Bruce Willis is a funny guy. That seems obvious when viewing the many decades of his career in hindsight, but for a long time, film audiences did not want to see John McClane in a comedy. What makes it especially odd is that he had been known as a comedic actor on the dramedy detective series Moonlighting. But once Willis had made the (then-rare) leap from TV to the big screen, people tuned out. His first two films, Blind Date and Sunset, were both wry comedies from well-respected director Blake Edwards (most famous for his Pink Panther collaborations with Peter Sellers) and went nowhere. Once he broke out in a big way with the seminal action film Die Hard in 1988, he immediately got pegged as primarily an action star. But John McClane was always partly a comedic figure (before becoming a bald, faux-Terminator in the later installments of the franchise), and Bruce Willis seemed to have an itch to make with the funny. His biggest, weirdest, and most surprising foray into comedy came with Hudson Hawk and instantly became an enormous, legendary bomb. It is also currently streaming on Netflix but will be leaving the platform at the end of the month. So don’t wait to do as the original tagline said: “Catch the Excitement, Catch the Adventure, Catch the Hawk.”
That tagline alone is a telling sign of what happened with Bruce Willis and Hudson Hawk. Although the 1991 film is about as broad as a slapstick comedy can possibly be this side of the Naked Weapon movies, it was marketed as an action movie in the wake of the recent success of Die Hard 2 (Subtitle: This Time It’s An Airport). It is telling that the VHS release of the film changed the tagline to “Catch the Adventure, Catch The Laughter, Catch the Hawk” and was notably more successful in that medium than in the theater. The idea of Bruce Willis as an action star was already too embedded in Hollywood executives’ minds to see what Hudson Hawk was, or possibly they thought they could pull a fast one on audiences. Either way, it did not work. Hudson Hawk grossed less than $20 million domestically (although it did better internationally), and was nominated for three Razzie awards, which would not be the last time Bruce Willis. It currently holds a dismal 33% on Rotten Tomatoes.
But do not be misled: Hudson Hawk is a whole, whole lot of fun and Bruce Willis is clearly having a ball. It is also one of the stranger movies of the entire 1990s. It was not quite as self-aware as his action movie peer Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Last Action Hero a few years later. It is not nearly as stupid as Sylvester Stallone (who gets a veiled diss early in the) in Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot in 1992. All in all, the early 1990s were not a good time for action stars. Hudson Hawk is by far the best of the three and has the most convoluted plot.
Bruce Willis stars as the titular Hudson Hawk, the world’s greatest cat burglar. He begins the movie being released from prison, meeting up with his best buddy and partner Danny Aiello, and trying and failing to get a cappuccino. Willis’ inability to get his desired coffee beverage of choice becomes a running gag in a movie full of bizarre ones. He is swiftly forced into a museum heist, partially by a mafioso played by Frank Stallone, who gets told “it’s so simple even your brother could understand it). After witnessing a few murders and getting pushed around by James Coburn’s pack of CIA agents, Bruce Willis gets into a labyrinthine plot that involves some steampunk inventions from Leonardo da Vinci, evil billionaire siblings played by Richard E. Grant and Sandra Bernhardt, and Andie MacDowell as a nun who is also a member of a secret Vatican counter-espionage unit, the existence of which is the most plausible part of the movie.
In retrospect, that Hudson Hawk was not immediately taken as an outright comedy is unbelievable. This movie is narrated by the same actor who narrated Rocky & Bullwinkle. This is a movie in which the Pope says “we’re not going to get pushed around by some schmuck from New Jersey.” It’s a movie in which the supervillains show off their lair to the sounds of “The Power” by Snap!, which turns out to be being diegetically sung by Sandra Bernhardt. It’s a movie in which the CIA agents all have the names of candy bars as codenames, Bruce Willis and Danny Aiello time their heists by duetting a Bing Crosby song, and Hudson Hawk throws away a cigarette while clinging to the top of a car mid-chase because it’s yuck, a menthol. And if none of this convinces you, just listen to the theme song, to which Bruce Willis wrote the lyrics, including the immortal lines: “Everybody knows when the cold wind blows/It`s the Hudson Hawk again.”