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Belated Movie Review #7: Towards a Unified Theory of Hudson Hawk

Tuesday, July 12th, 2016 | Posted by Adrian Simmons

Hudson Hawk poster-smallSo there’s this network, Comet TV, that shows old sci-fi shows and movies and such. As I live in a media cave without cable or Netflix I sometimes catch said old movies there. A couple of weeks ago I caught the 1991 Bruce Willis vehicle Hudson Hawk — a movie both loved and reviled! An action/comedy that is, in most senses, the final word on action comedies.

Most people absolutely HATE this movie. Especially snobs whose jobs depend on them hating movies. Can I provide examples? Oh yes:

Terry Cliffored, writing for the Chicago Tribune notes:

Boring and banal, overwrought and undercooked, Hudson Hawk is beyond bad.

Kenneth Truan scribbling gloomily for the L.A. Times had this to say:

The saddest thing about Hudson Hawk is that director Lehmann and co-screenwriter Waters were previously responsible for the clever, audacious “Heathers,” a film that represented all that is most promising about American film, while this one represents all that is most moribund and retrograde. Perhaps they both earned enough money here so that they won’t be tempted to indulge themselves in similar big-budget fiascoes. Here’s hoping.

And I would be remiss if I didn’t include Rolling Stone’s Peter Travers trying to be cool by bemoaning it thusly:

A movie this unspeakably awful can make an audience a little crazy. You want to throw things, yell at the actors, beg them to stop.

You know what? Screw them! There are some movies that are simply beyond the grasp of tiny minds — and this is one of those movies, if not the king of such movies.

Now, I will admit that its appeal is pretty narrow, as is befitting an action/comedy/Catholic/spy/heist flick that occasionally breaks into song. This, this is not a movie for the uninitiated. One must realize that this is a continuation of The Conversation about action movies. A long, Shakespeare-eque soliloquy, even.

The plot can be summed up very briefly: Eddie “Hudson Hawk” Hawkins (Bruce Willis, master burglar and safe-cracker, is out on parole and is muscled by various groups into joining up with his old partner (Tommy “Five-Tone” Messina (Danny Aiello))and committing several dangerous art heists.**

The entire snarl of minor Mafia goons, rouge CIA spooks, and Vatican secret agents that are the sometimes allies/sometimes opponents of the well and truly mad Darwin and Minerva Mayflower (Sandra Bernhard at her absolute Sandra Bernhardiest), who are seeking global domination by building Leonardo Da Vinci’s alchemical “gold machine.”

Like I said, we are deep into The Conversation. Deep!

So deep that the appeal of such a movie is pretty self-limiting. Yet it does have its fans; yes fans beyond myself. Indeed, if one were to construct an Euler* Diagram of just what constitutes a Hudson Hawk fan it would look something like this:

Hudson Hawk Venn diagram

Allow me to break it down for you:

Appreciation of Slapstick. One must realize that by 1991 “action” movies were a very well defined sub-genre. And, like any good sub-genre, it was developing a keen sense of self-parody. In the years following Hudson Hawk the action-parody sub-sub-genre would blossom with such offerings as Last Action Hero, Hot Shots, and Hot Shots Part Duex, but Hudson Hawk had a finger in that sinister sub-sub-genre soup. Yet Hudson Hawk tips its ragged fedora to an older genre — that of Slapstick. We’re talking Three-Stooges level slapstick at times.

Hudson Hawk 2

Slapstick, it will surprise no one, has a fairly limited appeal. It also happens to coincide with “being a certain age,” i.e. an age where one might have caught old Three Stooges/Marx Brothers/Abbot and Costello shorts/movies back in the day. This also explains some of the gender skew on the above graphic. Whether it is a genetic thing or a cultural construct is beyond the scope of this hastily-scrawled essay, but the facts support the idea that women do not find slapstick all that appealing. But those who do, those are almost to a one Hudson Hawk Fans.

The Spy Spoof subgenre. Younger readers might nod in agreement, what with the recent success of the Austin Powers movies, but the spy spoof has a long and rich history. What more can said other than James Coburn is basically parodying his old character from the In Like Flint movies (which was a spy parody) — as a parody!

George Kaplan: “Yes, I’ve always had a soft spot for Rome. I did my first barehanded strangulation here- Communist politician.”

Hawk: “Why George, you big softie.”

George Kaplan: “God, I miss communism! The red threat; people were scared; the agency had some respect and I got laid every night.”

The Musical connection. Is there any movie genre so thoroughly degraded as the musical? Where once they roamed the Theater Landscape in thunderous, glittering fabulous herds, their numbers are now constrained to a few preserves in boutique dinner theaters, and I suppose, the breeding program that is “Glee”. Oh sure, a few attempts to re-introduce them to the wild have happened, ending tragically vis-à-vis Moulin Rouge.

Yet one species of Musical has found its Darwinian niche in the modern entertainment landscape—the-musical-bit-in-an-otherwise-not-musical-setting. X-Files, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the best part of Gremlins II are all prime examples. Back in 1991 Hudson Hawk was an early adopter to this (or, in evolutionary terms, a Pioneer species).

Hudson Hawk 3

As mentioned, Hawk and Tony are expert cat burglars, and the way they keep time is through singing songs. Which is ludicrous. But when they do it as they are breaking into an art museum? Movie gold. And when they do it with mini missile launchers? Movie platinum!

The Pulp connection. Pulp? You’re soaking in it. No, seriously, you are. Star Wars: The Force Awakens rocks because it happily embraces the pulp roots of the original trilogy. There is a certain sensibility to it, one that drives action and ACTIVE characters at the expense of naval-gazing and overthinking (yet, and I want to be clear on this, leaves plenty of room for over-acting). Sometimes pulp moves so fast that it must either pretend it isn’t making mistakes (such as the Enterprise suddenly carrying the atmospheric anomaly thing which the Excelsior was carrying before in Undiscovered Country) or it has to just nod and wink a bit at itself. I believe that the following exchange perfectly sums up the pulp-sensibilities of Hudson Hawk:

Hudson: “The car plummeted off the cliff! How did you survive the impact?”

Five-Tone Messina: “Air bags!”

Hudson: “But it burst into flames!”

Five-Tone Messina: “Sprinkler system!”

Hudson: “Yeah! Yeah! I’ll bet that’s exactly how it happened!”

Much like slipping through the planetary shields at light speed, or adjusting the Phase Pattern Buffer to detect the Romulan dingus, or reversing the polarity on the left-handed flange-valve; for obvious reasons it’s simply best not to stare too carefully at it!

The gamer aspect: Overwhelmingly in my non-scientific polling regarding this movie, people who like Hudson Hawk are gamers. Not just any gamers, either, but a very specific genre and generation of gamers — first generation AD&D and its derivatives. Why is this so? Because no matter how seriously you tried to take your “role” playing back in 1986 EVERY game ended up being a slapstick-laugh-fest that felt JUST LIKE HUDSON HAWK!

How Most D&D Groups Begin

A perfect example (among many) is this little gem about the entire motivations of the villains.

Hudson Hawk: “Alchemy?”

Darwin Mayflower: “Alchemy is the business term of the nineties my man. Minerva read about it in airline magazine about four years ago; I dumped some lire into research and shazaam! We come across a diary by one of Da Vinci’s assistants, detailing La Maccina de Oro – The Gold Machine for the hoes at home. And the rest is about to become history! Money isn’t everything. Gold is. Screw T-bills. Screw blue-chip stocks! SCREW JUNK BONDS, WE’VE GOT THE REAL DEAL!”

Yes, among many other advances, Hudson Hawk was unraveling the Da Vinci code when it wasn’t even a gleam in Dan Brown’s eye!

Hudson Hawk 1

As you can see, one must be fairly advanced in one’s action movie lore to truly grasp the greatness that is Hudson Hawk. And I don’t even have time to get into the romantic sub-plot, or the communing with the dolphins, or the various times the members of the Candy Bar game steal the scene.

Agree? Disagree? Is the cappuccino machine still set to dispense poison foam?

Check out our previous Belated Movie Reviews:

  1. 10,000 B.C.
  2. Apocalypto
  3. Blood of Heroes
  4. The Road Warrior
  5. Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome
  6. Mad Max: Fury Road

*Hey Ven! Don’t let the door hit you on the ass on your way out! Also, it’s pronounced “Oiler.”

** If this sounds a lot like the plot of Ant-Man, well… I didn’t say Hudson Hawk was the final word in this kind of thing for nothing.


Adrian Simmons is an editor for Heroic Fantasy Quarterly. His last Belated Movie Review for us was Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome.

13 Comments »

  1. Loved it in the theater. When it came out on VHS a few months later, the copy I rented got stuck in the machine just when everyone realized Hudson Hawk didn’t know that a certain attractive lady was a nun. I didn’t realize that videotapes could get caught in a weird repeating loop, but after a few hundred times of hearing “He didn’t know!!!” before I finally got the stupid tape out of the VCR, I lost all interest and haven’t seen it since.

    Comment by Amy Bisson - July 12, 2016 10:32 pm

  2. I really, really, really hate this movie.

    Comment by John ONeill - July 12, 2016 11:34 pm

  3. How many action movies give every henchmen a distinctive personality? And you’re still glad when they die! Well, not Kit Kat.

    My favorite quote: “If Da Vinci were alive today, he’d be eating microwave sushi, naked, in the back of a Cadillac with the both of us.”

    This can applied to any historic figure in a pinch. I once substituted Eleanor Roosevelt to great effect.

    Comment by darangrissom - July 13, 2016 4:21 am

  4. One of the worst movies I’ve seen. On an ‘Ator’ level. Ugh.

    Comment by Bob Byrne - July 13, 2016 7:08 am

  5. Bwah-ha-haaaahh!… 😉

    So, does that make “Heathers” the movie equivalent of a “one hit wonder”? I have not seen it in years, but I recall that being one slick, snarky flick :-)

    Comment by AWAbooks - July 13, 2016 8:54 am

  6. …btw, I have yet to see Hudson Hawk, don’t know if it’ll ever fry my irises, …but this review? A dang gem! And the D&D meme? Priceless. I recall quite a few ’80s game sessions ending just so ;-D

    Comment by AWAbooks - July 13, 2016 11:05 am

  7. I really, really, really hate this movie.

    Finally. Solid evidence that we are not twins separated at birth. (I’ve had to wonder at times.)

    I wouldn’t say my wife and I are fans of the movie, be we sure enjoyed it. Been a long time. Might have to see if our library has it.

    Comment by Jeff Stehman - July 13, 2016 7:47 pm

  8. I love this movie, but I haven’t seen it in years. I need to find it on DVD or blu ray.

    Comment by CMR - July 13, 2016 9:40 pm

  9. Amy Bission- the media shouldn’t be the message! Update to DVD or somesuch– whatever the kids use these days.

    darangrissom- one of the many, many great (and useful) quotes from this movie. I nearly got into a real-life fist-fight because I popped off “Okay, Yogi” to a guy who didn’t get the joke.

    AWABooks– I stick to my thesis that it is the late 70s early 80s D&D players who ‘get’ the movie.

    It seems from the comments that the haters are in the minority. Success!

    Comment by Adrian Simmons - July 13, 2016 10:44 pm

  10. I laughed my arse of watching this at the cinema, and also hated every goddamn minute of it. I laughed hardest when Hawk jammed those needles into that guy’s face. I think a piece of my soul died that day.

    Comment by Robert Mammone - July 14, 2016 3:29 am

  11. To my mind everything weak and unsatisfying about this film would fade into the background if it wasn’t for the calvalcade of agonizingly self-conscious performances. It’s like the movie stars a cast of nudging, winking used car salesmen trying to sell me their characters, and maybe a storyline as an special value add-on for *no-extra-charge*.
    Like a cheese grater on my cortex.

    Comment by John Hocking - July 15, 2016 12:04 am

  12. Brilliant. A friend and I have entire conversations using quotes from this movie. I think the fact Bruce Willis was trying to parody his own work was somewhat lost on the critics. Bunny Ball Ball.

    Comment by evan dire - July 18, 2016 7:22 pm

  13. R. Mammone– the ambulance scene is one of the best in the movie! The gurney ride and the menthol cigarette and the throwing the change into the tollbooth.
    “Ceasar! Anthony? Are you okay?”

    E. Dire– I agree. I think people were expecting “Die Hard” Willis and instead he was in “Moonlighting” Willis mode.

    J. Hocking– I think that there actually is a lot of nudging and winking going on; the actors are all in on the joke.

    Comment by Adrian Simmons - July 19, 2016 10:56 am


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