This Distracted Globe random header image

Acting Funny

January 7th, 2009 · 6 Comments

Hudson Hawk (1991)
Screenplay by Steven E. de Souza and Daniel Waters, story by Bruce Willis & Robert Kraft
Directed by Michael Lehmann
Produced by Silver Pictures/ TriStar Pictures
Running time: 100 minutes

Hudson Hawk 1991 Michael Lehmann Steven E. de Souza Daniel Waters Joel Silver Bruce Willis Danny Aiello Andie MacDowell Richard E. Grant Sandra Bernhard James Coburn poster Hudson Hawk 1991 Michael Lehmann Steven E. de Souza Daniel Waters Joel Silver Bruce Willis Danny Aiello Andie MacDowell Richard E. Grant Sandra Bernhard James Coburn DVD

Upon completion of a ten year prison sentence, the “world’s greatest cat burglar” Eddie “Hudson Hawk” Hawkins (Bruce Willis) emerges from Sing Sing to reunite with his buddy Tommy Five-Tone (Danny Aiello). Hanging out at their old neighborhood bar – which has been turned into an upscale Yuppie dive – Eddie is coerced by two-bit mafia hoods the Mario Brothers (Frank Stallone, Carmine Zozzora) to break into an auction house and steal an antique horse. Easily completing the score with Tommy’s help, the Leonardo Da Vinci sculpture Eddie steals becomes property of a sinister English butler with sword blades up his sleeves. Snooping out the auction house, Eddie meets a mysterious Vatican art expert (Andie MacDowell) and narrowly escapes death from a bomb left by the Mario Brothers.

The next assortment of colorful characters to intercept Eddie are a fiendish CIA goon squad with candy bar code names – Snickers (Don Harvey), Kit Kat (David Caruso), Almond Joy (Lorraine Toussaint) and Butterfinger (Andrew Bryniarski) – led by old school spy George Kaplan (James Coburn). Abducted and taken to Rome, Eddie next meets the Mayflowers (Richard E. Grant, Sandra Bernhard), obnoxious billionaires hoping to obtain pieces of a mechanism Leonardo Da Vinci built 500 years ago with the power to turn lead into gold. The Mayflowers coerce Eddie into stealing the final piece from the Vatican. Double crosses, a crotch sniffing mutt, curare darts, a Da Vinci glider and many explosions ensue.

Hudson Hawk 1991 Bruce Willis Danny Aiello pic

Production history

Hudson Hawk originated with Robert Kraft, a Harvard grad who in 1979 was knocking around Manhattan as a piano man. Kraft befriended a bartender named Bruce Willis when he heard the 23-year-old blowing a harmonica at one of his gigs and invited him onstage. Kraft was reading about jazz great Coleman Hawkins – The Hawk – as well as Chicago, whose lakeshore winds were sometimes referred to as “the hawk.” After encountering a similar gust while walking west on 86th Street from Central Park, Kraft came up with a tune. “I didn’t know if it was going to be a song or a bassline. Whatever. But somewhere in that period, Bruce had the idea that there was a character, there was maybe a story. And he said at one point – either that afternoon or many weeks later or something – ‘Someday I’m gonna make a movie called The Hudson Hawk.’ And I thought, ‘Yeah, sure. I mean, you’re working in a bar, I’m trying to get a record deal, and you’re already making this movie.’”

Circumstances changed six years later when Willis went from obscurity to celebrity starring in the screwball detective series Moonlighting. When he wasn’t selling wine coolers for Seagram’s, Willis still had Hudson Hawk on the brain. “It kind of started out as a more of a serious action movie. One of the first things we said was that it was like James Bond before he became James Bond. What was James Bond like when he was 20 years old? Sean Connery, like, what was that guy doing? Like if he was stealing, he was a good thief. We got about that far.” Willis approached Moonlighting writer-producers Ron Osborn & Jeff Reno to pen a script. Reno recalls, “He had a character in mind that he wanted to do, this ex-con who had just gotten out of jail and got caught up in some kind of international situation. Ron and I came up with an idea, ran it by him, and he loved it, and everything was good, so we spent a lot of time then with him just kind of developing this.”

Hudson Hawk 1991 Bruce Willis Andie MacDowell pic

With a first look deal at TriStar Pictures, Willis also took his pet project to Joel Silver, who ultimately brokered a commitment from the star to do Die Hard 2 first in exchange for Silver producing Hudson Hawk. Steven E. de Souza had written the latest draft of the script and to direct, Silver brought in Michael Lehmann, director of two dark cult comedies, Heathers and Meet the Applegates. Lehmann recalled, “Steve de Souza wrote a draft that was very funny, very lively and very much a kind of fun action-adventure comedy. But I felt it was a little too close to home and that it was a little too much like other movies, and people had seen enough of this stuff without being reflective on it, and it would be fun to take the genre and turn it on its head.” Daniel Waters – author of Heathers – was hired to rewrite the script. Among his many contributions was the movie’s best idea: Willis and Danny Aiello belting out tunes in an effort to subvert burglar alarms.

Hudson Hawk commenced shooting July 1990 in New York on a budget of $42 million. As production moved to Italy, then Hungary, then England, that amount climbed. Interviewed by the New York Times in May 1991, co-producer Michael Dryhurst explained, “Hudson Hawk was conceived on a very broad canvas. The moment you put people into airplanes and hotel rooms, you’re into money. We were supporting a cast and crew of 100 people in Italy for 12 weeks and Budapest for 4 weeks. You’re paying for hotel rooms, location, food and per diems. And support costs in Europe are much higher.” Daniel Waters bluntly assessed some of the overruns: “The Italians were great people, but everybody has wine at lunch, and lunch never seems to end. American crews will work 48 hours straight if you pay ’em enough. You can pay an Italian crew all the lire in the world and they won’t work past 10. Their lives are too important. We’d be saying, ‘Wait a minute, where are you going?'”

Hudson Hawk 1991 Bruce Willis David Caruso pic

In his memoir You’re Only As Good As Your Next One, TriStar chairman Mike Medavoy diagnosed the real problems with Hudson Hawk: “(1) the star is the co-writer, (2) the producer is more powerful than the director, and (3) the director had never done a big film. Within the first three weeks of shooting, the film was over budget, so I flew to Rome to see what could be done. As soon as I saw the first dailies, I was certain Hudson Hawk would be, to use the popular Hollywood euphemism, ‘a total fucking disaster.’ While there was no way to stop the train wreck, I was hoping there was a way to minimize the damage. The performances were uneven. While it is admittedly hard to tell in dailies what is funny and what isn’t, everyone in the film seemed to be ‘acting funny’ but no one was funny.”

In a bid to speed up filming after six weeks, Silver replaced Dutch director of photography Jost Vacano with Dante Spinotti, an Italian. Maruschka Detmers – who had been cast as the female lead – was also let go after back pain prohibited her availability; Andie MacDowell was flown to Rome to take her place. Due to a schedule that was constantly shifting, MacDowell waited three weeks to get in front of a camera. Dryhurst rationalized the impending wreck to the New York Times: “One of the problems we had was the script, which had a number of changes as we went along. That’s always a recipe for difficulty, because you can’t plan. The script was being adjusted right up until the middle of November, when we were within three weeks of completion. It’s basically extra cost, because the script wasn’t locked in.”

Hudson Hawk 1991 Bruce Willis pic

While Joel Silver attempted damage control by claiming that Hudson Hawk barely exceeded its scheduled 81-day shoot, the New York Times reported that the show went on for 106 days. Daniel Waters described watching dailies with Silver and hearing the larger than life producer change his assessment of what they had on a day-to-day basis: “It’s like a Hope-Crosby picture,” “It’s like The Pink Panther,” “It’s a 90’s James Bond movie.” Pitching the movie to the readers of Entertainment Weekly on the cusp of its release in May 1991, Bruce Willis crowed, “This film is anything goes, in the classic comedy vein of It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World. It’s Cary Grant meets James Bond meets Our Man Flint meets The Flintstones meets Dorothy Lamour meets Miles Davis. Did we leave anything out? The film also has a jazzy cool feel to it, as opposed to rock & roll or country & western or polka.”

Whatever the hell the end product was, critics drop kicked it out of the park. Daily Variety: “Ever wondered what a Three Stooges short would look like with a $40 million budget? Then meet Hudson Hawk, a relentlessly annoying clay duck that crash-lands in a sea of wretched excess and silliness. Those willing to check their brains at the door may find sparse amusement in pic’s frenzied pace.” Julie Salamon, the Wall Street Journal: “Despite all of its failures of wit, sense, and pace, the film does most effectively flaunt the millions spent on it. The inane action takes place in splendiferous settings.” Owen Gleiberman, Entertainment Weekly: “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.”

Hudson Hawk 1991 Richard E. Grant Sandra Bernhard James Coburn pic

While some in the film industry conjectured that Hudson Hawk cost as much as $70 million, sources close to the production told the New York Times that the bill was closer to $51 million. At any rate, the movie did a spectacular belly flop at the box office, grossing only $17.2 million in the U.S. Hudson Hawk seemed to play better on the small screen; when released on VHS, it even developed somewhat of a cult following. Recording a commentary track for the 1999 DVD release, Michael Lehmann stated, “Now the thing is, when this movie came out, a lot of people I think were expecting a solid, hard action movie along the lines of Die Hard or Die Hard 2. And we were attempting to provide a little bit of action and a lot of the kind of pyrotechnics you see in those movies, but this is, was and is meant to be a comedy.”

Talking Hudson Hawk with Robert Kraft in November 2005, Willis mused, “The thing that I think should be said about the film is that it was special to us for a lot of different reasons, but it was vilified I think more than any film of its time, of its decade. They had been trying to tear down, you know, come after me I guess since the first Die Hard. And, you know, the films were successful anyway, but they had started to review this film long before anybody saw any of it. So it was just my time to catch a beatin’ in the press. But the film is in profit now and it’s, you know, paid for itself and it’s makin’ money … I still laugh at it, I think it’s funny. There’s stuff in the movie that makes me laugh. I mean, it’s just so silly. And that was the whole point. We were just trying to make people laugh. It might have been a little too hip for the room at the time.”

Hudson Hawk 1991 Bruce Willis Danny Aiello pic

With so much going so wrong in so many departments – the story is MIA, staging clunky and visual palette downright shitty – finding amusement in Hudson Hawk comes down to how you feel about the jokes and about Bruce Willis. While the irreverence of Daniel Waters is reduced to a trickle in the big action flicks he normally rewrites (The Adventures of Ford Fairlane, Batman Returns, Demolition Man), in Hudson Hawk, Waters’ acidic pop culture wit gets sprayed around with a high-pressure hose. Some of it is quite special: a CIA master of disguise and mime whose sentiments magically appear on cards he hands out probably takes the cake. The banter and movie references fly back and forth at the speed only a video store clerk can process and demands the movie be seen two or three times to absorb it all.

Hudson Hawk
becomes too painful to endure more than once in a lifetime due to its star, who struts his way through empty scenes so assured of his own cuteness that instead of enjoying the movie, you want to take it out back and smack the grin off its face. Hudson Hawk isn’t a character, he’s Bruce Willis celebrating Bruce Willis, and that cocktail plows the movie head on into Stoker Ace and Rhinestone. Willis at least appears comfortable letting better actors try to help him. Andie MacDowell is in on the joke and turns in a funny performance, while James Coburn is as sharp as ever. But painting on such a big canvas only shows how impaired Michael Lehmann – who went on to direct My Giant and Because I Said So – is when it comes to anything involving ingenuity or wit.

© Joe Valdez

Hudson Hawk 1991 Bruce Willis Andie MacDowell pic

The Story of Hudson Hawk. Bruce Willis-Robert Kraft interview. November 2005

Hudson Hawk. DVD audio commentary track featuring Michael Lehmann. Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, March 1999.

Why The Hudson Hawk Budget Soared So High“. By James Greenberg. The New York Times, May 26, 1991

Bruce Willis On the Level“. Entertainment Weekly, May 24, 1991

Tags: Heist · Hitman · Interrogation · Museums and galleries · Music

6 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Burbanked // Jan 7, 2009 at 10:03 pm

    It’s a pretty strong testament to Willis’ star power that this terrible movie that flopped so publicly did little to slow down his career. I’d argue that he (and others, naturally) achieved a far better action comedy piece in FIFTH ELEMENT six years after HAWK – and in between those movies, Willis appeared in TEN major films. TEN in SIX years, and some of them are damn classics.

    That’s what I’d call bouncing back from a flop. Great post as ever, Joe.

  • 2 Yojimbo_5 // Jan 8, 2009 at 12:22 am

    That’s quite a bit of hyperbole there, Burbanked.

    Willis appeared in one classic in between “Hawk” and “Fifth Element”—”Pulp Fiction,” and I thought he was the best thing in it—and one very good film in a small part in “Nobody’s Fool”(again he was terrific in it, but it was Newman’s movie)so, what are the other classics in this mine-filed? “Billy Bathgate,” “Death Becomes Her,” “The Last Boy Scout,” “Loaded Weapon 1,” “Striking Distance,” “North,” “Die Hard: With a Vengeance,” “Color of Night,” “Last Man Standing,” and “Beavis and Butthead Do America.”

    I think Willis is a great actor with lousy taste in movies.

  • 3 Mr. Peel // Jan 8, 2009 at 4:35 pm

    “The last time you saw me, I was bald, had a beard with no mustache and I had a different nose.”

    The movie at least has that line, I’ll give it that much. I read an earlier draft years and years ago that was considerably different. When Coburn and the Candy Bars burst in with a newspaper that has an article about a heist they pulled? Yeah, that was an entire setpiece involving all the characters. So there were a lot of changes. Maybe I’ll take another look at the movie someday, because it just seems like the sort of thing I should go for. Every time I’ve seen it I want to like it more than I do but it just never feels like they pulled off the tone they were going for. It sure looks expensive, I just never thought it was very funny.

  • 4 Pat Evans // Jan 9, 2009 at 5:15 am

    Must agree that it is crap with a capital C! I never liked “Moonlighting” because Willis was far too full of himself. I am much more tolerant of him now, but can not extend the amnesty to this awful movie.

  • 5 Joe Valdez // Jan 9, 2009 at 8:24 am

    Alan: You used to work in the industry, so you’d know better than me, but I think of movie stars as a marketing tool – particularly for filmmakers trying to get financing – but success or failure at the box office ultimately rests on material and luck. I think The Sixth Sense would have been just as successful with Aaron Eckhart as it was with Willis. No doubt his agents at ICM would disagree.

    Jim: I forgot that Willis was in Nobody’s Fool. Good call on his part. I also forgot all about Color of Night. What a piece of shit! That said, I think a lot of critics don’t understand that being a movie star is a contract job. Most of the time they’re just trying to earn a living, do something interesting maybe and pray it all works out. Thanks for visiting and commenting!

    Peter: Almond Joy’s famous last words: “This is what I get for darting a nun!” Daniel Waters knows how to give a character an entrance and an exit. Everything in the middle is a disaster, but thanks for reminding me that Waters wrote the finale to be a break-in of the Kremlin. I think the movie looks kind of dingy and cheap myself, but I have never seen anything directed by Michael Lehmann that looked good.

    Patricia: Thanks for summarizing my sentiments exactly. The more subdued the character and the stronger the director, the better Willis is. I like his performance in Unbreakable particularly. As the class clown, he wears out his welcome fast. It’s good to see you not corrupt your administration by awarding Hudson Hawk amnesty!

  • 6 Reel Whore // Feb 6, 2009 at 2:25 pm

    I must admit that I am a huge fan of Bruised Willis and I own Hudson Hawk. It’s so insanely stupid I found it funny. Watching Andie MacDowell commune with the dolphins; bizarre. Her and Coburn were the best. I should pop this in to see if my more seasoned respect of film will alter my opinion.

    Thanks for the history on HH. I didn’t realize all the issues its production suffered.

    I think Unbreakable and The Story of Us are some of Willis’s best moments. Color of Night = shit, I couldn’t agree more.

Leave a Comment