As some of you may know, today is Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. So you might wonder why I'm working on a Jewish High Holiday. Shouldn't I emulate Sandy Koufax, who famously refused to pitch on Passover? Well, I've said it before and I'll say it again: Sandy Koufax is a wuss. I know that might seem a little harsh given his reputation as an "American hero" and an "icon who conducts himself with grace and dignity on the field and off". But to me he's just a big crybaby who should have manned up and pitched instead of whining about how he had to "inspire multiple generations with his brave display of religious pride." To me he's almost as misunderstood as Michael Vick, who nobly afforded dogs a venue to express their natural aggression and innate competitiveness in a controlled, cruelty-filled environment and has caught nothing but criticism for his efforts.
So instead of going to synagogue I did something much more important and spiritually fulfilling: I watched a Bruce Willis movie. I am consequently as happy as a baby Psychlo on a straight diet of Kerbango to announce today's entry: 1991's Hudson Hawk, the Bruce Williest of all Bruce Willis movies. If Willis' infamous '80s concept album of raspily-voiced bar-band-style covers The Return OF Bruno were to be made into a movie it'd be Hudson Hawk, and not just because Bruno contains a track called "Secret Agent Man/James Bond Is Back."
Willis has appeared in a staggering number of historic flops, from Bonfire Of The Vanities to Hudson Hawk to North to Color Of Night (which I really should write up for this column one of these days) and The Story Of Us but none of his spectacular failures seem to affect his career. For Willis possesses what I like to call the Teflon smirk: he'll forever be associated with his successes (Die Hard, Twelve Monkeys, The Sixth Sense, Pulp Fiction) but his endless string of mediocrities and outright disasters slide right off him.
Who else could spend years crooning the praises of Seagram's Golden Wine Coolers, a product consumed primarily by fourteen-year-old girls that sounds unmistakably like a euphemism for urine (I imagine R. Kelly is only too happy to share his golden wine coolers with the pretty young things he takes home), yet maintain his image as a consummate man's man, an old-school tough guy in a sea of pretty boys?
It helps that Willis generally maintains an air of ironic detachment that lets audiences know he doesn't buy into the ridiculous swill he's appearing in any more than they do. In Perfect Stranger for example, Willis delivers a smirking, sleepwalking performance that winks at the audience and says, "I know this is silly but hey, if someone offered you 15 million dollars to spend two weeks looking at Halle Berry you'd take it too, right?"
In Jeanine Basinger's forthcoming book The Star Machine she writes about how this kind of distance creates a feeling of sneaky solidarity between the audience and the star. In disasters like Perfect Stranger, Willis is clearly enjoying a larf at the film's expense and so is the audience. Hopefully. Willis wears that unmistakable smirk of superiority throughout Hudson Hawk, a wry look that suggests Willis can't quite believe he actually got paid the gross domestic product of a small country to live out all his adolescent James Bond fantasies.
But the audience isn't in on the joke this time. A quintessential vanity project, Hudson Hawk feels like a feature film adaptation of the world's most expensive inside joke. Like Austin Powers, Hudson Hawk is less an homage to James Bond than an extended riff on the James Bond knockoffs that flooded the market in the '60s. At this point it's easy to forget that Austin Powers was ever anything more than a machine generating sequels and catchphrases but the film arrived in a very specific cultural context. The central joke of Austin Powers, one that was abandoned by its increasingly worthless sequels, is that its hero is a randy, sexist libertine in a politically correct era of language codes and strident identity politics. That culture-clash gave the film a satirical edge missing from Hudson Hawk, whose premise is essentially "Hey, what if a New Jersey Bruce Willis kinda guy got involved in all sorts of international mystery and stuff? Wouldn't that just be crazy?"
Hudson Hawk opens with an incredibly expensive, elaborate six-minute flashback to the Renaissance that does nothing to move the plot forward and contains exactly two jokes: a narrator talks about Da Vinci then assures audiences watching a fellow on a donkey that, "The guy on a donkey's just a guy on a donkey." In the second limp joke Da Vinci portrays the Mona Lisa with a closed-mouth smile because the model he's painting has tragically British teeth.
The film then flashes to the present, where master cat burglar Bruce Willis is being released from prison only to become a pawn in a wildly convoluted scheme involving the Vatican, a pair of eccentric, power-mad, S&M-happy; billionaires played by Richard E. Grant and Sandra Bernhard, Andie McDowell's sexy nun, CIA agents with code-names derived from candy bars and a gold machine devised by Leonardo Da Vinci.
Armed with only a smirk and an endless array of one-liners anywhere from five to ten percent as clever as they're meant to be, Willis goes spinning madly around the globe like a human pinball, rocketing from one labored comic set-piece to another. From the first scene onward, the money's on the screen but so is the waste, excess and gross miscalculation. When was the last time you heard somebody raving about the production values in a comedy?
Early in the film Willis and sidekick Danny Aiello time an elaborate heist by crooning all of "Would You Like To Swing On A Star?" accompanied by an invisible Nelson Riddle-style orchestra and a phantom choir, a strangely charming sequence that pushes the silly self-indulgence coursing the film to transcendent levels. Hudson Hawk is ultimately just a goofy little lark. But it sags where it should soar, weighted down by a needlessly complicated plot that requires reams and reams of clunky exposition and comic conceits that never quite take flight.
David Caruso, for example, plays a mysterious, mute CIA operative named Kit Kat who communicates by handing people cards with cryptic little messages like "My name is Kit Kat. This is not a dream." It's a funny idea for a character that never quite results in anything resembling genuine laughter.
Master of the universe Joel Silver hired screenwriter Daniel Waters and director Michael Lehmann to give the film some Heathers edginess but the dialogue calls itself without ever being, you know, funny. When James Coburn's CIA vet grouses about the young Turks at the CIA he quips "I call them the MTVIA (cue rim shot). Punks. They think the Bay Of Pigs is an herbal tea and the Cold War has something to do with penguins." Boy that sure does sound dumb. Later Grant's evil billionaire brags "If Da Vinci was alive today he'd be eating microwave sushi, naked in the back of a Cadillac with both of us." Still later Bruce Willis watches a bad guy get beheaded and quips "You won't be attending that hat convention in July." These are the jokes, folks.
Hudson Hawk is nothing more or less than a giddy little vanity project for Bruce Willis, who gets to sing, romance a sexy nun, save the world and wear a porkpie hat and shades that lets audiences know that he's a rocking, blue-collar kind of dude. Yet even in this weird personal project, which Willis co-wrote the story for and boasts near-fatal levels of Bruce Willisosity, he still hovers over his material with a kind of regal glibness. By this point in his career nothing could touch him, not even the massive failure of a bloated monument to his ego. This is underlined by a closing sequence where Willis flashes his signature, "Ain't I a stinker?" grin and literally as well as metaphorically winks at the camera and by extension the audience. As always, Willis gets the last laugh, even if the joke's ultimately on us.
Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success: Failure