Ryan Pollard tells Top 10 Films why Bruce Willis’ vanity project Hudson Hawk, described by co-star Richard E. Grant as a “a steaming hot pile of elephant droppings”, is the underrated masterpiece of the 1990s…
Eddie Hawkins (Bruce Willis) is a master thief fresh from a ten-year stint in prison. Swearing off crime, the “Hudson Hawk” is then pulled in for a massive job when the scheming Mayflowers, Darwin (Richard E. Grant) and Minerva (Sandra Bernhard), decide to blackmail Eddie into a plan to steal iconic Da Vinci artefacts to help build a machine that produces gold. Now off on a globetrotting adventure with partner Tommy Five-Tone (Danny Aiello), Eddie finds himself entangled in a massive conspiracy that involves the mafia and the CIA (James Coburn), along with some government stooges named after candy bars and a helpful nun (Andie MacDowell) who finds herself falling for Eddie’s rapscallion ways.
At the time of its release back in 1991, there were all the stories about the extravagant cost of the movie and the fact that the budget was massively overrun, mainly by the fact that they had spent an awful lot of money giving Bruce Willis hair because he was starting to go bald and he wanted to have a full head of hair. Hudson Hawk was considered a clunker, before Last Action Hero, Waterworld, The Postman and Batman & Robin came out in the mid-90s, it was the turkey of the decade. Willis went on to become one of the leading box-office stars of the 1990s, but has not made any further forays into scriptwriting. In his autobiography, With Nails, Richard E. Grant diarises the production of the film in detail, noting the ad hoc nature of the production and extensive rewriting and re-plotting during the actual filming. He has since disowned the film, claiming it to be nothing more than “a steaming hot pile of elephant droppings”.
The fact of the matter is this: Hudson Hawk absolutely did not deserve the critical drubbing back then as it is a much better and funnier film than people have given it credit for. In essence, Bruce Willis (who had dreamed up the story with pal Robert Kraft) was aiming to make an R-rated cartoon; a film that would somehow collect the exaggerated sensibilities of the Three Stooges, Indiana Jones, and Hope & Crosby and blend them together into a farcical concoction, hopeful to generate thrills and laughs in equal measure, and that’s where the film succeeded, well at least for me. As soon as it started, I started laughing, and continued laughing all the way through. Plus, the action set-pieces and the robbery sequences were genuinely thrilling. Hudson Hawk is relentless in its pursuit of slapstick absurdity, and that very lust is why it remains a polarising, but an undeniably gusty production that is worthy of cult status.
Michael Lehmann, who is a perfectly decent director, gives the whole film a shiny and vibrant energy that it needed. This was his sole venture into blockbuster filmmaking, and you sense that it was not a happy time as Lehmann admitted around the time of the film’s release he was often “challenged” by his high price star. Piloted by Willis’s charming, smirk-induced, cappuccino-thirsty, performance as the titular cat burglar, Hudson Hawk boasts a great deal of chaotic charm. In the loosest sense, the film is essentially a caper movie, making plenty room for madcap bumbling around than kinetic storytelling, which does often trap the film in the knotted game of endless double-crosses and twists the screenplay keeps serving up. Making great use of beautiful Italian locations and endlessly enchanted with its own brand of wild humour, Hudson Hawk is definitely an acquired taste.
While Bruce Willis delivers one of his best performances and is the star of the show, special plaudits must go to Richard E. Grant and his berserk portrayal of Darwin Mayflower as he chews up the scenery and spits it out for all he is worth. A wealthy madman who seems more in tune with his kinky sex life than extravagant plans for world domination, Grant spins wildly around the film like a man experiencing an acid trip; his every step is gloriously over the top in a simple effort to get the entire film to notice him. Toss in Sandra Bernhard as his loopy wife, and you have two actors who come damn close to stealing the film away from Willis and his bottomless buffet of buffoonery.
Sure, the film is riddled with awful puns, unhinged performances, and direction that lacks direction, but the overall anarchic, party-like atmosphere of the film is truly enchanting. It’s a wonderful piece of madcap lunacy that has managed to separate itself from something that was a critical turkey at the time of its release to become a delightfully outlandish vanity film, capable of producing giggles, groans, guffaws, and gagging frequently in the same fanciful instant. Like Howard the Duck and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, Hudson Hawk is a film people will look back on now and view as an underrated masterpiece and will enjoy it for what it is: a goofball comedy that’s easy to digest.