In 1991, Bruce Willis was The Man. He’d successfully transitioned his trademark brand of smirky, self-aware swagger from TV’s Moonlighting to the first two Die Hard blockbusters, along with voicing the baby in the obnoxious, inexplicably popular Look Who’s Talking and its sequel. He’d showed a bit of dramatic range with Vietnam vet drama In Country and domestic thriller Mortal Thoughts, and he’d survived the A-list stinker that was The Bonfire of the Vanities. He’d even charted with a 1987 R&B album, The Return of Bruno—the irony of lead-off single “Respect Yourself” notwithstanding.
So Hudson Hawk, a heavily hyped, $70 million action-comedy summer tent pole co-written by and starring Willis, seemed like a slam dunk.
It was not. A colossal box office flop—it made just $17 million—and critical disaster, it landed with a resounding, humiliating thud. The unintentional punchline has been trotted out in the 24 years since its release as a prime example of an ego-driven turd.
I love it.
So much about Hudson Hawk’s inspired inanity screams “train wreck” that my affection for the film doesn’t even fall into the “guilty pleasure” realm. It is an absolute treasure in its profound and relentless failures, a blast to revisit and face-palm over. Odder still, it holds up … in a fashion.
Let’s start with the story. Willis co-hatched the turkey of a plot with the film’s music supervisor, Robert Kraft (whom, it should be noted, also produced The Return of Bruno and its follow-up, If It Don’t Kill You, It Just Makes You Stronger—again with the irony). Maybe that’s why Willis’ wisecracking cat burglar, accompanied by right-hand man Danny Aiello, stages his assorted robberies according to the running times of varied pop standards. He notes the minutes and seconds of tunes like Bing Crosby’s “Swinging on a Star,” picking a song whose length fits the planned time of a heist. He and Aiello sing and dance their way through the job.
Anyway, freshly paroled Hudson Hawk gets blackmailed into this super dumb conspiracy between the CIA and a billionaire couple to steal a trio of items that once belonged to/were created by Leonardo da Vinci. The long game is to find the pieces to a crystal-like widget that, once inserted in some ancient invention of da Vinci’s, will turn bricks of cement into bricks of gold. The baddies’ intention? To shatter the economy by flooding it with so much of the gold its value will be shot.
But oh, what baddies. James Coburn, who seems alternately pleased and confused with what is going on here, is the corrupt CIA head, who totes with him three lackeys whose code names are candy bars. There’s a dumb-as-rocks lunkhead named Butterfinger, another one known as Snickers, and a no-BS agent called Almond Joy. The latter agent mansplains to Hudson how nice it is to no longer have code names based on diseases, e.g. “Chlamydia,” because that’s the sophistication of humor here.
And then there’s Kit Kat, a complete weirdo who has a penchant for mime and shows up mystifyingly dressed in the same red number as the movie’s female lead—more on her shortly. Also, he’s mute, and carries around with him an assortment of printed notecards with which he communicates.
He’s played by David Caruso. Poetry much? I can’t even.
As for billionaire villains (villionaires?) Darwin and Minerva Mayflower (yup), slap-happy (literally) fetishists who laugh with the maniacal enthusiasm one would expect from a motion picture of such subtly, they’re portrayed by none other than British thespian Richard E. Grant and brazen force of nature Sandra Bernhard. They are every bit as brilliant in their unhinged scenery-inhaling as you would imagine.
Have I mentioned Sly Stallone’s brother Frank in a brief appearance as mob heavy Cesar, and an in-joke about Willis’ Planet Hollywood co-entrepreneur, to boot? Or, in another instance of elegance and class, Willis’ retort to the lesser-known Stallone, “Slurp my butt”?
I have now.
So, Willis’ fedora-wearing, four-earring-in-one-lobe-sporting (!) ex-con winds up in Rome—specifically the Vatican, where the da Vinci piece de resistance is being housed for a few days. Complicating this already hackneyed plot—with dialogue to match—is the lovely art expert who falls for Hudson. Turns out she’s a nun, who talks to a statue of a crucified Christ, since that’s her direct line to the priest who’s enlisted her to keep tabs on Hudson. She’s brought to vivid, passionate realization by …
Andie MacFriggingDowell, perhaps the worst actress to have an actual acting career in the history of film. She is so woefully horrible here, so leaden, with line-readings so devoid of naturalness or fundamental, animating life that at one point you genuinely start to wonder if this is simply technique and craft beyond earthly understanding. Or something. What other explanation of her unchecked awfulness in this extreme downgrade from cast dropout Isabella Rossellini? Director Michael Lehmann (who made a different kind of classic with Heathers) lingers on her googly eyes, completely un-coy come-on gestures and laughable attempts at sensuality. It’s unbelievably bizarre, and I still can’t wrap my brain around it. What I do know is she’s atrocious. It’s amazing. And that’s before her character gets drugged and starts speaking dolphin.
Speaking of which, pretty much everybody in this movie gets drugged, by drink, needle, or, as is more often the case, by dart. There’s a whole lot—an inordinate amount, really—of archery-related nonsense in Hudson Hawk: deadly arrows, sleep-inducing darts, incapacitating spit darts that render Willis’ and Aiello’s characters paralyzed from the neck down—cue the fun-with-posing hilarity courtesy of the bad guys! And that’s to say nothing of the faceful of medical needles inflicted upon one of Willis’ foes during an epic ambulance ride, when a stretcher-surfing Hudson wails, “1-800-I’m-Gonna-Fucking-Die!” Next level stuff.
Have I mentioned that Leo da V. even gets his own narrated backstory—a full six minutes of it—complete with a gag involving Mona Lisa’s jacked-up teeth?
Just letting you know. So many narrative layers, folks, and life hacks, too. Case in point: Keep your spaghetti warm on the go—especially if you’re an Italian guard in a museum—in a coffee thermos! As the saying goes, when in Rome…
I would be remiss if I failed to acknowledge the ability of Aiello’s character, Tommy Five-Tone (alrighty then), to cheat death. While trapped in an out-of-control car rigged with a bomb, he goes over a cliff, only to show up in the film’s final frames, with just a few dings and ashen, ripped clothes. He survives. Of course he does. There is not a moment’s fear during that drawn-out shot of the car’s fiery plummet that he will not return.
So much is wrong with Hudson Hawk, in its big-budget, wink-wink stabs at wit, that I check all reason at the door with every viewing. It’s like taking a plunge down a deliriously self-satisfied, smug rabbit hole, with the fourth-wall-breaking Willis to guide me through the stupidity. And there are so many highlights of said stupidity: two dudes named Igg and Ook; a priest who smacks the TV reception box with his papal scepter (he’s trying to watch Mr. Ed, in Italian, because why not?); a nasty dog named Bunny who gets launched in sublimely comic fashion out a castle window (I knee-jerk guffaw every time); out-of-nowhere, Three Stooges-styled slapstick violence; and running bits about cappuccino, fancy goat cheese pizza, and Nintendo. I have to hand it to Willis; he went all-in, right down to the movie’s theme song, which (natch) he and Kraft also co-wrote. Because of course this movie has a theme song.
If the reported $70 million budget couldn’t amount to good taste or even common sense, it at least delivered a better-than-average looking and sounding product. Hudson Hawk is beautifully shot—props to cinematography great Dante Spinotti—and the locations lend themselves to the scripted adventure. Though pervasive, the score—by Michael Kamen and, wouldn’t you know it, Robert Kraft—is accomplished and suits both the genre and era. But the failures plaguing the production of Hudson Hawk have been much more readily discussed, from its part in nailing the coffin of TriStar Pictures to the constant onset script rewrites by Willis to various delays and overruns—the film’s monetary bloat is attributed to Willis’ CGI demands to mask his thinning hairline. And while it succeeds as a spectacular miss removed from any behind-the-scenes context, the off-screen shitshow only sweetens my enjoyment of just how hard Willis and co. tried.
The film is a preposterous artifact of its time, and a vestige of old Bruce Willis, before he accepted his balding fate and stopped making silly, culturally appropriating music (Fun fact: Classic Bruce Willis: The Universal Masters Collection is a thing). It goes without saying, but I will anyway: Nobody else could have conceived of this. Nobody else could have starred in it. Nobody else could’ve made it. I’ll always have a soft spot for Hudson Hawk as a singular masterpiece of craptastic delight. When Aiello’s risen-from-the-dead character exclaims, “Can you fucking believe it?!” I’m with our hero Willis: “Yeah, that’s probably what happened.”
Amanda Schurr is Assistant Movies Editor at Paste and a Pac NW-based culture writer. You can follow her on Twitter.