Star” segment, which has gained some infamy, was one of the better moments in the movie. The music clearly had an influence on the film, as the character was initially conceived by Willis through the writing of song lyrics. From the outset, “Hudson Hawk” was going to have musical elements.
The humor in “Hudson Hawk” is a bit perplexing, and feels like it is misplaced in time. Physical comedy was already far out of fashion, and live action cartoon humor has rarely proved successful in the modern era. Further, it is all very uneven, varies widely in tone. Despite the clear influence from “The Three Stooges” and classic cartoons, the movie is also inter-cut with realistic violence and profanity, which are elements that mix like oil and water. What was the possible target audience for this movie with these sorts of mixed comedic elements? Director Michael Lehmann has described the film as having a “cartoonish sensibility in some of the action and violence,” which seems to indicate that the final product is, indeed, in accordance with the intended vision for the film.
Overall, “Hudson Hawk” is undoubtedly a trainwreck, and is a shadow that has been cast over many careers in the movie industry. However, it is certainly entertaining on some level: some will enjoy the intended comedic elements, while most should enjoy the inherent wrongness and ill-advised nature of the many odd creative decisions. Either way, I think that most people can enjoy this movie’s existence in one way or another.