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‘Hudson Hawk’

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
May 24, 1991


Michael Lehmann
Bruce Willis;
Danny Aiello;
Andie MacDowell;
James Coburn;
Richard E. Grant;
Sandra Bernhard
Under 17 restricted

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As Hudson Hawk, cat burglar extraordinaire, Bruce Willis is part James Bond, part Cary Grant and part Buster Keaton -- a one-of-a-kind combination for sure, and just the right sort of hero for this exhilarating, one-of-a-kind movie. Directed by Michael Lehmann, who showed a talent for smarty-pants irreverence in "Heathers," the picture brings to mind a lot of other, older movies -- and a lot of older movie pleasures -- but its spirit is wholly modern and wholly new.

Lehmann has found his perfect star in Willis; they were both born with a smirking hint of mischief in their eyes. And what they and their screenwriters -- Steven E. de Souza and Daniel Waters -- have created here is a precision universe of wiseacre high jinks. It's an action picture packed dense with the wit of a screwball comedy. And while that may not be a first, it's so bizarrely inventive that being first seems not nearly as important as being best.

Basically, "Hudson Hawk" is a caper picture, with Willis buddied with Danny Aiello as Hawk's thieving partner, Tommy Five-Tone, but it's a caper film with a teasingly absurdist point of view and a love of high-blown outrageousness. The movie begins in the time of Leonardo da Vinci, with the master himself rushing from project to project as if his pants were on fire. After a doozy of a Mona Lisa joke, Leonardo is shown moving on to his greatest creation, a colossal machine built to convert lead into bronze. But even a genius makes mistakes, and instead of changing lead into bronze, the machine converts it into solid gold. Immediately realizing the importance -- and the danger -- of his creation, Leonardo decides to render it useless, hiding the essential components inside three other works.

Four centuries later, Hawk is just getting out of prison, and a pair of power-crazed billionaires named Darwin and Minerva Mayflower (Richard E. Grant and Sandra Bernhard), having nothing better to do, devise a scheme to steal the three precious works, re-create the gold machine and devalue the world's monetary system. Clearly the Mayflowers need Hawk, but having spent the last 10 years behind bars, the master criminal wants to walk the straight and narrow. Fat chance, though, especially with the CIA (represented here by James Coburn) and his partner in on the score.

Nothing that follows is predictable and nothing is played straight -- not even the heists. But, oh, what blessed crookedness. Hawk and Tommy are thieves with a touch of Katzenjammer craziness about them. Their jobs require precise, down-to-the-second timing, and so, to keep themselves on schedule, they choreograph their break-ins to songs like "Swinging on a Star" and "Side by Side." They're musical heists, with each culprit crooning the soundtrack to his crime.

Lehmann's staging here is blissfully relaxed, and yet every sequence has a prankish charge. What's unique is how the film combines suavity with rude, almost punkish comedy. It's a crafty satire, but with a swashbuckling soul. At times it even veers into the surreal, especially in the scenes with Grant and Bernhard -- the most naturally surrealistic actress of all time -- who are the best Bondish villains since Goldfinger. But even the patter -- not to mention the skin-of-your-teeth escapes and stunts -- has a Dadaist twist to it. It's cerebral, but somehow still rooted in lowbrow tradition, as if the filmmakers were tapping into the natural connections between surrealism and slapstick.

The key to it all, though, is Willis, who brands the film with his own stamp of indelible cartoon cool. There's no one else in the movies who could be-bop through this kind of camp nonsense without losing his star charisma. He gets the most out of the jokes and makes everyone around him look good -- even Aiello and Andie MacDowell, who plays a Vatican art historian who falls for Hawk.

The movie keeps edging its heroes toward the blades of buzz saws, but the action never seems routine or mindlessly ugly. (There's very little real violence.) It's exciting, but not in a way that makes you feel as if your guts have been run through a blender. And it keeps pitching ingenious little jokes and sight gags at you, an incredibly high percentage of which are strikes. It's fun in a way that makes your brain tingle. This Hawk flies.

"Hudson Hawk" is rated R and contains some minor violence and adult language.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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