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'Hawks' (R)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
November 10, 1989

"Hawks," the new film about two terminal cancer patients who help each other face the indignities of death, is based on an idea by the singer Barry Gibb.

And do we really need to know anything more?

Directed by Robert Ellis Miller, the picture is a kind of celluloid elucidation of the theories of Norman Cousins. It's about the healing power of laughter, about not giving in to despair and living life to the hilt and smiling through pain and holding your head up and laughing in the face of death and, well, all the million and one cliches that accumulate around this subject.

The patients are an Englishman and a American, both of whom suffer from bone cancer and are waiting to die. Bancroft, the Englishman, played by Timothy Dalton, is a solicitor; Decker, the American, played by Anthony Edwards, is a professional football player. Of the two, Bancroft is more ambulatory and more aggressive. Wearing a stocking cap to cover his loss of hair, he advocates a policy of radical resistance, impudence and dirty-mindedness. He prowls the halls of the hospital, doing whatever he pleases, wearing a red clown's nose and a loud dressing gown over his pajamas.

Anger is the key to his philosophy. He wants Decker, who's in much worse physical shape, to react -- to get mad and fight back. Initially, he antagonizes his roommate, abandoning him outside on a rooftop and taunting him to get to the toilet on his own power. The latter provocation ends in disaster, with Decker slumped on the floor in soiled pajamas. To make his point, Bancroft pulls out his red nose and says, "Sometimes this is the only muscle we have left."

Say what?

Bancroft defies the nurses and wheels Decker out to discos and fancy restaurants, where they shock the patrons with their effrontery. Eventually the two men escape for good, making a five-story whorehouse in Amsterdam their destination. The rest of the film, as the men flinch at the reality of the bordello, meet a couple of woebegone women (Janet McTeer and Camille Coduri) and attempt a last fling, is a mixture of failed madcap and treacle.

Supposedly, the specter of death hovers over all, but to moviegoers it feels more like the specter of tedium. The female costars are painful to watch, especially McTeer, who's called upon to be an excruciatingly sensitive loser. Dalton manages to rouse himself out of the stupor that undermines his performances in the James Bond films. But though this means that he's more animated and hits his consonants with a little more verve, it doesn't mean that he's any more expressive. Edwards, on the other hand, is too lightweight for his assignment -- in every sense of the word. The notion that he is a football player is ludicrous, but he doesn't have the emotional weight either. Dalton, at least, has some stature.

This is all completely plausible as an approach to the problems of death and disease. But as it's presented here, it comes across as undigested self-help banalities. Plus, there are so few laughs in the film, and the performances bring so little pleasure, that it qualifies as one of those events that make you long for oblivion. It's a be-brave movie that saps your will to live.

Hawks is rated R

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