Swinging On A Smirk: The ‘Hudson Hawk’ Affair

Hudson Hawk busted going all-in on comic madness, but they had a heck of a hand.
Hudson Hawk Guns To Head
By  · Published on August 25th, 2017

“You can be better than you are. You could be swinging on a star.” Hudson Hawk busted going all-in on comic madness, but they had a heck of a hand.

“Oh we ain’t got a barrel of money. Maybe we’re ragged and funny, but we travel along, singing our song.” — ‘Side by Side’ by Harry Woods, Performed by Bruce Willis and Danny Aiello in ‘Hudson Hawk’

I don’t know what’s coming tomorrow. It could be trouble or sorrow. Demagogues with cash rule everything. The world is wild and crazy. And it’s only getting hotter. I just want a cappuccino. No, you’re drunk. What was I saying? Oh, right. I’ve been looking for some upbeat flicks to watch this week. Logan Lucky was a real joy and it hooked me with heist fever. FSR’s own list of movies to watch afterward are all worth your while. There’s nothing quite like a fun caper to smile along with as you while the evening away. As though it were kismet, I stumbled onto Hudson Hawk, currently streaming on Hulu. Before revisiting it, I remembered only two things. It was weird. And Bruce Willis sings in it. Both true! What did I learn? Hudson Hawk is profoundly underrated.

A couple of old-school cat burglars, played by Bruce Willis and Danny Aiello, get roped into stealing the disassembled pieces of a Da Vinci created alchemy machine. Yup. The villains of the story want to destroy the global economy by flooding the market with gold derived from lead. Alchemical economic super-villainy! Willis and film composer Robert Kraft came up with the story a decade prior to the film’s release while they were noodling around with some songs. It definitely plays like a world dreamed up in a song. I really dig that.

Cinema is so much alchemy. Loads of talented people with a record of success came to work on this movie, but a crack team does not guarantee an audience. It was directed by Michael Lehmann, who also helmed Heathers and Airheads. Steven E. de Souza, who’s got writing credits on some staple action films of the 80s and 90s with 48 Hours, Commando, The Running Man and Die Hard and its sequel, was brought on to write the script. It was shot by Dante Spinotti, who went on to immediately shoot True Colors and The Last of the Mohicans.

Despite the quality of the team, they totally failed to connect. Hudson Hawk dropped like a belly flop from a high dive when it came to the broader movie-going public. Joel Silver spent somewhere around $65 million on the film and raked only $17 million at the box office. Ouch. All the while, film critics eviscerated the remains.

So nobody saw it, and we don’t really think about it anymore. The terrible reviews and the uninterested audience burned it from our long term memory. In fact, the most memorable thing about it is a simple fact that it was no good. To be honest, that isn’t particularly surprising. The movie stars a guy who single-handedly reinvented the action genre. It was marketed as an action film. It was never that.

The year before, Die Hard 2 came out to strong reviews and impressive success at the box office. They made $240 million on a $70 million picture. Die Hard 2 takes itself so seriously. Everything about it says the film makers meant business. It found an audience, and they ate it up. I dig that movie, but my goodness! Twenty-five years later all I can think about is how that film starts with a naked hotel karate kata. Naked karate!

You know, when I saw The Raid and then saw its amazing sequel, all I could think was how this redefined the action genre. I imagine that there was some of that going on in 1991. Can you imagine if the next thing Iko Uwais had done after The Raid 2 was to make a musical-ish comedy about thwarting alchemical super-villainy? I, and perhaps tens of people, would have been so excited.

Part of the problem then was a failure of expectations management. It’s a cartoon. A spoof. A comedy. Something else. It screams that they aren’t serious. Its tagline should have been: “Hollywood — We have fun here.” Reality can’t lay a glove on these characters. Springy, boingy-type sound effects litter the film. Everything about it is ridiculous. Willis’s audience expected Hudson Hawk to be a new entry in the Die Hard vein. It is no damn wonder people didn’t know what to make of the movie.

If it isn’t clear by now, I love the movie. Hudson Hawk is a treasure, and it deserves a renaissance. Still, I don’t disagree with a lot of the criticism. It’s weird. It’s bordering on uncontrolled nonsense. And Bruce Willis smirks through the whole thing. Events have to flow in some logical order if you want to root for someone. And a fifth of the movie is basically nonsense quips. Siskel also called it overstuffed. Yup. But, that plays to me like the joke-a-minute fests you find with Airplane or Top Secret! Any opportunity they had to make the film weirder, they clearly took it. I expected it. If that isn’t quite your speed, well. It’s a bit of an all or nothing gambit.

For all the clock-punk Da Vinci artifice, the over the top characters and the weird plot twists, the movie has the emotional experience of watching a guy who simply wants a good cup of coffee. Yet, life continuously gets in the way. That’s how I relate to the movie. The idea of being unable to accomplish a simple, joyful task due to one improbable thing after another clicks with me. It’s okay that the plot is wackadoo and total nonsense. His goal is small satisfaction, and he can’t get any. I’m into it.

It may be the Willis Smirk. If his smile is anything, it’s one from a man reveling in the realization of a long time dream to tour Europe on a movie production. Why did this film cost $65 million? They took that show on the road. They shot in Rome. What could Lehmann have done to make him stop smiling? Cattle prod? And, me? I smiled the entire way through this movie. It has so much about a heist movie that I love.

The gag that they sing songs to measure time on a job is amazing. That’s something that stayed with me since I was a kid. I’d forgotten I first saw it in this movie, but man I love that idea. I dig finding that joy in your craft and so my favorite heist films are the ones where characters glide through their plan, gleefully executing every meticulously planned step. Singing a song through a heist is just the literalizing of that idea. More, the choice defines my experience with the movie. Picking a Bing Crosby song also elicits that feeling of deep chemistry. I find the joyful insanity of Hudson Hawk completely charming.

There’s so much more going on. They tease James Bondian villains, spy movies, mafia movies, adventure movies, and heist films. There’s some light nun-play because obviously, the Catholic Church plays a gonzo role. It doesn’t feel mean. It feels earnest but irreverent. And I’m good with that. Even if the movie does spend the first ten minutes showing Leonardo Da Vinci invent the machine. And, so what if everyone only speaks Italian and there are no subtitles? That’s my kind of commitment!

If you think about this movie at all, it’s probably only to remember it as a flop. Check in on this movie. That falls in line with my favorite adage: watch more movies. Discovering an underrated classic was a complete shock, but a beautiful result for living that adage. If you’ve caught the heist fever as well, now is a perfect time. The barrier to entry couldn’t be lower. It’s on Hulu. Friday night, make yourself a drink. Tell some jokes. Practice smirking in the mirror. Put on Hudson Hawk and have yourself a good time.

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Writer for Film School Rejects. He currently lives in Virginia, where he is very proud of his three kids, wife, and projector. Co-Dork on the In The Mouth of Dorkness podcast.