In 1990, Bruce Willis was a newcomer to Hollywood’s high table, riding high on the success of Die Hard. The role of Hudson Hawk, a wisecracking action-man burglar, was made for him. He leads a screwball cast in a comedy heist caper which (somehow) involves Leonardo da Vinci’s accidental recipe for making gold out of lead.
Willis wrote the script himself. It was an amalgam of every fantasy he’ ever had, playing for gags and one-liners whether they fitted or not.
Hudson Hawk is crammed with coy and often labored homages to people Willis admires, from Buster Keaton, Abbott and Costello and Bing and Bob, to James Bond, the cartoon Katzenjammer Kids and Leonardo himself. The exhausting, non-stop patter has its action equivalent, straining even the dash of credulity necessary for comedy; but the running gag of the burglars choreographing pop songs (like ‘Swinging on a Star’ – ‘… one moonbeam, two moonbeam…’) to monitor the split-second timing of their evil deeds eventually makes you scream.
The Washington Post referred to ‘crafty satire with a swashbuckling soul’, the combination of ‘suavity with punkish comedy’, the patter and stunts with ‘a Dadaist twist’, and the ‘connections between surrealism and slapstick’. Every other reviewer placed it firmly among ‘the most legendary turkeys’, ‘so disconnected from itself that it’s like watching someone flip cable TV channels with a remote’; and dismissed ‘the banality of the screenplay… that crash lands in a sea of wretched excess and silliness’.
Just like the rest, Entertainment Weekly was appalled by Willis constantly pulling faces at the camera, but cleverly hedged its criticisms by suggesting that ‘in a peculiarly self-conscious, show-offy way, Hudson Hawk may be the first would-be blockbuster that’s a sprawling, dissociated mess on purpose, making it a perverse landmark: the original postmodern Hollywood disaster’.
Toll: One blessing was that after winning the 1992 Worst Screenplay ‘Razzie’ (Golden Raspberry Award), Bruce Willis shelved his ambition to write. The film lost some $50 million and was Tri-Star’s final failure. Soon afterwards, it merged with Columbia (still suffering from Ishtar) and both studios were financially subsumed into Sony Studios.
You should know: Hudson Hawk was neither postmodern nor surreal. Furthermore, if Willis’s constant gurning was comic, ‘the joke’, according to Entertainment weekly, ‘is on the audience. Hudson Hawk is a Hollywood first, all right – a fiasco sealed with a smirk.’. Not pretty, and not at all comprehensible.