Thoughts on Hudson Hawk (1991)

This will be less a review of Hudson Hawk (1991), the Bruce Willis passion project directed by Michael Lehmann, and more an excuse to say two things about how I look at films.

The first thing is this: The only bad film aesthetically is a bland film, by which I mean one in which the filmmakers coast along instead of thinking through every shot and scene. How well the filmmakers’ vision fits with the zeitgeist is a separate question. Willis stars as the titular ace burglar, who’s blackmailed into a farreaching heist-conspiracy to recreate da Vinci’s (Stephano Molinari) working alchemy machine in order to tank the world market and . . . reach world domination? The entire thing is played as a live-action cartoon, in the zany company of Speed Racer (2008) and Dancing Ninja (2010), and to a lesser extent Zero Effect (1998) and Hollywood Homicide (2003). Willis and his partner, Tommy (Danny Aiello), rob places according to an impeccable synchronized soundtrack, which they sing in musical style. The campier-than-Eddie-Redmayne-in-Jupiter-Ascending-(2015) supervillains, led by Richard E. Grant, Sandra Bernhard, and James Coburn (and including David Caruso as a mime!) time and again use slapstick tactics against our heroes and Anna (Andie MacDowell), the love interest caught in the crossfire. The only time my heartstrings were genuinely tugged was during Grant’s supervillain monologue, when he says, “History. Tradition. Culture. These are not concepts. These are trophies I keep in my den as paperweights!”

Perhaps the film bombed at the box office in part due to its mismarketing as a straight action film; looked at that way, it’s terrible. But if you can get on the wavelength that the filmmakers envisioned, it’s a wild, joyful ride.

My other point is a gripe against the common critical judgment of “tonal inconsistency,” with which this film is often charged. I’ve never understood it; the only time I thought I did was when I saw Sorry to Bother You (2018), a “tonally inconsistent” film if there ever was one. But upon deeper reflection what put me off of that film was the surreal nature of its science-fictional world. If you accept its worldmaking and set aside the pointed satire, the tone is actually pretty consistent. And anyway, why must humor, tragedy, awkwardness, rage, flirtatiousness, and so on be cleanly divided? Even Shakespeare mixed things up, to great effect. You know what’s “tonally inconsistent”? Life. Life is tonally inconsistent. So why not films?

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