So this week, I’m looking at some films that I would call guilty pleasures. For me, a guilty pleasure is a film that isn’t necessarily good, but might have some redeeming qualities. More importantly, I have some personal connection to them from childhood that raises their esteem for me. So this week’s films are:
Peter Yates – Krull (1983)
Michael Lehmann – Hudson Hawk (1991)
Are either of these must see classics? Probably not. But I think they still have value and they’re still worth talking about. Roger Ebert once complained about remakes, remarking that remaking good movies was misguided. Filmmakers should remake bad films to improve them. So as I watched the films I thought about what sorts of things might improve them in the modern era.
Let’s get into it.
In this film, Princess Lyssa and Prince Colwyn are married to combine two kingdoms. But during their wedding, they’re attacked by the Slayers, the forces of the Beast, an alien who is trying to take over the world of Krull. With the help of the mystical throwing weapon, the glaive, Prince Colwyn must gather whatever allies he can and reach the Black Fortress where the Beast resides, in order to save Lyssa, and stop the Beast from taking over the world.
The film is directed by Peter Yates, who had a great career directing films like Breaking Away and Bullitt. The film stars Ken Marshall as Colwyn and Lysette Anthony as Lyssa. Neither of the actors are incredibly famous, but both had good careers in film and television. The film is also notable for having early appearances from both Liam Neeson and Robbie Coltrane, long before they were famous.
The film opens with a shot directly out of Star Wars, with the camera panning past a giant object in space which finally lands on the planet. The fortress looks like a huge mountain, and we get a voice over explaining some background.
We move to the castle, where Princess Lyssa is waiting for her soon to be husband, Prince Colwyn, from a neighboring kingdom. We get some world-building here, learning that the kingdoms have long been at war, but are allying now to fight the Beast and his force of Slayers. But as the wedding ceremony commences, the Slayers attack. They Slayers are anonymous armored soldiers, with a laser weapon that the human soldiers simply cannot defend against. In an added bit of world-building, when the Slayers are killed, their head explodes, and some kind of worm slithers out of the armor into the ground. A pretty graphic, and even gross effect. But it works like crazy.
The forces inside the castle are decimated, and the princess is carried away. The next morning, Colwyn is awoken by an old man treating his wounds. The man, Ynyr, tells him that he must travel to the Black Fortress and save Lyssa, and defeat the Beast. Never was there a more clear Call to Action. And of course, Colwyn plays his part, refusing the call, before agreeing.
Ynyr essentially acts like a travel agent in the film, laying out the itinerary, telling Colwyn where their next stop is, and guiding the action. Their first stop is to pick up the glaive, a weapon that looks like a starfish, that’s designed to be thrown. It also has blades that can extend from each tip. Colwyn has to climb a mountain, enter a cave, and reach into a pool of lava to retrieve the glaive. The shots are all suitably epic, and the music is good. The film does a good job at least of telling us how important the glaive is. However, it falls down a bit when Colwyn comes out of the cave and Ynyr tells him he can’t use the weapon until the time is right. So the film is setting it up as a weapon of destiny, that can only be used at the perfect time. I’m not a huge fan of this trope. If you’ve got an awesome weapon, why not use it? It seems like a huge waste.
An argument could be made that not using it was building up tension, but it doesn’t really work in this case because the glaive is set up as the super weapon in the first half hour of the film, and we don’t see it used until the final climax of the film. There really isn’t a good reason given for why Colwyn can’t use it, other than Ynyr’s off hand line about knowing to use it when the time is right.
Once the glaive is in hand, it’s largely forgotten and we start meeting the other people that will join them on their journey. First we meet Ergo, the wizard, who is quite adept at turning himself into various animals, and not much else. As they continue on, they meet a group of bandits, led by Torquil, and a cyclops, who has been following them throughout their journey, finally revealing himself.
The makeup on the Cyclops is great, if a little static. The mouth moves freely, but the eye is animatronic, some kind of appliance that the actor wore. In general, most of the effects are quite good, at least the practical ones. Whenever two swords clash, there’s an animated lightning effect that is pretty unnecessary, and a ‘walking through a wall’ sequence that’s fairly standard, but otherwise, the effects are well done.
But the real strength of the film is the art direction. It is stunning. In the Beast’s fortress, where Lyssa spends most of the film, we see a striking world. It’s almost as if Lyssa is wandering around the inside of a giant being. The walls look like bone, and we see her standing in large hands, and behind leering eyes. The Beast constantly tempts her with the idea of becoming his queen, offering her the rulership of the entire universe, telling her he can take any form he likes. We also see a swamp and quicksand effect that’s really effective, and a giant spider den that’s fascinating to look at. We also get a stop motion spider that works really well. (See at the bottom of this section for a gallery of the art direction.)
As the film continues, the characters get continually ping ponged around the world. After getting his help together, the next challenge is to actually find the Black Fortress, but unfortunately, it moves every sunrise. They head out to find a blind seer who can tell them where the fortress will be. They find him, but the Beast stops him from giving them a reading. They take him to the Emerald Temple, in the center of a dangerous swamp, where the Beast can’t interrupt him. But in the swamp, the old man is killed by the Beast’s forces and replaced with a double. The group finds out in time, but then can’t use his help to find the Black Fortress. Ynyr travels to visit the Widow of the Web, who can also see where the Black Fortress will be, but she is guarded by a spider who murders everyone who gets close. But once they have the location, they need to travel there quickly, setting up another problem.
This helps the film visit a lot of different locations, and makes it feel more epic, but it also muddies the plot. Every time the audience thinks they have a good handle on where things are going, the film changes the rules. It can sometimes work but definitely causes an issue here. The transitions could have been done a bit better.
The film ends with Colwyn getting to the Black Fortress just in time. Characters fall left and right, sacrificing themselves for the cause. Colwyn makes it in, finally using the glaive to free Lyssa, and attempt to defeat the Beast. But it turns out the glaive can’t even defeat the Beast. Instead, Lyssa and Colwyn together have some special power that can defeat the Beast. We get all of this from the voiceover at the start, wherein we also hear that their son will rule the universe. Perfect sequel setup, but of course, it never happened…yet.
So Krull has some problems. But I maintain that it’s an incredibly interesting movie. And if someone were to remake it, how would they solve the problems?
I think first of all, you keep the art direction. All the different environments in the film are wonderfully realized, and memorable. But if this film were remade today, the general tenets of the story could be kept. The film is very Hero’s Journey, and Hollywood is obsessed with this story telling framework, so that wouldn’t have to change. Put name actors in the lead roles, and add modern effects and you’re most of the way there. Simplifying the journey would help as well.
I imagine a modern remake would be a lot less scary as well. I remember a few shots from this film that terrified me as a child. For example, when the blind seer is taken over by a double, he opens his eyes, revealing they have turned black. Also, when he is killed he essentially melts, which is even scarier.
There’s a lot to like about this movie, it just doesn’t quite come together. With a bit more polishing, I think modern audiences would eat this up.
Hudson Hawk (1991)
Eddie is a cat burglar known as the Hudson Hawk, getting out of prison. On his way out, he’s solicited by a corrupt parole officer to rob an auction house. He resists, but eventually gets pulled into a madcap adventure involving Leonardo da Vinci, the Vatican, and a megalomaniac couple, the Mayflowers.
The film stars Bruce Willis who also came up with the story. Andie MacDowell and Danny Aiello co-star as Hawk’s love interest and best friend/mentor respectively. We also have James Coburn, Richard E. Grant and Sandra Bernhard in memorable roles, along with a small part from David Caruso pre NYPD Blue and CSI Miami.
The film starts off with a look at da Vinci in his lab, working with some incredibly complicated machine, which he is hoping will convert lead into bronze, but actually converts lead into gold. da Vinci sees how powerful and dangerous this might be, and separates a key piece of the machine into thirds, and hides them in various models. The opening is incredibly confusing and must have been even more so for audiences that had seen the trailer. Where’s Bruce Willis? I thought this was set in modern times. Who are these people?
We then get to present day, where the film appears as a standard heist story, with the twist of an unwilling participant who has to be coerced into doing the job. We see Hawk and Tommy(Aiello), plan out the heist of an auction house. The chemistry between Willis and Aiello is actually really great, and a major highlight of the movie. When they get into the heist, we come across one of the more memorable aspects of the film. In order to keep themselves synchronized during the heist, they pick a song and sing it while they perform the heist. It’s a clever idea, and adds a unique twist to what otherwise would be a pretty standard heist scene.
One issue the film has here, is that Hudson Hawk is setup to be one of the greatest cat burglars of all time. But he seems kind of bad at not getting caught. Every heist he performs ends with a long chase scene after he is detected performing a robbery.
But things start to get crazy after the first heist. Hawk delivers the da Vinci horse model that he stole, which is destroyed to get at the mirror piece hidden inside. But the next day, the papers say the heist was foiled, and the horse statue will still be sold. Hawk goes to the auction, where he meets Andie MacDowell’s character, Anna. He also notices several characters sitting around suspiciously, all eating different kinds of candy bars.
After Anna verifies the authenticity of the statue, we get our first glimpse of the Mayflowers, Darwin and Minerva. They enter with characteristic bombasity, taking all the attention, overbidding on the horse. But Hawk notices them and the candy bar eaters suspiciously ducking as the auction ends, and realizes something’s about to go down. There’s an explosion, and chaos reigns.
When Hawk wakes up, he is in an ambulance, being taunted by the two mob bosses who blackmailed him into robbing the auction house, the Mario brothers (seriously). His gurney falls out of the back, and he rolls across the bridge, managing to dodge traffic, and even get through a toll booth without stopping his momentum until he rolls into one of the candy eaters he encountered earlier.
Here’s where the film starts to get increasingly weird. We find out the candy bar eaters are CIA assassins, whose codenames are in fact the candy bars they were eating. Snickers, Kit Kat, Almond Joy and Butterfinger. They are led by George Kaplan, played by the legendary James Coburn.
From here, the plot simply gets more and more convoluted. Hawk is knocked out and shipped to Italy, where he is coerced into robbing the Vatican by the Mayflowers. He does so under the nose of Anna, who we learn is a nun, who is also connected to the candy bar assassins, who in turn are connected to the Mayflowers. It’s almost impossible to figure out who is conning who, or what is going on.
The film climaxes with Hawk, Tommy and Anna trying to stop the Mayflowers from completing the machine, and enacting their evil plan. The Mayflowers are another interesting part of the film. Richard Grant and Sandra Bernhard chew scenery like no one before them. Going so far over the top they practically do laps around the scenes. Does it work? In some movies, sure, it would totally work, but in this film, it’s just a bit too ridiculous.
Things get more and more absurd by the end, with Hawk managing to foil the plan, and everything working out.
Hudson Hawk is one of those movies that captured my imagination as a child. It’s actually a fairly famous flop of a movie. Bruce Willis had just come off the second Die Hard movie and the two Look Who’s Talking movies and it seemed like he could play any part. Then this movie hit.
But I maintain that this isn’t necessarily a bad movie, it just didn’t frame things well. The film is intentionally ridiculous and insane, but it’s wrapped up in a serious framework, and headed by one of the biggest action stars of the time. So it’s no surprise that people didn’t get it.
If someone were to remake it, I think the best thing they could do is just embrace the parody of it all. A film like that could totally work, we saw it earlier on this blog with Black Dynamite. But back in the early 90s, that kind of irony hadn’t really taken over. Parodies were like Airplane and The Naked Gun. They clearly embraced the humor and absurdity. Hudson Hawk tried to have it both ways. Subtle hints to the audience that they shouldn’t take it seriously, but a bit too subtle. It doesn’t go far enough in either direction to signal their intentions to the audience, and because of that, it doesn’t really work.
But a pure parody, with comedians in the leading roles would really work. Over the top characters like the Mayflowers could really flourish in a film like that.
The Double Feature
It was interesting revisiting these films again after many years of not seeing them. These kinds of movies are always comforting to me in one way or another, because I saw them as children and they captured my imagination then. They’ll always be important for me because of that. There’s other films like that for me that I imagine I’ll be covering here in the future.
But looking at them critically, I was able to see how they worked on a deeper level. But in a way, that let me appreciate them even more. Looking at the films this way let me see the real value they have that goes beyond the emotional connection I have to them. A good experience.
I’m in the middle of writing a big paper that needs to be done by the end of the semester. It’s a little stressful, but I think I’m in good shape. I’ve come a long way in my PhD, and I know how to write this paper. Now I just need to figure out what to write. But I’m confident that will all come.
So looking at next week’s films, I’m pulling a few things from my DVD shelf. Next week’s films are:
Fritz Lang – M (1931)
Charles Laughton – Night of the Hunter (1955)
Both are ostensibly horror films, but with a strong suspense bent, and both about criminals. I’ve seen M before, but Night of the Hunter has been on my shelf for years, never watched. I’m looking forward to it.
See you next week.