Like most people, I didn’t catch Hudson Hawk in the theater, on the premise that you don’t have to actually see a freeway pileup to know it’s awful. And yet, like most people, presumably, I had a morbid yen to watch the thing on video, to see if the carnage was as grim as reported. The adventures of a wisecracking cat burglar forced by villains to steal Leonardo da Vinci’s alchemy machine, Hawk was this year’s model of big-budget waste: It may change how Hollywood makes movies for, oh, the next six months. But I suspect it’s going to rent surprisingly well. Home video’s economy and privacy make it the perfect medium for guilt-free screening, and besides, people are fascinated when something smells this bad. Still, if this movie comes to the video store with an irresistible I-dare-you-to-watch-it label attached, can it really stand with the great stinkburgers of recent years? Let’s compare.
The Howard the Duck test:
Is the movie’s very concept ridiculous? Forget Howard’s witless script and bombastic special effects; why the executives who green-lighted this 1986 fiasco thought audiences would root for a midget in a duck suit is an enigma for the ages. There’s nothing wrong with the basic idea behind Hudson Hawk, though: It wants to deliver the action-adventure goods while sending them up. Raiders of the Lost Ark laid down the rules for this genre, and Hawk tries to bend those rules with hipster silliness — Willis and his partner, Danny Aiello, bursting into song in mid-heist, that sort of thing.
The Bonfire of the Vanities test:
Was each and every creative decision the wrong one? Trashing Bonfire is still a fun party game because Brian De Palma’s movie was dunderheaded on every conceivable level. Hudson Hawk at least gets a few things right. You’ll probably laugh at the frenetic Brooklyn Bridge chase scene and some dumb slapstick involving CIA bad guys with candy-bar code names. Where this movie really goofs is in its female roles (Andie MacDowell as a plucky Vatican nun; the unwatchable Sandra Bernhard as a shrill villainess) and a script that thinks confusion is cool.
The Heaven’s Gate test:
Was the director given insane license to splurge? This doesn’t work either. Gate-maker Michael Cimino’s previous movie, The Deer Hunter, won multiple Oscars, so it’s not surprising that the studio let him off the leash. Hudson Hawk’s failure lies in throwing Michael Lehmann, the director of the small, clever Heathers, in with producer Joel Silver, pioneer of the big ‘n’ stupid school of action film (Lethal Weapon). The two approaches cancel each other out — the bloated production makes Lehmann’s subversive touch seem smug — but Hawk does move, and it’s hardly boring. Obnoxious, weird, and tiresome, yes; boring, no.
The Leonard Part 6 test:
Is it vanity fare from a star no one dared say no to? Bingo. If one daring soul had told star-producer-cowriter Bill Cosby that Leonard had fleas, he might never have had to disown the final film. It’s well known that Bruce Willis rewrote much of Hawk’s dialogue on the set, but didn’t anyone tell him the ”improvements” weren’t funny? Didn’t anyone have the nerve to say that a smirk isn’t a character, that in-jokes are unfilmable, that audiences don’t enjoy being treated with contempt? Of course not: That person would have been fired. The joke is that if Willis had showed any conviction at all, Hudson Hawk might have been better — but it also might have been a truly monumental disaster, the kind you can’t take your eyes off. It’s neither. It’s just bad. D+