Ladyhawke – The Unseen Review

RIP to Rutger Hauer, an actor with a colorful filmography and genuine, heartfelt talent. I’ll confess that there are a lot of his films I’ve yet to see, but there’s never been a better time to experience his body of work than the era of streaming video. May he rest in peace, and may his work live on.

In light of his death, I was reminded of a very silly article I wrote a long time ago. The premise for that would-be series is that I’d write a review of what I thought an unseen movie might be like based on the shortest summary of its story at IMDb, then watch it and write a real review. The publication never got off the ground, and I’m no longer in contact with those who commissioned it. It may as well find a home here.

Ladyhawke. As film titles go, it doesn’t give you much to go on. Maybe a lady identifies personally as a carnivorous flying bird, or even fights crime dressed like one. “Hawk” is specific, so at least we’re probably not sitting down for a film about a woman beating the hell out of jaywalkers while dressed as an emperor penguin, even though I want that movie to exist in the most terrible, desperate way. But let’s not be too hasty: that “e” at the end suggests a Middle English or medieval setting. Perhaps it’s a rollicking, criminal-assaulting bird woman in the age of Chaucer’s England, or maybe France, so it’s The Three Musketeers if it marinated in the brain of a parakeet-tending shut-in. Or it’s the name of a place, probably cooked up by a tipsy nobleman to flatter his way under some poor chambermaid’s petticoat. I guess that could be fun. Maybe there’s a Trojan Blue Parrot rolled out in a climactic battle that explodes into a horde of crows, each one carrying an adorable little musket. In the end it hardly matters: I won’t let the mere fact that I haven’t seen a frame of this movie keep me from reviewing what I think it ought to be based mostly on its title.

Ladyhawke: spiritual predecessor to Maureen Ponderosa’s transitioning cat from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia? Time will tell.

 Still, it won’t do to fabricate this out of whole cloth, Christ knows. I’m not a hack. This must be grounded in reality, or at least what passes for it in the perceptual Grand Guignol of American life in the year 2017. Let’s look at the shortest IMDb summary, courtesy one Flavio Rizzardi, so we glean a little bit of information without contaminating our speculation with too many constraining tidbits of the actual, you know, movie:

“Philip Gaston (Matthew Broderick), called The Mouse [sic] escapes from the prison of the medieval city of Aquila. Chased by the guards of the evil Bishop (John Wood) of the city, Philip meets a mysterious knight (Rutger Hauer) with a beautiful hawk and begins to follow him. Philip soon discovers that the knight has been cursed by the Bishop, so that when the night falls…”

Prior to his success the next year as Ferris Bueller, Broderick would be a shoo-in for the role of the plucky urchin doomed to die of vermin-borne infection who will fumblingly set up the introduction of an action movie’s real protagonists. Rutger Hauer was in fine form circa 1985, and in keeping with his most memorable roles, we’ll assume he’s a blind cyborg who fell through a dimensional rift and has taken to keeping a bird around. By the end of our first act we’ve got a young convict, a cybernetic organism chock full of power with no functioning visual matrix, a hawk who might be the film’s namesake, and a Mysterious Curse.

Strap in for – whoops, wrong cult movie with a hawk. Go watch 1979’s The Visitor if you haven’t, it’ll change your world.

From his roots as a medieval hobo Gaston learned to make fire, so our half-mechanical man is grateful to have cooked food again. We’re treated to a series of weird vignettes that show our heroes bonding over hot meals and tossing scraps to the hawk, shot in soft focus with lots of facial closeups and laughter, interspersed with scenes of numbing bloodshed where the cyborg and hawk eviscerate wave after wave of guards. And Ladyhawke’s a legitimate cult classic, so there’s no way this is just a quickly tossed off piece of character development: this blend of male bonding and unspeakable carnage goes on for seventeen minutes. Best of all, everything depicted happens in the same afternoon, so these unlikely companions become firm s’more-making friends, asquat a mountain of corpses.

  But there’s still the matter of the knight being cursed by the Bishop, and here’s when we find out how: Michelle Pfeiffer’s character, the lanky and gorgeous Isabeau, walks in, dressed in plate mail and toting what we’ve come to know as one of the film’s most controversial elements: a Dairy Queen-branded Blizzard. The knight’s understandably mad that she’s out spending money, what with them living on the run, but she spends the next four minutes shilling like crazy for Dairy Queen and their wide range of delicious ice cream treats, to his progressively quieter protests. At this point poor Gaston’s lost, and is about to walk out for fresh air when the sun sets. The film’s namesake becomes clear as Isabeau graphically, disgustingly turns into a huge werehawk that looks like a more salacious, better-armed version of Howard the Duck’s unfortunate duck with boobs. Alas, the knight was cursed to fall in love with were-animals, and explains the details of the curse while Isabeau begins graphically devouring dead guards, piece by piece.

If you ever feel like you aren’t good at your job, remember: Hollywood professionals thought this was a great idea and made it happen.

Outraged – by his own lot in life, by his inexplicable new mechanical buddy, and by the sight of a werebird eating stacks of dead people – Gaston’s resolve has been galvanized. Knowing that the natural order of things has been disrupted, he leads them back to the city to destroy the evil Bishop and his corrupt religious order once and for all. It is this last act which cements Ladyhawke’s reputation as “the most sacrilegious, venally corporate-friendly, and punchingest film of 1985.”1)Joel Siegel, probably That quote isn’t screwing around; one shot captures the moment where Gaston punches a guard and Broderick’s middle right knuckle actually broke the skin and dislocated on camera. Then, unplanned by anyone with the production, the set hawk was triggered by the sight of blood and vigorously attacked the wound with such precision that the knuckle was re-set, and that sequence of violence went on without cease for a total of eight minutes. In that single take, Gaston also beheads two grown men using only his fingernails and an extinguished torch for leverage, eviscerates a grown man with two rusty forks, and in arguably the film’s most memorable scene, kicks an Arnold Schwarzenegger lookalike in half. It is a stunning technical achievement.

Don’t laugh. This guy makes John Wick look like a toddler without bones.

Gaston’s proved himself a horrifying death machine who’s set off a riot in the center of town, which frees the Knight up to enter the Bishop’s cathedral in stealthy fashion. With Isabeau in tow, they sneak past the guards and confront the Bishop in his very lair. Suddenly Isabeau is ambushed by a werewolf, and the Knight squares off against the Bishop’s true form: an artificial intelligence gone mad with power, originally tasked with the creation and sale of Dairy Queen goods “in perpetuity, throughout the universe.” The true source of the curse is revealed to be the Bishop’s vizier, played in an uncredited turn by F. Murray Abraham. Gaston, now covered in blood, breaks through a nearby window, and three heroes are set to face off against three villains… villains, who…

Y’know what? I just wanna watch the actual movie now, and write a review of that.

Ladyhawke: The Actual Review

Ladyhawke holds dichotomies near its heart. The film isn’t shy about this, rolling out a day/night credit sequence with the title letters dawnlit against the background of a full moon. Its sins – which become legion – begin as Andrew Powell and Alan Parsons’ score swells. For two full minutes, bleary sunlight with cast and crew member names alternate with shots of a backlit hawk in the dark. The music is tonally nonsensical, triumphal ‘80s prog excess juxtaposed with images that unsuccessfully try to convey dramatic weight.

Rather than a soldier-murdering nightmare, Gaston’s a pious thief who finagles through life because it’s all he knows, but hopes to make it up to God later. Escaping from prison where he’s to be hung on flimsy pretenses on orders from a bloodthirsty bishop, Gaston makes it to the countryside, preens in front of the wrong crowd, and is nearly captured by shaggy-looking guards. He is then rescued by Navarre, the hawk-toting former captain of the guard dressed in black Captain Phasma drag. After some lousy swordfighting, they escape to the countryside as the score blares like a goat in heat. In due time the true nature of the curse is revealed: by night Navarre becomes a wolf, and his bird (which never goes after anybody’s eyes in two blighted hours) becomes Isabeau, who… is pretty, and emotes. That’s essentially her character. Anyway, this all unfurled because Isabeau didn’t want the bishop, who entered into a pact with the devil to enact a curse, and Gaston helps keep these lovebirds together long enough to break the spell and ensure justice is done.

I hope you like this expression, because when she isn’t crying that’s pretty much it.

At two hours Ladyhawke meanders and feels flabby with narrative padding. There are basic elements of craft that pull attention over and over, with the use of lens filters and day for night shooting feeling more distracting than novel or attractive. The score is genuinely oppressive in the first act, but reduces in baleful intensity for the second act before returning near the end like an unwelcome dinner guest. Aside from its central day/night intrigue its love of dualities isn’t well-conceived. Take the example of Gaston as a counterpart to the evil Bishop, a man of immense wealth charged with the responsibility of enacting Christ’s kingdom on Earth. Despite his advantages he roils at his inability to have the woman he lusts after, cursing her and her lover to despair. A good screenplay could work wonders with that, but the film errs by telling us about the Bishop’s evil deeds while barely showing them. He talks to underlings with villainous import early, vanishes for nearly all of the second act, and is more pitiful than sinister in the end. At no point did I buy that this guy was truly in league with a pre-Inquisition vision of satanic evil.

While the film was well cast, even great actors can only do so much with a tossed off script. Michelle Pfeiffer looks wonderful and vacillates between childish joy and inert despair; Hauer clenches his jaw and issues forthright proclamations in lieu of character development. Even in the film’s closing moments they don’t ignite the screen so much as promise a lifetime of mutually entangled dysfunction. Leo McKern’s turn as a drunkard priest is a joy, counterbalanced by a wasted Ken Hutchison as a snarling and inept captain of the guard. The fight choreography is poor from start to finish. And despite proclamations by its cult of fans, it’s about as romantic as poetry in a goth teenager’s notebook. There are so many good, interesting films from this decade exploring medieval themes; why you’d choose this chintzy calamity over most of them is a mystery to me.

References   [ + ]

1. Joel Siegel, probably

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