Hudson Hawk (1991) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

I'm not sure which film has lost the most money in the history of cinema, but this one has to be a serious contender. Made in 1991 for a monstrous budget, filmed across the continents, it maxed out at $17 million at the box office, despite the fact that Bruce Willis was then at the height of his popularity, and he not only starred in the film but also wrote the storyline and the lyrics to the theme song.

The opening week was a tough time for all, when the director basically denied any credit or blame for the film, and pointed the fickle finger of responsibility at Willis. (I wonder what he would have done if critics and the box office had declared it a winner.)

Willis was a NY bartender back in 1980 when he struck up a friendship with Robert Kraft, who headed up a Greenwich Village jazz-blues band and shared Willis' sense of humor and musical tastes. Kraft played Willis his song called "Hudson Hawk", about a fierce wind that blew off the Hudson River. Inspired by his buddy, Willis dashed off some lyrics to the song, turning it into a ballad of the cat burglar Eddie "Hudson Hawk" Hawkins and his friend Tommy "Five Tone" Messina.

Ten years later, when Willis could write his own ticket in Hollywood, this was the $65 million ticket he chose to write.

It is an exceptionally odd film. It's not a realistic espionage/adventure story, nor a traditional comedy, but a post-modern absurdist comedy. The film baffled most moviegoers. It's probably not a coincidence that it co-starred James Coburn, because the most similar movies are probably Coburn's comedies from the late 60's, like the Flint movies and The President's Analyst, by way of the classic British series, The Avengers, and with more than a little debt to the classic Warner Brothers cartoons

Audiences were expected to accept a lot from this film in the name of humor. Some examples of the type of humor in the plot to recreate Leonardo DaVinci's method to transmute lead into gold:

  • Willis and his partner manage to destroy the Vatican museums (and Leonardo DaVinci's castle, although that is a fictional premise, and the artifacts within it came from the Leonardo museum in Milan) without anyone really taking much notice.
  • After he robs the Vatican, with Leonardo's notebooks still in his possession, he slides down a wire, lands atop a lampost, rolls onto a moving truck full of chickens, and ends up falling from a substantial height into a chair in a sidewalk cafe. The person next to him turns out to be his pre-arranged date, and her only comment: "Glad you could drop by. (Exactly what Steed would have said!) I didn't know if you were going to make it".
  • When Willis is rolling uncontrollably down a highway in a hospital gurney, he finally comes to a stop next to a van filled with CIA agents, including one who scaled down from an overhead highway - and couldn't possibly have placed his rope in the correct place in time to make it down fast enough to be there. You just have to accept it.
  • Willis and his girlfriend blow up Leonardo's castle and escape from the explosions in Leonardo's flying machine. When they land, local kids play with the machine, nobody takes any notice of Willis, and Bruce strolls into a cafe for a cappuccino.
  • Danny Aiello survives a car crash down a mountainside. Emerging blackened and with his clothes torn (exactly how Wily Coyote would have emerged from a fall down the canyon), he explains - "air bags". Willis asks, "what about the fire?". Well, it turns out that the car belonged to the world's richest man, and he had a sprinkler system installed.
  • As Willis escapes from the Vatican, his roof-top escapades interfere with the Pope's TV antenna. The Pope had been watching Mr Ed dubbed into Italian, and he tried to fix the reception by banging on the chintzy TV with his bejeweled crozier.
  • Willis' love interest is a nun.
  • Willis and Aiello time their heists by singing the same song together. Aiello is quite a good singer in the Italian crooner tradition. Willis is Willis, if you can remember his Bruno days. He isn't tone deaf, but he also won't be confused with Nat King Cole any time soon.
  • The opening sequence, which takes place in the Renaissance and features the real Leonardo, is narrated. The voice-over doesn't feature the expected PBS/BBC resonance, but rather a jokey hillbilly copy of the voice-over on The Dukes of Hazzard.
The moments I described above are not really uncharacteristic moments, or highlight moments, just typical examples of the events that transpire in the film's surrealistic world. If you think that sounds like your kind of humor, you'll see hundreds more gags similar to those. This is the one film to see if you think that CIA should employ professional mimes, that they should name them after candy bars, and that David Caruso should play them on screen.


None at all, despite the film's R-rating.
The basic plot: Willis is the world's greatest burglar. After his parole, he is conscripted into a massive conspiracy to steal three priceless Leonardo works, not for their intrinsic value but because between them they contain the secret to the Philosopher's Stone, the long-sought Holy Grail of alchemy, which will allow lead to be converted into gold. The plot doesn't make that much difference. It's just a backdrop for the outrageous set pieces within the film.

The marketing for this film must have been impossible.

  • First of all, most people want some grounding in reality, and don't relate to this kind of deliberately incoherent free-fall activity.
  • Second, the film is completely clean and suitable for teens, except that they managed to get an "R" rating with dialogue like "listen, you Eddie Munster-lookin' motherfucker", so they lost the entire youth audience which may have enjoyed the film's iconoclasm.
  • Third, Willis isn't just the wisecrackin' tough-guy underdog that people wanted, but he is also a parody of that same character. Fans of Willis and Schwartzenegger tend to hate Hudson Hawk and The Last Action Hero because those two films make fun of the stars' other films that people really like, and therefore make fun of their own audiences' taste.

I suppose they must have had fun filming the movie. Willis' crazy gurney ride across the Brooklyn Bridge took an entire week to film, and they spent two more weeks in New York. They also filmed in London (the underground postal railroad), Rome, Budapest, and Los Angeles.

DVD info from Amazon.

It's one of those DVD's with a widescreen, and a standard 4:3.

Includes trailers to other Bruce Willis films (Ah, show biz! In what other business can one call unsolicited advertising a "feature")

The lavish filming schedule may have involved too much budget and star ego, and I'll freely admit that parts of it are on a humor level that Larry and Curly would find lowbrow, and I'll concede that some of the deliberately over-the-top sequences are a little too far over that mythical top. But if you think some of the gags are at a third grade level, so what? By the time you can articulate a complaint, the film will have thrown five more gags at you, and maybe you'll like those better.

This is a film that is reviled by many for its pointless nonsense, and treasured by others for the very same reason. Your likelihood of enjoying the film will depend on your own attitude toward pointless crap.

Personally, I kinda like it.

The Critics Vote

  • General consensus: Maltin scored it 2/4. No other major reviewers.

  • The pros and cons. People love it or hate it. Here are two articulate reviewers who demonstrate the polarization of attitudes toward this film:

The People Vote ...

  • With their votes ... IMDB summary: IMDb voters score it an awful 4.9. Most conventionally poor movies end up in the five's, so this one obviously holds a special place in people's hearts.
  • With their dollars ... as noted above, the film's $17 million box, although 68th best of that year, represented only a drop in the bucket of its cost.

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