Mother always said not to cheat, and not to procrastinate. Well this week, I’m afraid I’m going to disappoint her pretty badly. I say I cheated because I chose a film that I feel very strongly does not qualify for this column, but deserves inclusion into the Viking Night pantheon simply by virtue of genre. I say I procrastinated because the DVD has been sitting on my kitchen counter under a pile of bills for months. This is where it deserves to be, because it’s a terrible film and deserves to be buried, if only symbolically. But this tells you very little about my choice. So, I’ll start over.
Viking Night: Ladyhawke
By Bruce Hall
November 29, 2011
I was having a conversation yesterday with a friend about recent comic book movies, and pointed out Thor and Captain America as two of the most recent examples of how the genre has become a soulless assembly line of indifferently produced pabulum. These are films that are neither good nor bad, but simply sufficiently non offensive to make you not regret seeing them. This is Lowest Common Denominator as high art - nobody has to love your film; as long as they don’t hate it, they’ll pay for it. But you see, this is nothing new. I’ve spoken often of the fantasy film glut of the early '80s, which produced many such films, and many of them are featured in this column.
The difference is, what makes a cult movie isn’t so much whether the overall critical consensus is good or bad. It’s whether or not there is a sufficient fan base of critically apathetic people who love the movie deeply no matter its flaws. I don’t think you can say this about Ladyhawke. Sure, there are uncritical types in the world who are generally receptive to anything, as long as it contains super heroes, spaceships, swords or sandals. These are the kinds of folks who found Captain America to be any more satisfying than an diffidently prepared bowl of lukewarm oatmeal. And there’s certainly nothing wrong with that; we all have our preferences. But these are also people who will take offense when I say that Ladyhawke is a horrible movie that deserves to be forgotten, and I am riddled with guilt for even giving it this much due.
So if you are one of these people, take heed. That’s as nice as I’m going to be.
The first thing that you notice about Ladyhawke is the music. The opening credits are quite stylish, and much more so than the film deserves. By 1985 standards, I would consider them somewhat inventive were it not for the wholly execrable score that accompanies them. It’s mostly a guy on a trap set accompanied by a horn section and someone on one of those digital keyboards you used to be able to buy at Radio Shack. Had Stephen J. Cannell ever made a porno flick, this is what it would sound like. Oh God...I just destroyed my whole childhood with one sentence. I blame myself. But think about what I’ve just said - most people never notice the music in a movie unless it’s really really bad, or really really good. And believe me, you will remember the theme to Ladyhawke. It will keep you awake for days.
The second thing you’ll notice is Matthew Broderick. He plays Phillipe “The Mouse” Gaston, a Medieval thief whose nerdy, squirrely demeanor is completely unlike other role he’s ever played. No, I’m just kidding. You’ll recognize him. Gaston escapes the nefarious stockades of Castle So and So, where he had been prisoner to the evil Bishop of Aquila (John Wood), who reminds me of Michael Palin as Pontius Pilate (to hear someone utter the words “Biggus Dickus” would have earned this movie an automatic three stars). Following his escape through the sewers and a very uninteresting chase through the woods, Gaston is cornered by the Bishop’s guards in a nearby town.
Fear not, The Mouse is rescued by Roy Batty - I mean, a Mysterious Cowled Stranger who travels on a powerful black horse, is armed with a crossbow and carries a big ass hawk around on his arm. To the pulsing beat of a four piece drum kit and the finest Casio consumer keyboard available at the time, the two make their getaway. A short time later, Gaston observes some strange behavior in the vicinity of his new friend, and becomes suspicious that this dark savior is more than meets the eye. Their escape enrages the Bishop, who has a history with the Cowled Stranger (whom he calls “Navarre”) and his hawk. The Bishop assigns Marquet (Ken Hutchison), his finest man, to the case - one of the last times you see Marquet in the whole film.
That makes sense.
Anyway, Navarre informs Gaston that he is on a holy quest to kill the Bishop. And he feels that Gaston, as the only man to have escaped from the prison at Aquila, is the perfect person to help. It takes some convincing, but the two medieval warriors and their '80s hair cuts, French names and vaguely British accents and their hawk set off to do the deed. You can see where this is going, can’t you? If two men are on a mission from God and are on opposing sides of the same goal, someone is going down. HARD. And the loser is probably going to die a heinous, lingering fantasy movie style death. I’m not saying this is what happens. I’m just...saying.
As Navarre and Gaston learn about each other, they discover that they need one another to solve their respective problems. Gaston finds out Navarre’s Terrible Secret, which involves a ghastly love triangle between him, the Bishop and a lovely damsel named Isabeau (Michelle Pfeiffer). Which reminds me, this is a fantasy flick, right? So there’s a damsel in distress, naturally. There’s an eccentric wizard, of course. There’s an effete villain with a moustache twirling henchman. There’s a bunch of internal conflict about honor, dead fathers, love, God, death, revenge, blah, blah, blah. This is normal. What is not normal is the glacial pacing of this film.
There is an interminably sluggish but dramatically improved second act which discloses a curse that afflicts Navarre and Isabeau, and explains the title of the film. The bishop has cursed them so that by day Isabeau will take the form of a Hawk and by night, Navarre a wolf. They travel side by side but can never truly be together except while one of them is in animal form. This discovery is anticlimactic, since it’s pretty obvious early on what has happened to the two. Not to mention, you can’t very well have a fantasy flick without a mystical prognostication of some kind. It simply isn’t done. There is a way to break the curse, but they have to do this and do that, and be here at a certain time, and Navarre doesn’t believe the Prophecy because he’s never seen a movie before and doesn’t realize that you ALWAYS believe the Prophecy....
Sorry. I almost fell asleep. Prophecies bore the crap out of me. Where was I?
Oh, yes. The problem is not just that the Prophecy is anticlimactic, but the whole damn film is, as well. Not to mention predictable. And, as soft and shapeless as a half baked loaf of bread. The fundamental narrative has the potential to be a very tragic and beautiful story. Star crossed lovers kept apart by the curse of a superfluously evil villain is a story as old as the sky, and it shouldn’t be that hard to tell because it’s been done about 50 million times before. But here, it comes across as largely witless camp. How do you screw up a story that you can ruthlessly plagiarize with absolutely no legal repercussions whatsoever?
Sit tight. I’ll tell you.
First, Richard Donner handles Ladyhawke with brutish, clumsy hands, like a kid trying to put together a Lego set with mittens on. The inherent sweetness that made The Toy and The Goonies so much fun is not here, and the surprising nobility and poignancy he found in the story of Superman is likewise absent. Donner is closer to Lethal Weapon form here, turning Ladyhawke into a flat footed buddy film; a three camera sitcom shot outdoors without a laugh track, but with plenty of tin foil swords and actors who don’t know how to use them. The tone is entirely inappropriate, but the fault is not all Donner’s. This is what happens when you have too many cooks stirring the pot - it took four people to write a screenplay that wouldn’t have been good enough to get me a C in ninth grade English.
Donner fails, the school bus full of screenwriters fail, but everyone else tries - Michelle Pfeiffer is elegant as always, but she has little to do here but stand around looking pretty while two boring, egotistical meatheads fight over her like she’s not even there. Broderick has since made a career out of playing neurotic halfwits, and he does so quite well here. He even rocks more or less the same haircut he would wear as Ferris Bueller a year later. He’s really the best thing about the movie, save the stupid accent. I know it sounds trivial, but the fault isn’t mine. This is a trivial movie. I’m not sure what order they filmed the scenes in, but I get the impression they tried half the movie with an accent, which Broderick was not good at, and just decided to drop the whole matter for the second half of the film.
Thanks (or not) to the magic of the edit room, we end up with a finished product where from scene to scene, Broderick either sounds like a smart ass kid from New York, or a smart ass kid from York - with a significant speech impediment. It doesn’t sound like a big deal until you hear it, and the failure to address such simple things is indicative of all that’s wrong with Ladyhawke. It feels like a cynical cash grab, a lazy attempt to take advantage of the craze du jour that was sweeping Hollywood at the time. You know, kind of like the endless glut of dull, shapeless hero flicks coming out of Tinseltown today.
Sadly, every character suffers for this. Rutger Hauer is forced to phone it in here. His character is weighed down by the yoke of personal duty and haunted by terrible guilt, but he’s not permitted to infuse Navarre with the same pathos he did Roy Batty, and the movie suffers greatly for it. We are told that the Bishop is evil, but he has little to do the entire movie but make dastardly pronouncements from afar, and hover about his walled garden shaking his fist at people. Much like Darth Vader, he’s more breath than bite. Leo McKern plays Father Imperious, the mad old wizard who shares a past with our two protagonists and their nemesis. He and Broderick have some moments together, but it’s not enough. The movie is too weighed down with needless ballast for the relationship to compensate.
The film’s climax takes our heroes back to where their story started, and relies on a catalyst you can see coming from about the one hour mark. The last act goes on for days, and since the film telegraphs all its punches, you don’t even feel them when they land. Ladyhawke’s occasional moments of drama and passion are inevitably ruined by poor acting, questionable visual effects, horrible synthesizer music or a script ridden with more cheese than the Wisconsin State Fair. And they couldn’t have come up with a better name for a girl than Isabeau? I hear it means “God’s promise”, which is appropriate to the story, but they might as well have named her Agnes. Or Dolores. Gertrude. Ramilda. Britney. Paris. Kim Kardashian.
Like most films, I am sure Ladyhawke was well meant. But like far too many films, it’s little more than a tedious waste of time. “Clumsiness” is really the operative word here. Broderick’s delivery is clumsy. The fight scenes are clumsy. The soundtrack is clumsy. The visual effects are clumsy. Hell, it’s even hard to root for Navarre and Isabeau because while Rutger Hauer and Michelle Pfeiffer are both perfectly adequate actors, they look like brother and sister, and have approximately zero chemistry together. Not to mention, their characters are so dull and humorless that by the last act you almost don’t give a damn whether it all works out or not. How do you like that? A love story where the lovers are the least interesting part of the deal.
This movie has its moments - I counted exactly three of them - but Ladyhawke never had a chance, and is not worthy of your attention or mine. I’m sorry for cheating, Mom.