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Bruce Willis Tackles His Passion Project Playing a Singing Cat Burglar in ‘Hudson Hawk’

Hudson Hawk is the 1991 comedy, conceived by and starring Bruce Willis.

In its day it was lambasted and labeled a bomb. Siskel and Ebert agreed it was one of the worst movies of that year and it failed to find a mass audience in the United States, only earning $17 million versus a budget of $65 million. It won three Razzies and has been a constant joke in regards to Willis’ career.

And I… I kind of liked it.

First off, I should state that although I try to find value in movies that tanked at the box office, technically, this one didn’t. Despite its poor showing in the states, when you add in the money it took in around the rest of the world, the movie ended up pulling in $97 million. If my math is correct (or maths if you’re one of those British weirdos), that’s a profit of 32 big ones. Not too bad. And I know, I know, that isn’t really all profit after promotion and such but you get what I’m saying.

Also, it carried with it the burden of being rated R which was perceived as a sort of death knell for movies back in the day. For those unfamiliar with the significance of being branded with an R rating in today’s world where you can find readily available sex and violence on your phone, it used to be a big deal. It meant no one under the age of 17 could watch the movie without a parent or guardian.

My mom found this out the hard way when she tried to drop me and some friends off to see Predator and was told she couldn’t just buy us tickets but had to accompany us into the theater. She was not amused. You’re the best, mom.

The R rating of Hudson Hawk would seem unfathomable today and I really think it hurt the legacy of this film. Not only did it keep thousands of potential viewers from forking over their cash to Mr. Willis and Tri-Star Pictures, it robbed younger viewers of the chance to develop fond memories of it as a fun movie of their childhood. The movie is goofy fun and clearly would have gone over well with teenagers so it is unfortunate that it had to rely on older, more discerning tastes for success.

Hudson Hawk plays more like live action Looney Tunes than a serious heist caper so I can see why it got judged so harshly in its time.

The movie is the story of Willis’ titular character as he is being released from prison. He is a highly capable cat burglar but after serving his time he is looking forward to the straight life and a cappuccino. The world has other plans for him and before he’s even outside of the prison walls his crooked parole officer is putting the pressure on him to pull off another job at a museum. And although he refuses, it turns out that the officer is relaying the message on behalf of mob boss, Cesar Mario, played by Frank Stallone (brother of Sylvester).

It quickly becomes clear that Hawk and his best friend, Tommy Five-Tone (Danny Aiello; Do The Right Thing, Moonstruck) have no choice but to do the job that requires them to steal Leonardo Da Vinci’s Marquette of the Sforza.

To this point, Hudson Hawk is a little silly but it goes full tilt in this first heist scene. A seemingly innocuous habit of the two thieves, where Tommy names a song and Hudson replies with the song’s playtime, turns into a device that they use to time out their operations. So, we get the pair using cartoonish tools like glass cutters and skateboards to break into the museum and singing “Swinging on a Star” as they outsmart a trio of bumbling security guards.

Later, security guards in the Vatican prove to be equally inept. This flick really is not a good representation of those working in the security industry.

All the while, Willis swaggers from scene to scene in his lighthearted, jazzy, Jersey boy cool way like a cross between Frank Sinatra and Groucho Marx. But Willis pulls it off. It was practically his brand back in the 80’s, filling in his own niche of action and humor. Sure, he could blow the bad guys up like Schwarzenegger or Sylvester Stallone (brother of Frank) but you could also picture him sitting at end of the bar drinking a beer, or a Seagram’s Wine Cooler, and cracking jokes with the blue-collar crowd.

Having pulled off their heist, Hawk is surprised to find out that the item they stole is still to be auctioned off at the museum. This is when the movie kicks into high gear and we start to meet the wider cast. Andie MacDowell saunters onto the screen as Vatican antiquities expert, Anna Baragli who has immediate chemistry with Hawk and is hiding a secret about her identity.

Richard E. Grant and Sandra Bernhard make an over-the-top entrance as the Mayflowers, a husband and wife who are the true villains of the film. Grant’s Darwin Mayflower literally says, “What can I tell you? I’m the villain.”

And we see several strange auction buyers who turn out to be CIA agents led by George Kaplan, played by veteran actor James Coburn. (Fun Fact: George Kaplan is also the name of the secret agent whom Cary Grant’s character is mistaken in North by Northwest.) The four agents led by Kaplan feature a young David Caruso and all use candy bars as their codenames; Almond Joy, Butterfinger, Kit Kat, and Snickers.

I don’t have a favorite agent but if I had to pick one of those candy bars it would be Snickers. It’s hands down the greatest candy bar of all time and if you disagree, you’re either high or lying to yourself.

The agents kidnap Hawk on behalf of the colorful Mayflowers and ship him to Rome. Hawk is once again given no choice but to steal more of Da Vinci’s treasures for them. There is a fun sequence at the beginning of the film featuring Leonardo putting together a machine that alchemizes lead into gold. There is a crystal which is necessary for the machine to work and he has broken it into three component parts and hidden them in some of his works. Hence, this is why Hawk is required to steal them.

The movie continues in a cycle of the bad guys being one step ahead of Hawk and his cohorts until he’s stolen for them everything they need. Once they are done with him, the candy CIA agents are sent to kidnap Baragli and leave Hudson and Tommy for dead. Luckily, they outsmart their assassins and for the third time in the movie make a leap from an upper floor window down to the street below with no damage to their bodies. They decide to rescue Baragli who is being held captive by the Mayflowers. While she awaits rescue, MacDowell plays the part of the drugged-up captive and launches into an impression of a dolphin that had me wanting to stab my own eardrums. The climax sees Willis and Aiello blowing stuff up and taking on the combined forces of some generic Italian guards, Kaplan who is inexplicably clad in purple camouflage, the Mayflowers and their psychotic, murderous butler.

Other than the piercing dolphin impression, I didn’t have too many problems with Hudson Hawk. Bernhard delivers a shockingly stiff performance like she really didn’t want to be there. And there is a weird bit of dialogue when Butterfinger (Andrew Bryniarski) offers to rape Hawk and Baragli. I don’t think that would have made it into the script if it was written today. But overall, I didn’t take as much issue with this movie as so many other critics have.

This is a goofy bit of filmmaking but it owns all its goofiness. If anything, the movie has been misunderstood by those who wanted something more in the vein of Willis’ previous breakout roles in Moonlighting or Die Hard.

But in Hudson Hawk, Bruce Willis is his previous characters simply turned up to eleven. That high threshold of playfulness gives the film a bit of a pass, it is absurdist from the outset so plot holes and less than stellar characterization can be overlooked as Willis is obviously having fun and trying move onto the next big stunt or sight gag that he probably thought of while having a drink with some friends.

The jokes don’t always land but you must admire the sheer effort to keep hitting the viewer over the head with wackiness. Citizen Kane this is not but I hardly think it deserves all the derision it has garnered over the years.

Those films are out there and I plan on getting to them but for now, I would say Hudson Hawk gets a pass in my book.

 

 

 

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