If there is a reliable truism that can coexist alongside the American film industry’s dance of death with economically insane budgets that now routinely soar north of $200 million, it is that (most) critics and potential ticket-buyers can be counted on to review bad buzz and publicized woes of dollars and production instead of the actual movie once it finally finds its way to a screen. And it may in fact be true that the drama behind the scenes often outstrips the quality of the wide-screen finished product, though certainly this is not always the case. The reception of big-budget box-office flops like John Carter, The Lone Ranger, Jupiter Ascending and Oliver Stone’s Alexander are but some late examples of our number-crunching obsession with pop culture minutiae and the fascination of a behemoth’s preordained fall. Most who trudged out to see any of these films during their theatrical runs probably knew more about their troubled histories and the swirl of negative word-of-mouth (generated before a single ticket was sold) than they did, in the case of John Carter, about Edgar Rice Burroughs, upon whose once-popular novels that movie was based; the well-publicized rumors of discontent at Disney which preceded that movie’s release ended up serving as the real text to which audiences referred when they finally saw the film.
So what’s new? Stories of studio publicity departments dodging bad press and creating their own legends about the rocky road traveled to the silver screen are a movie history tradition, and the stories they peddled were more often than not vivid, unstable and as combustible as if they’d been printed on nitrate film stock. The brouhaha over Heaven’s Gate, including Steven Bach’s compulsively readable account of its out-of-control production in Final Cut: Art, Money, and Ego in the Making of Heaven’s Gate, the Film That Sank United Artists pushed behind-the-scenes battles into the public arena like never before, not only helping to put a gravestone on the age of the unfettered auteur in American filmmaking, but also ushering in the current entertainment reportage obsession with catching a glimpse of Oz behind the curtain, an era in which no aspect of a movie or TV show’s creative birth goes undocumented or unexamined.
But movies whose names become synonymous with the wretched excess and folly of the movie business are fairly rare. Heaven’s Gate is one. So is my beloved 1941. John Carter and The Lone Ranger may prove to be others. (Titanic was all ready to join the crowd, but it turned out Fate had something else in store for James Cameron’s potentially checkbook-boggling shipwreck.) Twenty-five years ago this week, Hudson Hawk, directed by the team who made previously made the cult hit Heathers, director Michael Lehmann and screenwriter Daniel Waters, also arrived in theaters under a ripe thundercloud of bad press, originating from its own studio as well as entertainment media watchdogs. That cloud further accumulated a shower of disdain for its popular star, Bruce Willis, whose screen persona made plenty of room for smug self-regard and who was perceived, after the success of Moonlighting, Die Hard and its first sequel, Die Hard 2: Die Harder, as somehow needing a good old-fashioned Hollywood spanking to bring him back down to earth. (Willis managed to not be held significantly responsible for appearing in another apocalypse the previous year, Brian De Palma’s ill-fated The Bonfire of the Vanities.)
The reviews for Hudson Hawk weren’t any too kind either, most echoing hyperbolic sentiments typified by Peter Travers (“A movie this unspeakably awful can make an audience a little crazy. You want to throw things, yell at the actors, beg them to stop.”) or Mick La Salle, who wrote in the San Francisco Chronicle that “There is probably not one interrupted 60-second stretch in which a line of dialogue doesn’t clunk, an action doesn’t ring false or an irritating plot turn doesn’t present itself.” Entertainment Weekly’s Owen Gleiberman at least sensed a pulse— “This may be the only would-be blockbuster that’s a sprawling, dissociated mess on purpose. It’s a perverse landmark: the first postmodern Hollywood disaster.” It’s valuable to be reminded, however, that not all the notices at the time were scathing. In his indifferent capsule review, critic Jonathan Rosenbaum was quick to remind his readers of Hudson Hawk’s roots in ‘60s genre spoofs like Our Man Flint and Modesty Blaise and noted that “at least the filmmakers keep it moving with lots of screwball stunts.” And the notoriously cranky Richard Schickel was feeling downright generous, dispensing a bit of wisdom that would prove prescient regarding believing the hype: “If you can see past the thicket of dollar signs surrounding Hudson Hawk,” Schickel wrote, “you may discern quite a funny movie– sort of an Indiana Jones send-up with a hip undertone all its own.”
I saw Hudson Hawk on its opening night, May 24, 1991, at the Pacific Theater on Hollywood Boulevard, and by the time I took my seat that two-word title had already become industry code for what producer Tri-Star chairman Mike Medavoy, in recounting the making of the movie in his memoir You’re Only As Good As Your Next One, termed “a total fucking disaster.” What I saw on screen that night didn’t rank in my eyes as a moral or aesthetic crime, but I was none too taken with it either; I remember reacting against what felt like the ultimate loud, incoherent inside joke, one which the performers obviously thought was a riot (it certainly sounded like one) but whose humor thoroughly escaped me. I also freely admit I was in the Spank Bruce Willis camp– and the Spank Joel Silver camp too, for that matter. (Though for being the bull in the china shop that ushered the Wachowski Brothers’ vision of Speed Racer to the screen, Silver gets an eternal pass from me.) To my eye, Hudson Hawk at the time was crass and disposable, a symptom of a system of making movies that was totally, fatally out of whack, and I had little trouble spending the next 21 years in almost total disregard of this latest Hollywood flame-out.
So why was I laughing my helpless ass off at Hudson Hawk when it saw again in 2012, on a thoroughly enjoyable double feature with Alfred Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief at the New Beverly Cinema here in Los Angeles? I’ll admit a certain attraction to the disreputable, a perverse desire to find something in a beat-up, bedraggled movie that others just don’t see. But recent re-encounters with movies as diverse as John Frankenheimer’s 99 and 44/100% Dead, Ridley Scott’s Legend, Brian De Palma’s Scarface and Robert Altman’s Short Cuts and (to name but a very few) have proven that sometimes a rotten egg is just a rotten egg. My reaction to Hudson Hawk might also have something to do with my own recent voracious appetite for laughter. Those who bestow awards don’t give much of a crap about comedies, but so often they are the movies I’m most happy to see, the ones I feel like I need more than others, and I feel like I’m often more likely to respond to the sometimes desperate impulse underlying comedy than others might, or seem willing to. I am, after all, a huge fan of the Farrelly Brothers’ The Three Stooges, another movie that was crucified on the Internet solely on the basis of its idea and its trailer. (Does this make me the ideal demographic for this summer’s Ghostbusters reboot?)
But of course “funny ha-ha” is probably the most subjective and elusive response that a movie can go fishing for—it’s not as reliable or quantifiable as the tears or the swelling of pride or fear that movies in other genres can more easily access, which is probably why laughs, which may seem more fleeting, don’t get as much in the way of award respect. The kind of hi-jinks on display in Hudson Hawk can be infectious, or they can be, when echoing off the walls of an empty auditorium as they did when I saw the movie 21 years ago, off-putting, a sign of the movie’s insular disregard for anything beyond the pleasure of the folks who made it.
Hudson Hawk is big, cluttered, and dingy-looking, all qualities that I associate, rationally or irrationally, with the type of sausage usually spit out by Tri-Star and other companies in the ‘80s and early ‘90s. The cinematography, credited to Dante Spinotti (Manhunter, Heat, The Last of the Mohicans) but also presumably including contributions by Jost Vacano (Total Recall, Starship Troopers, Das Boot), who was fired six weeks into shooting, is inconsistent, flatly lit and composed one moment, particularly in the dank-looking interiors, then incandescent and receptive to the natural beauty of the Italian locales the next. And it’s filled with actors who either travel from scene to scene unsure of what kind of movie they’re in (Exhibit A, Andie MacDowell, though she gets major points for her drug-induced dolphin impersonation) or who seize on the raucous, over-the-top sensibility rooted in Daniel Waters’ irreverent rewrite of Steven De Souza’s more straightforward caper script and turn the knob all the way up to 11 (Exhibit B, everyone else in the cast).
Willis clearly overestimated his appeal as a smirking, self-assured hipster with this role, but the performance works because it’s in conflict with his status as a newly emergent action icon. The tension between the two approaches provides much of the movie’s comic juice, especially when he so willingly dives in the silly pool and bumps up against performers who are clearly from another world. The presence of James Coburn, Flint himself, is of course a major clue as to the intent of director Michael Lehmann and the other filmmakers in regard to tone and pop culture touchstones. But the very notion of casting Sandra Bernhard and Richard E. Grant as the super-villainous Mayflowers, who force Willis’ master thief into stealing rare Da Vinci treasures that will somehow pave the way for their ascendance to World Dominator status certainly puts the movie’s cult sensibility at odds with the prospect of reaching the level of mass appeal needed to justify a multimillion-dollar budget. (These actors don’t project to the rafters, they threaten to grab them in their powerful jaws and masticate them into dust.) Bernhard, Grant, Coburn and a host of other game participants, including Frank Stallone, Lorraine Toussaint, Leonardo Cimino and a pre-CSI David Caruso, add a lot to the movie beyond an elevated level of cacophony. They underline the movie’s goggle-eyed, giddy celebration of its own incoherence.
Inconsistency, or at least the harboring of warring impulses of storytelling “rules” and anything-for-a-laugh energy within the same genre peapod, is the game Hudson Hawk is playing right up front, and it’s a game that usually doesn’t result in this many points prejudicially subtracted when the context is wacky comedy. This is probably where the movie ran into trouble with viewers and reviewers back in 1991—no one (Rosenbaum and Schickel excepted, I suppose) had much of an idea what the movie had on its mind; certainly not mass audiences who were conditioned, after Die Hard, to come to a Bruce Willis picture with a set of expectations and prided themselves on being able to detect (with some culturally pervasive help) the scent of a stinker.
But it seems to me even the movie’s idea of a good joke is a risky one. Waters’ notion of a couple of cat burglars (Willis and an eager Danny Aiello) so in love with the hep cat culture of The Rat Pack that they’ve memorized the length of the tunes just so they can use them to gauge the timing of their capers– in sing-along musical sequences that really helped to alienate the cognoscenti back in 1991, no less– will either make you giggle or gag. (I giggled when I saw the movie four years ago, and then some.) And Willis caught between the push of the megalomaniacal Mayflowers and a deadly band of rogue C.I.A. assassins named after candy bars results in some patently bizarre action-comedy sequences which make the sensation of having no idea what will come down the pipe next a gleefully pleasurable one. You laughs at what you laughs at, and if the movie’s wicked, cynical, absurd vibe hits you just right– it helps to be surrounded by an audience that is also similarly tickled— it is entirely possible to have a much better time watching Hudson Hawk than its tarnished reputation would ever suggest.
There’s little use in denying that the movie is something of a major train wreck in terms of conventional structure, logic, temperament and escalating ludicrous plot development. But what’s on screen also suggests that the creative forces behind the movie, embittered and otherwise drawn-and-quartered as they may have been, were also aware that the chaotic energy of the production could be used in the movie’s favor. It was a genuine pleasure to finally enjoy Hudson Hawk when I saw it that night four years ago at the New Beverly, after having spent 21 years secure in the belief that it was a piece of shit. The imminently self-deprecating Daniel Waters was also in attendance, and his comments to the near sold-out crowd suggested that although elements of the movie’s tortured history and its reception in the marketplace might still be sore spots there was also the feeling that he’s at peace with it, fully aware of the value of his contribution and understanding that a movie this crazy has no chance of pleasing everyone.
As it turned out, my daughter Emma and I sat in the seats directly in front of the screenwriter, and I loved her vocal enjoyment of the movie as much for her sake as for Waters’—the movie definitely appealed to her emerging sense of the absurd and her appreciation of slapstick violence. But the roaring of that New Beverly audience wasn’t entirely for Daniel Waters’ benefit– they seemed to genuinely enjoy their time with Hudson Hawk, a movie that the teeming, contradictory, fractured, multitasking sensibility of American pop culture may finally have caught up with. As Waters himself characterized it, on the Island of Misfit Toys that comprises his singular sensibility as a screenwriter and director, Hudson Hawk might most aptly be seen as the cinematic equivalent of the squirt gun that shoots jelly. Of course there are those who want their squirt guns to do what squirt guns always do. But there are also folks who have a pretty soft spot reserved for a toy that does something unexpected, even if it makes a mess. For those, I would guiltlessly recommend another (perhaps a first?) viewing of Hudson Hawk.
For those interested, I recommend Joe Valdez’s solid account of Hudson Hawk’s beleaguered production history that can be found on the blog This Distracted Globe.