"Ladyhawke" is a mythic medieval adventure alive with werewolves, werefalcons, charging steeds, dank dungeons and broadsword clangor, and at its best, it has a kind of old-fashioned charm. Unfortunately, director Richard Donner never quite gets the tone right, and the pace is positively stuporous. The horses gallop, but the film barely canters.
A curse has befallen 13th-century Aquila. The evil Bishop of Aquila (John Wood), it seems, was once enamored of the fair Isabeau (Michelle Pfeiffer), who spurned his blasphemous passion in favor of Navarre, Captain of the Guard (Rutger Hauer). In league with "the Evil One," the Bishop dooms Isabeau and Navarre always to be apart -- by day, she's a hawk, and by night, he's a wolf.
Navarre throws in with Phillipe Gaston (Matthew Broderick), a wisecracking pickpocket known as "The Mouse," the only prisoner ever to escape Aquila's dungeons. Aided by a bibulous monk (a typecast Leo McKern), they roam the scenic countryside together, plotting to make the malevolent monsignor into so much bish-ke-bab.
Cinematographer Vittorio Storaro paints the landscape in the rich oils and gilding of a Renaissance fresco, but his interiors are hard to make out, shadowy forms blistered with white light (these really are the Dark Ages). Storaro and Donner's low-angle shots and distorting lenses lend "Ladyhawke" an exaggerated grandeur that isn't carried through -- the movie's visual style is wasted on transitional scenes, while the climaxes are routine.
Hauer just looks like he's running on too little sleep, and his whispery, vaguely accented voice sounds dubbed by the guys who did "Godzilla." He needs some of the charisma of John Wood, whose gaze, like an effulgent dawn, seems to burn off the fog of Storaro's photography. Pfeiffer, once again, appears as perfect as a pearl, and her jawline might have been cribbed from a piece of Elsa Peretti jewelry. Looking beautiful, though, is the limit of her role.
Broderick plays The Mouse with a fun, theatrically hammy style; as he wags his finger or rolls his eyes heavenward in mock exasperation, he seems to be playing some private game of charades. "Ladyhawke" bears the stamp of cowriter and "consultant" Tom Mankiewicz, the Noel Coward of the action-adventure; Broderick gets a quiverful of witty lines, and he runs with them, rarely taking the "nudge-and-wink" routine too far.
"Ladyhawke" could use more of Broderick's fun, instead of the cheapo special-effects montages of the falcon and wolf transformations, and the endless shots of Hauer thundering along on his Clydesdale while the helicoptered camera rises above the plain. The movie is one long chase scene, accompanied by an incongruous electronic score, produced by Alan Parsons (the hawk flies to a synthesizer's whistle, as if it were a phaser bullet shot by Capt. Kirk). With these rock-anthem guitar solos burning in your ear, you can never enter the movie's world -- it just feels like a very expensive costume party.
Ladyhawke, at area theaters, is rated PG-13, and contains some violence.