In "Hudson Hawk," Bruce Willis proves a heretofore unprovable theorem: Balding white guys can be cool.
Hawk is cool. Willis is cool. The movie is cool.
Hands-down winner in the first campaign weekend of the movie summer, "Hudson Hawk" is an audacious concoction, giddily daring in tone, consistently funny and an astonishment from start to finish.
Willis has taken a forgotten American stereotype from the '50s -- the urban hipster, smartass to the world, low-key, ironic and sarcastic -- and put him in the middle of a big, fat '90s-style summer action spectacular. The result is something entirely new and deliciously subversive: a $50 million movie with the heart of a Hungry i comedian in the late '50s.
It's full of icons from that age: cappuccino, silky-smooth lounge music, a beatnik wardrobe and the whole concept of cat burglary. The cat burglar was the anti-authoritarian culture hero of an earlier era -- he figured on TV in "T.H.E. Cat" and in such movies as Hitchcock's "To Catch a Thief." Elegant, deft, hip, as descended from the British aristo Raffles, he was the jazz musician of crime, a wily phantom, all in black, who slipped into bedrooms and beds and slipped out with family jewels and sexual conquests.
And that's Hudson Hawk, cat burglar extraordinaire, now released after a long time in the slammer into the harsh and loveless '90s, where immediately his smarmy parole officer tries to gull him into knocking off an auction house and in no time, Mafia forces, led by Sylvester Stallone's smarter brother Frank, order him to commit the crime.
"I'll explain this to you so simply even your brother would understand it," Willis says to Frank -- an inside joke that even most outsiders will get -- but nevertheless soon finds himself tightrope-walking far above a New York street into a building in order to steal one of Leonardo da Vinci's studies for the giant bronze horse he never built. But the Mafia -- and eventually the CIA and a sociopathic American corporation headed by Sandra Bernhard and Richard E. Grant -- in a vein of complete looniness wants more: to rediscover what Leo had learned, the secret of alchemy.
The plot is a hoot, beyond recapitulation. Briefly, it takes Hudson and his pal Tommy "Five-Tones" Messina (the redoubtable Danny Aiello) over to Europe to steal a number of da Vinci artifacts from various institutions such as the Vatican and the Louvre. Their CIA baby sitters are led by the most antic James Coburn since "Our Man Flint," and a gang of punk-agents code-named after candy bars. Representing the nominal opposition is Andie MacDowell as a secret agent from the Vatican, who is repeatedly summoned by her superiors by way of an intercom-crucifix.
The movie itself is a feat of alchemy. It takes the dross of '90s tropes -- huge action sequences, special effects out of the 23rd century, millions smeared across the screen -- and transforms them through the philosopher's stone of attitude into pure gold. Attitude is everything here and it suffuses the film.
The attitude, certainly, is partly Willis'; it's the same insouciant edge that gave his David Addison such tang on "Moonlighting." But it's also the attitude that the young director Michael Lehmann showed in his dazzling debut picture, "Heathers," a black comedy about high school cliques. That same spirit is at play here: subversive, working at cross purposes, drop-dead hip.
The action sequences are composed as riffs -- improvisations on a theme, dizzying and showy. In the set piece burglaries, Willis and Aiello syncopate their actions to classic cornball songs -- "Side by Side" and "Swinging on a Star." I didn't think this played in the not very good trailer, but it works here -- it gives the guys just the delicate tone of suaveness, confidence and merriment that makes the sequences delightful, yet anchors them completely in a slightly whimsical movie world.
The movie never sweats, even when it's working hardest. That's cool.
Starring Bruce Willis and Danny Aiello.
Directed by Michael Lehmann.
Released by Tri-Star.