Infamous Bruce Willis Debacle Comes back Around on Blu-ray
DIRECTED BY MICHAEL LEHMANN/1991
BLU-RAY STREET DATE: SEPTEMBER 27, 2022/KL STUDIO CLASSICS
In a documentary about animation legend Chuck Jones, Ron Howard discusses the term “cartoony”. He correctly asserts that it’s a particular Looney Tunes sensibility that people mean when they refer to something as “cartoony”. As universally malleable the term is, it’s all the more commonly abused. On director Michael Lehmann’s audio commentary on KL Studio Classics’ new Blu-ray edition of his notorious 1991 R-rated adventure-comedy, Hudson Hawk, he describes the overblown film as just that. If “cartoony” applies to abrasive, tonally wacky, and prone to avoidable narrative schizophrenia, then yes… Hudson Hawk is “cartoony”. In other words, it’s a “cartoony” movie by people who haven’t actually watched a cartoon in decades.
There is indeed a Joel Silver-sized ridiculousness and bombast to every aspect of Hudson Hawk. There are several characters who prove to be downright indestructible, getting violently knocked around and taking long falls off cliffs over and over again and whatnot. David Caruso’s character communicates exclusively with impossibly specific printed cards. This runaway production has no ink, paint, or cels; only cells. Specifically, the prison cells that Bruce Willis’ title character, Hudson Hawk himself! leaves behind upon his release from the clink.
That, though, is preceded by an extended prelude about Leonardo Da Vinci (of all things) and his bustling castle full of all manner of Renaissance doings. What could’ve been a line or two of integrated exposition is a spectacle bordering on the unintentionally grotesque in terms of money pointlessly spent. All the recreated genius- the glider (in progress), the Mona Lisa (in progress), the maquette of the Sforza, the Da Vinci Codex- the camera breezes past those…. Then, Behold! Da Vinci’s La Macchina dell’Oro– a machine that scientifically turns lead into gold. (LEAD into GOLD, man!). It’s a practical room-sized contraption of turning cogs, rotating panels, and slowly adjusting panels, all punched up with VFX luminescence courtesy of Industrial Light and Magic. It’s enough to give Terry Gilliam’s The Crimson Permanent Assurance a run for its own considerable money.
How does a small, personal, nighttime mood piece about a cat burglar in the big city that was dreamed up by two nobodies working in a bar materialize years later as an enormous bombastic globetrotting headache generator? When the two nobodies turn out to be actor Bruce Willis (the too-powerful-too-soon Hollywood leading man) and musician Robert Kraft (recording artist and record label president), suddenly far-fetched dreams have a way of becoming reality.
Hudson Hawk, though, turns out to be one of those unwieldy self-compounding fever dreams that you can’t get out of. Your waking mind knows better, but your unleashed, blank-check subconscious is unable to say no to anything. Before you know it, your breezy heist picture about two ace thieves (the other being a refreshingly magnetic Danny Aiello) bonding over the tunes that their to-the-second robberies are timed to is a thinly veiled gay romp under layers of closeted frustrations. Thanks, one assumes, to the subversive glint of otherwise ham-fisted director Michael Nehmann, Hudson Hawk makes with a Thunderbolt and Lightfoot level of barely suppressed homosexual tension. The duets, the serenading of one another, Willis’s prison-mandated sexual abstinence with women (“Not that I sleep with guys…”) giving way to him falling for a nun… (!) Lehmann, in all his early 1990s impishness, certainly gets this. Aiello, belting out his showtunes with great gusto, also seems to be in on it. Willis, not so much.
Dig this, if you will… Leonardo Da Vinci, it turns out, was merely using his sculptures to conceal the separate interlocking crystal do-dads that are necessary to power the almighty La Macchina dell’Oro (the lead-to-gold machine/production design nightmare). The film’s slew of wacky villains (James Coburn! Richard E. Grant! Sandra Bernhard! David Caruso! Donald Burton! Frank Stallone?) vie for these sculptures at auction, much to the frustration of Hawk’s love interest, an undercover Vatican secret agent and nun played by Andie MacDowell. If you love to see priceless works of art smashed apart in the interest of liberating a shiny crystal component, you’ve come to the right film. Oh my, the stale casual disregard of it all. MacDowell, still very early in her career, is already too good for the likes of this.
The CIA and the mob are revealed to be working together to force Hawk to snag three hollow Da Vinci masterpieces so that they can get the crystals, fire up the ol’ La Macchina dell’Oro, and make with the alchemy. It’s an interesting scheme… for an animated G.I.Joe five-parter in 1983. But, nuance is nowhere, having been absconded the moment Joel Silver took this on, if not sooner. Hudson Hawk, in any case, is unfortunate enough to be swinging on a star… and that star is Bruce Willis, riding out his initial wave of superstardom to its most illogical conclusions. The film fixates on Willis’ face at its most zanily contorted, his head at its career tallest. It’s ironic that although the actor co-created the film, there’s no real acting for him to do. How many ways can a fella play disappointment at not being able to get the only thing he really wants: a post-prison cappuccino? Hudson Hawk might actually answer that question, but who cares.
Lehmann, I’ll remind you, is, among other things, the director of the 1988 pitch-black high school comedy, Heathers. These days the kids love Heathers. But not because of the movie. They love the stage musical that someone adapted the movie into. The kids have no idea who directed the original Heathers, nor do they care. Hudson Hawk, though, has plenty of singing. But do the kids care? NoooooOOOo. Maybe they know something we, in 1991, didn’t?
There’s no point in trying to reverse-engineer a character like Hudson Hawk (or any other character in Hudson Hawk) to determine if their amazing skill set gave way to their eccentricities, or the other way around. It doesn’t matter. The characters, eccentricities, and amazing skills, all come fully formed in a movie like this. And just as Big Bang-y as that, the end credits signal their forever demise. Just prior, we spend the film’s running time witnessing them at supernova phase. Some burst onscreen (not to be confused with bursting onto the screen), some do not, instead preserved for a sequel that will never materialize, instead drifting off to some pop cultural death of anti-cosmic insignificance.
Yet, here we are, taking the time in late 2022 to consider at length whatever significance we can from Hudson Hawk. The film was derided upon release, loudly and famously. To do that all over again upon the release of the Kino Lorber Blu-ray edition seems redundant, even pointless. But then again, Hudson Hawk excels at pointlessness. So, what the heck…
Reportedly, when U.K. film critic Mark Kermode met Richard E. Grant, Kermode opted to tell the actor that he was one of the few who liked Hudson Hawk. Grant’s retort says everything anyone really needs to know about the movie: “It was a stinking pile of steaming hot donkey droppings and you are an idiot.” Well. Harsh but true? On a personal note, for the past several decades, I’d assumed I’d seen all of Hudson Hawk. I caught the first half hour of the film on local late-night television and appreciated the concept of two cool cat burglar buddies who quiz each other on the precise length of songs that they play/sing during their smash & grabs. I also remember thinking the freeway chase with Willis on an out-of-control gurney was memorable. The everything-and-the-kitchen-sink rest of it, though- I either nodded off, turned it off, or mentally blocked it after the fact.
On another personal note, over time I’ve arrived at a realization that filmmaking might not truly be for me, as I’m just not good enough at saying no. Saying no to other people’s ideas, or my own creative whims. Saying no to doing certain Blu-ray reviews. The fear culminates in the unlikely notion that if someone were to give me an astronomical budget and nearly unlimited resources, I’d squander the opportunity by making Hudson Hawk.
When even Da Vinci himself can’t class up your mess of a movie, you know you’ve got trouble on a historic level. The decades-ago rumblings over Hudson Hawk’s failures still resonate on the new “special edition” Blu-ray edition, now available with a slipcover from KL Studio Classics. It looks like all of the bonus features hail from a previous loaded DVD circa 2006. Material includes Lehmann’s director’s commentary, a relaxed reunion at the piano with former nobodies Willis and Kraft, an archly tongue-in-cheek bit with Bernhard called “My Journey to Minerva”, brief deleted scenes, trailers, and Dr. John’s music video. Throughout all the extras, everyone is tight-lipped about the production’s behind the scenes drama. The film looks and sounds perfectly fine, though it’s been released to Blu-ray many times, and the presentation isn’t said to be any different than before. So, aside from the slipcover, I’m not sure what this Kino edition brings to the table. At least everything persists in one place. Perhaps if KL had opted to finally unearth the dirt on exactly why Hudson Hawk is in fact so wrongly “cartoony”, this release would finally turn some of the film’s lead into gold. But alas, this is it. Snatch it, grab it, or don’t.