I love early 90s cinema. It’s a side effect of being born in the early 80s and growing up with John Hughes movies and a library of high-concept pseudo-comedies. So I make no apologies for loving the 1991 action-comedy super flop, Hudson Hawk, starring Bruce Willis (who also co-wrote the story) — or, as it has sometimes been described, the movie that almost single-handedly ruined Bruce Willis’ career.
In 1991, Willis was riding high off the success of Die Hard and Die Hard 2, but on the other hand, his television show, Moonlighting, had ended. It seemed that for the first time since his career took off, he had enough time and money to indulge in an ill-advised vanity project. But instead of making a straight beat-‘em-up action flick like the ones that made him famous, Willis decided to aim… higher. Hudson Hawk is a mish-mash of action, comedy, musical, romance, and historical epic. It features the occasional brutal murder and (as it was put in a classic episode of the podcast How Did this Get Made?) “Looney Tunes-like gags” — fitting, since the film’s foley is so over-the-top, that it could have been lifted from a cartoon. So it should come as no surprise that this sixty-five million dollar opus flew through the box office just about as well as one of Leonardo Da Vinci’s flying machines, earning less than twenty million when all was said and done. So, why did I stretch for that bad Da Vinci joke? Let me explain.
Hudson Hawk begins in 1481. Leonardo Da Vinci is trying to turn lead into bronze in order to complete a sculpture commission. Instead, he accidentally discovers a way to turn lead into gold! But, knowing that such a discovery could crash the world economy, he splits the key to his alchemical device into three pieces, and hides a piece in three artifacts: a clay horse, his codex, and a model of one of his flying machines. Not only did Da Vinci ensure that his secret would remain safe forever, but Willis, in developing the story around this scene, presaged the multi-billion dollar travesty of The Da Vinci Code by more than ten years.
Soon after the end of this rather odd prologue (which transitions into the next scene through a nifty match cut of a hawk flying through the air), we arrive “exactly 500 years later” as Hudson Hawk (Willis) is being released from prison, where he was serving a sentence for burglary. He’s immediately pulled back into the business by the very set of lowlifes that he had hoped to avoid (one of whom is played by Frank Stallone). Thus, he and his best friend, business partner, and fellow thief, Tommy Five-Tone (Danny Aiello) are tasked with stealing the three Da Vinci artifacts that, unbeknownst to them, collectively contain the key to turning lead into gold.
Let’s pause to discuss some of the fantastic supporting performances in this movie.
The real standouts here — in fact, the people who elevate Hudson Hawk above “just another bad movie” — are Richard E. Grant and Sandra Bernhard. Think what you will about the movie as a whole, but the actors are fully committed to their roles. And no one in this movie goes for it like Grant and Bernhard, who form the villainous, billionaire power couple of Darwin and Minerva Mayflower. As we discover at the end of the first act, they have set the gears of the movie’s plot into motion, and have secretly been manipulating Hawk (or “Hawky” as Grant gleefully exclaims) into stealing the key to Da Vinci’s alchemical machine.
As the spoiled, mischievous, and ingenious antagonists of this movie, Grant and Bernhard are so delicious that they are treated to two introductions. In the first, they loudly announce their presence at an auction by carelessly outbidding each other by millions of dollars… and then they blow up the auction hall. In the second, Hawk finds himself nose-to-nose in a stretch limo with Darwin, who charmingly introduces himself by saying, “What can I say? I’m the villain.” Moments later, up in the Mayflowers’ lair, we find Minerva, stretched out on a giant marble table shaped like an “M,” loudly singing “I have the power,” while a host of men sit in stony silence around her.
These outrageous and hilarious moments carry the movie. But the Mayflowers aren’t simple cartoons. They represent limitless wealth, run amok. For them, governments, economies, and people are disposable toys for their amusement, and they take pleasure in killing to enforce that point. In this way, they don’t function as mere super villains, but rather, representations of the (still contemporaneous) fear of gross wealth inequality.
To put this movie into a personal context, this was the first time that I ever saw a Richard E. Grant performance, and Hudson Hawk would begin a personal, lifelong adoration for Grant’s work that would eventually include the cult classic Withnail & I, then Spice World, and, most recently, Can You Ever Forgive Me? (which should net him an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor). What I’m trying to say is that Richard E. Grant is good in literally everything — even if the movie he’s in isn’t very good — and very few people (at least in the United States) seem to know it.
Admittedly, Hudson Hawk has a long list of problems — most notably, a bloated budget that’s wasted on pointless set pieces, explosions, and over-produced sets. Ultimately, that money would have been better spent on Bernhard’s already extravagant costumes. What’s more, the tone of the movie is all over the place — no sooner is a man decapitated than Willis quips, “I guess he won’t be attending that hat convention in July.” But the movie does feature a couple of mesmerizing performances by Bernhard and Grant, and everyone is wholly committed to doing… whatever the hell it is that they are doing.
At the end of the day, maybe this is a movie that requires a certain degree of nostalgia. But if you get anything out of this article, let it be that you should watch some Richard E. Grant movies — you won’t be disappointed.