Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Attending That Hat Convention

When I saw that the American Cinematheque was holding a 20th anniversary screening of HUDSON HAWK at the Aero in Santa Monica with director Michael Lehmann and co-screenwriter Daniel Waters scheduled to attend I didn’t know how I was possibly going to make it. According to my own personal logic, that meant somehow I absolutely had to make it. Madness, I tell you, madness. Getting there isn’t an easy thing to do these days since I’m working in Burbank and that’s one hell of a drive to get through during rush hour, particularly on the day before Carmageddon was supposed to start, but regardless I felt like it had to be done. As I fought my way through that hellish rush hour traffic I just kept muttering to myself, “For the love of cinema, for the love of cinema…” This is my life and I made it with just a few minutes to spare. There were some other people who had also shown up but the Aero was not exactly packed, leading Waters to introduce the film by saying there were about as many people there as there were on opening night back in May 1991. For the record, I saw it opening afternoon. HUDSON HAWK turned into a legendary flop pretty quick and became the sort of punchline that seems to happen to such films but like a number of others that attain this status it’s really nowhere near as bad as most people seem to think. Granted, I may not exactly be a charter member of the cult that’s built up around the film (because, really, a cult always builds up around these things) enough of it really does make me laugh so everyone just calm down already. At this point in time we need to cue up “Swinging on a Star” (5:32) and take a look back at this thing. And please remember: My name is Mr. Peel. This is not a dream.

Master cat burglar Eddie “Hudson Hawk” Hawkins (Bruce Willis) has barely been out of jail five minutes when he is approached to rob an auction house. Hawk (other defining character traits: from Jersey, can give the correct running time of any song named) isn’t interested and wants nothing more than to drink a cappuccino but threats from the Mario Brothers soon change his mind and he heads off with best friend Tommy “Five-Tone” Messina (Danny Aiello) to do the job. But when they succeed not only is the parole officer who had Hawk pull the heist killed but the auction house is claming that the artifact, a statue designed by da Vinci, was never even stolen. So he sets off to investigate, leading to an encounter with a mysterious, beautiful art expert named Anna Baragli (Andie MacDowell), the ridiculously wealthy Darwin and Minerva Mayflower (Richard E. Grant and Sandra Bernhard), CIA agent George Kaplan (James Coburn) and his henchpersons known as the Candy Bars. Soon Hawk is forced on a sudden trip to Rome where some of these people intend to force him to pull more jobs as the Mayflower’s ultimate plan begins to come into place.

And just after writing that paragraph I feel like I need to lie down for a while. With a plot that is described by a character at one point as “this Gates-Mario Brothers-CIA-Mayflower-da Vinci thing” as if to underline just how convoluted this all is, HUDSON HAWK is willfully absurd, ridiculously broad, has numerous elements that would baffle anyone, bizarre references to things never mentioned again, not to mention being the rare motion picture that offers James Coburn quoting Karen Carpenter. Surprisingly, no one ever breaks the fourth wall by addressing the camera but maybe they felt that would be gilding the lily somewhat. To say HUDSON HAWK is kind of messy is a little like saying that it has sound and color but while it feels somewhat undisciplined it’s hard not to think that what was once thought to be a signpost for all the over-the-top extravagance of Hollywood during the golden age of Joel Silver action extravaganzas it now looks downright quaint, not to mention being pretty funny on more than a few occasions with dialogue that I’ll be happy to quote until the end of time (“The last time you saw me I was bald, with a beard and no mustache, and I had a different nose”—I can’t explain why that makes me laugh, it just does). Plausibility is never the issue with this story and coherence really isn’t either, almost gleefully so, as if the movie is daring us to finally accept that there’s no way to take any of this seriously. After all, anything that happens for whatever reason is pretty impossible to track and it comes off as a spoof that simply never bothers to announced that it’s a spoof or at least what kind of spoof it is but it’s so willfully silly that it’s almost surprising to look back at just how enraged most of the reviews were at the time. They didn’t have anything else to get upset over?

It all plays a little like Bruce Willis decided he wanted to star in a lighthearted caper piece, Joel Silver pitched it to the studios as the sort of giant action film he was specializing in back in those days, then the HEATHERS team of Lehmann and Waters (official screen credits: Story by Bruce Willis and Robert Kraft, Screenplay by Steve E. de Souza and Daniel Waters) were brought in because of the heat off that earlier film. Somehow all these elements were combined and tossed into a giant, over-budgeted blender followed by the cameras rolling before anyone realized it. But I don’t mean all this as a bad thing and besides, any film that names a CIA agent George Kaplan deserves at least some credit. Tri-Star probably wanted a hard-edged Bruce Willis action film, but instead they got him and Danny Aiello falling off a tall building towards an awning…and in a NORTH BY NORTHWEST-type ellipsis the star lands in a chair in a completely different location allowing for the next scene to proceed. It’s a film where a Vatican Cardinal annoyingly exclaims, “We will not lie down for some schmuck from New Jersey.” It’s a film where the villain introduces himself by stating, “I’m the villain.” It’s a film where Andie MacDowell suddenly and without warning imitates the sound a dolphin makes and continues to do so for the duration of a scene. It’s a film where at one point you know that there’s no way a certain character can survive what’s just happened…and they do because, well, of course they do. It’s a film where for no reason we hear a few bored security guards mutter, “673 Wongs in the phone book.” “Hell of a lot of Wong numbers.” And if you can’t appreciate some small semblance of that then maybe just move on to the next Bruce Willis action movie like STRIKING DISTANCE or something.

“Subtlety’s not one of our strong points,” a mob goon played by Frank Stallone says to Hawk and the first thing that should probably be pointed out is that he’s played by Frank Stallone but that aside the line is pretty much indicative of the entire film as well. I suppose a person is either going to find all this funny or they won’t and I freely admit that more often than not I do, particularly when Sandra Bernhard keeps singing, “I’VE GOT THE POWER!” or when James Coburn says just about anything at all. HUDSON HAWK isn’t quite a favorite of mine like I suspect it is for some people—I don’t defend it to the death like ISHTAR for example—maybe because it feels like the movie is missing an integral piece that would let all this wackiness cohere somehow (I wonder if I can possibly sound even more pretentious to make this point) and in its own comic goals it’s never feels quite as sharp as HEATHERS which, in all fairness, is a completely different movie. But I’ll also admit that the film has aged pretty well maybe because what was once unavoidable to watch without the stigma of it serving as the height of all of Hollywood hubris (gee, people couldn’t have gotten upset at DIE HARD 2 for that sort of thing?) now plays as a silly, light, weird spoof with a wacky-sixties-extravaganza vibe with elements like a sound effect from Coburn’s FLINT films tossed in there. Maybe staying consistent with the mood of the lead character the film never seems all that impressed by the expensive-looking location photography in Rome and New York, instead having nothing more on its mind than whatever the next obscure reference is going to be, with a certain emphasis on ‘wacky’ sound effects to keep things incessantly moving to the next out-of-nowhere joke.

Granted, this is a production probably didn’t need the sort of scale which required closing down the Brooklyn Bridge for several nights to shoot an action scene (I remember that causing a ruckus in the New York press during the summer of ’90) but hey, I wasn’t stuck in traffic out there so what do I have to complain about? There are points like where Hawk makes his way through a toll booth while he’s on an incessantly moving hospital gurney and he does so pay paying the correct fare in an exact change lane and it’s hard not to admire how determined the movie is to keep moving at such a high-pitched rate (Lehmann studied the Jerry Lewis comedy THE DISORDERLY ORDERLY which also has a runaway gurney. Are you saying you don’t want your Bruce Willis action film to take inspiration from Frank Tashlin?). Speaking as someone who can list off film release dates from memory I can appreciate a hero with a similar affinity for songs lengths and I’ve long had a fondness for the big climactic kiss off line “You won’t be attending that hat convention in July,” which seems to encapsulate the film perfectly. On the one hand it’s totally valid in how it spoofs the random ridiculousness that such wisecracks become in these films, it’s very quotable and yet…why is the hat convention in July, anyway? Was that extra piece of information really necessary? When I saw Daniel Waters at the Trailers From Hell event I couldn’t help myself and asked him. He laughed. Of course, there was no answer and I suppose there’s no answer as to why the hell HUDSON HAWK is the way it is either. What, you need to know the reasons behind everything in life? Now excuse me while I have a cappuccino. Hey, this doesn’t taste like cappuccino…

The enjoyable, rambling Q&A with Lehmann and Waters followed, touching on how difficult the shoot was without going into too many nasty behind-the-scenes specifics. Bemoaning the ad campaign which tried to sell it as a standard Bruce Willis action film, they acknowledged the response the film received on release which has apparently led to both men apparently receiving “It’s NOT the worst film I’ve ever seen!”-level compliments for the past twenty years. The script originated from an idea Willis had for the character way back in the early 80s (The origin of the name Hudson Hawk as described during one scene seems to be left over from this concept) so the basic pitch at first was “Bruce Willis as cat burglar” leading to initial attempts by MOONLIGHTING writers Jeff Reno and Rob Osborn. There was a draft by Steven deSouza when Lehmann was initially attached which he described as more of a standard genre piece that he wanted to put a spin on, leading to bringing in Waters. One subject brought up during the talk was the fabled third robbery which was scripted and in the process of being prepared when Joel Silver announced that the sequence was being axed (For budget reasons or just trying to bring the length down? It wasn’t clear) and moved to Andie MacDowell’s apartment which is why the bad guys show up at one point after having already pulled the job—makes one wonder why they got Hawk to do all this in the first place but I suppose that would have been a bigger issue in a more serious film. The first cut screened for an audience ran two-and-a-half hours because Bruce wanted to test all the jokes they had (check out the deleted scenes on the DVD for a runner about Hawk’s pet monkey which was totally cut). The running time of course came down afterwards which may account for how some of the movie seems so choppy. I think this feel once bothered me more than it does now where it all seems to play as more absurdist than anything but Waters also bemoaned how there practically isn’t a normal straight line spoken in the entire film which I suppose could be considered either a good or bad thing depending on your own point of view. When asked about James Coburn, Lehmann mentioned how the actor totally got the joke of this being an update of the tone of the FLINT films and pretty much smiled through the whole thing although he would sometimes respond to what was going on with a baffled expression on his face. To which Waters replied, “Yeah, you know who else did that? Everybody.”

Also mentioned during the talk by Daniel Waters was how while the basic character Bruce Willis is playing here isn’t all that different from his MOONLIGHTING persona but after what happened with this film he never really attempted that again. I suppose it’s also going for some of the feel of the Hope-Crosby ROAD films with the star essentially playing himself, coasting through all this and never that concerned about much of anything even when he’s supposedly trying to save someone’s life. I do enjoy watching his own responses to the madness around him much of the time and he particularly plays well off Danny Aiello who is basically playing the Danny Aiello role he specialized in back when he was popping up in about half the films released. Even if they are maybe a shade too laid back at times their camaraderie seems totally natural and they definitely pick out some good songs to sing. Andie MacDowell was a last-minute replacement for Dutch actress Maruschka Detmers who pulled out due to a back injury but on the DVD audio commentary Lehmann mentions Isabella Rossellini was set for the part until scheduling issues forced a change and I wonder if she would have been a more intriguing fit in the part than MacDowell who is at least game, I’ll say that. James Coburn, baffled as he may have been, seems to dig into what was probably his largest role in years with total glee. “I have always had a soft spot for Rome. I did my first bare-handed strangulation here,” he says at one point, proudly displaying all those teeth of his and I only wish we could get to hear even more such fantastic dialogue come out of his mouth. Richard E. Grant and Sandra Bernhard as the Mayflowers each begin their first scene completely over the top…then somehow keep finding ways to keep going further. Bernhard is particularly good and as far as I’m concerned the way she uses her own massive lips when in giant close-up is more effective than any kind of 3D could ever be. As the candy bars, Lorraine Toussaint has an unusual intensity as Almond Joy which only adds to the bizarre tone, Andrew Bynarski gets the film’s one rape joke (wow, I forgot that was in there) as Butterfinger and David Caruso is the totally silent Kit Kat, a joke that plays even stranger now than it did then, if that’s even possible. Don Harvey, also a bad guy in DIE HARD 2, is Snickers and watching the film at the Aero I couldn’t help but think how his casting makes it play like some kind of weird melding of that film’s ‘normal’ universe with this one. That may be a stretch but, hey, it’s HUDSON HAWK, so these connections should be allowed. And oh yeah, in case you forgot, Frank Stallone is in it too and he’s pretty funny as one of the Mario Brothers. Yes, the Mario Brothers and thanks for coming, try the veal!

Fitting for a film released by Tri-Star, Hawk is also knocked unconscious by a giant white Pegasus statue at one point which seems to say something about what ultimately happened with the film. And come to think of it, Bruce Willis does sort of acknowledge the camera in the final shot so they get that in too and I almost wonder if his smirk at that moment had as much to do with some of the critical response as anything. It may have been a vanity project for its star but not only does it get me to laugh more than a few times, looking at it now twenty years later I find myself admiring how much the film seems willing to fall off the tightrope it spends much of its running time dangling from. Maybe the sheer size of the production caused those making it to lose track of certain pieces in order for it to come together but the madness HUDSON HAWK possesses is the sort that justifies driving across town in that rush hour traffic. After all, attempting to do so requires a certain amount of insanity as well. Something to remember when attending all future hat conventions. Especially the ones held in July.

"Good, Yogi."


christian said...

In Coburn's PSYCHOTRONIC interview he called this "a turkey"....A strange weird film fer sure...worth a look.

Justin said...

I think what makes this movie so special is that they're in on the joke (if the "hat convention" line doesn't prove that I don't know what does) but also not entirely aware of how far they're going. It exists in this bizarre gray area between winking irony and campy incompetence.

Coyote said...

Well covered, Mr. Peel. (Have you ever read Richard E. Grant's firsthand account of the production madness in his showbiz memoir, With Nails?)

Coyote said...

That was me, by the way.


Adam Ross said...

I found myself laughing out loud reading this, both for the forgotten jokes in HH and your analysis. And that ad campaign, just that poster -- I remember it being a disaster the first time I laid eyes on it. It tells you nothing at all about the movie, and is just plain hard to look at.

Beveridge D. Spenser said...

Another fan of this. I kind of put it with Fifth Element. Very similar villains.

But, then, I liked Moonlighting.

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...

Thanks for the great comments, guys. Nice to know there are others who appreciate HUDSON HAWK in one way or another!

I vaguely remember reading some of With Nails while standing in a bookstore eons ago. Maybe I should seek it out again.

Anonymous said...

I remember this opening opposite Backdraft and seeing both movies the same day. I remember thinking Backdraft was a bloated, melodramatic mess that just seemed full of itself while HH was a ridiculously zany ride, complete with explosions via musical numbers, and that there was no way Backdraft could beat it. I think that may have been the first time I was really disappointed in the general viewing public.

Joe Martino said...


As always excellent writing. I don't know if HH deserves such close scrutiny? I always felt the film was a mess. One look at that card with Bruce and Danny peeking over the rock and you know you're in for some silly stuff.

I attended the premiere of this film in Westwood at the (RIP) National. It was my first Hollywood premiere when my boss gladly gave me his tickets because everyone in "town" knew it was a dog. Which was the exact reason why I wanted to go!

The place was packed with stars - free popcorn and soda for everyone!
For the first twenty minutes or so the film played like gangbusters. Big laughs and applause -- esp with Sandra and Richard's entrance. Then the fun stopped happening. The crowd grew quite, the laughs disappeared.

By the end, there was a smattering (I love that word) of applause and people filed out quietly - like well mannered children.

In the lobby sat Joel Silver -- alone -- on a far off couch, head in his hands looking down at the stained carpeting. No one would approach him. Joel had bottomed out. I told my boss about the experience and wondered if this was the end of Joel Silver. He say, "Are you kidding me!? The guy produced ZANADU, and rebounded just fine!"

Flashforward a few years later after the premiere of THE LAST BOY SCOUT. That film played markedly better with strong applause at the end. When I left the theater, there was Joel standing in the doorway, gladly accepting accolades. I stuck out my hand gave his hand a quick pump and said "killer movie". He nodded, smiled and then turned to someone much more important than me. Joel was back.

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...


I don't know who you are, but you're ok in my book.



Thanks for the amazing memories! And, well, for me sometimes the films that may not need such close scrutiny are the ones I like doing this to.

Going to big Hollywood premieres back in the day was fun. The one Silver premiere I went to was for LETHAL WEAPON 4. At the Chinese, a parade in the street, candy girls walking around with popcorn and soda. It was a blast. Love your memories of Joel. Thank you so much for that!