Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Monday, June 13, 2016

Director Report Card: Richard Donner (1985) Part 1

9. Ladyhawke

“The Toy” was a disastrous film but it also made money, continuing Richard Donner’s box office success. Perhaps after an obvious work-for-hire gig like that one, the director wanted to tackle a more personal project next. “Ladyhawke” was a film Donner had been trying to get made for several years. Production had nearly started twice before, once in England and once in Czechoslovakia. It would be until the early eighties, with filming taken place in Italy, that production would actually began. “Ladyhawke” failed to recoup its budget at the box office but would be nominated for two Academy Awards and, via rentals and cable screenings, garner a cult following.

In 1300s Italy, notorious thief Phillipe “The Mouse” Gaston makes a daring escape from the dungeons of Aquila. In his journeys, he encounters Etienne Navarre, a former captain of the guards. Both Gaston and Navarre are pursued by the Bishop of Aquila. Navarre and the Bishop were in love with the same woman, Isabeau. When she rejected the Bishop in favor of Etienne, both the girl and her lover were cursed. During the day, Isabeua transforms into a hawk. At night, Navarre transforms into a wolf. Gaston winds up assisting Etienne as he seeks revenge on the Bishop and attempts to undo the curse that prevents him from being with his love.

“Ladyhawke” was part of a wave of sword and sorcery flicks in the eighties that included the likes of “Conan the Barbarian,” “Krull,” “Legend,” and many others. The film falls more on the low-fantasy end of the genre, with the curse being the only fantastic content of the medieval story. Amid the sword fights and magical transformations, “Ladyhawke” is most concerned with the romance. The details of the curse add an ironic touch to that love story. Though Isabeau and Etienne are deeply devoted to each other, the two are separated during night and day, unable to ever meet as people. Though featuring many troupes common to the genre at the time – cartoonish evil villains, sword fights, castle and dungeons – it’s that love story that ultimately makes the film more endearing then it otherwise would’ve been. This continues Donner’s talent for grounding fantastic material in reality.

The romance is the film’s most successful attempt to make the medieval story relatable to then-modern eyes. It’s not the only one. Despite the knight and his girlfriend being the most important characters, Matthew Broderick’s thief gets top billing and most of the screen time. Broderick is less smug then he was in “Ferris Bueller.” However, his glib sense of humor and comedic asides often seem inappropriate with the period setting. Despite this problem, Broderick’s Phillipe eventually develops into a decent character. His determination to help the heroes on their quest and on-his-feet thinking eventually endear him to the audience.

The proper star of “Ladyhawke” is Rutger Hauer. Originally asked to play the main villain, Hauer took over the heroic role after intended star Kurt Russell left the project. Hauer’s steely blue eyes and European creepiness often saw him playing villains. That same quality suits him well in the part of Etienne Navarre. The character has a single-minded focus on his goal and contains secrets of his own. Hauer often brings an unexpected poetry to his dialogue. There’s a quiet humor to the character, that is brought out by his wry smile. When it comes to action heroics, Hauer is also more then capable, working well with a sword or crossbow. (Amusingly, “Ladyhawke” would be released the same year as “Flesh + Blood,” another Italian-set medieval adventure movie starring Hauer.)

“Ladyhawke” was an early role for Michelle Pfeiffer, who plays the titular character in human form. Isabeau is frequently described as the most beautiful woman the male characters have ever seen. Pfeiffer stands up to this impossible title. She’s nothing short of ethereal, her pale skin, golden blonde hair, and crystal clear eyes shining in the dark. More then her beauty, Pfeiffer’s acting makes the part unforgettable. She brings a light touch to the role, adding considerable charm her few scenes. She also brings an element of humor, such as the scene where she’s bartering with Broderick. Or some capable action chops of her own, like when she flees some attacking enemies.

In addition to the three leads, a solid supporting cast is assembled for “Ladyhawke.” John Wood plays the otherwise unnamed Bishop of Aquila. The film in no way comments on the hypocrisy of a man of the cloth lusting after a taken woman or performing witchcraft. Instead, the Bishop is a classical bad guy, simplistic in his motives and greedy in his goals. Wood brings a certain respectability to the part. Ken Hutchison plays Marquet, the royal guard carrying out the Bishop’s orders. Hutchison plays the character as a desperate man, aware that his life counts on him pleasing his boss. While not too defined of a bad guy, this choice does differentiate the part.  Alfred Molina is Cezar, the deranged mercenary hired to kill Hauer. Molina has an unhinged glint in his eye, making the villain appear dangerously unpredictable. Leo McKern, Bugenhagen from “The Omen,” plays Imperius. The monk responsible for informing the villains of the lovers’ activities, McKern plays Imperius as remorseful of his actions. The part provides more opportunities for McKern then Bugenhagen did, as Imperius is fond of drinking too much and setting booby traps for his enemies.

The action sequences in “Ladyhawke” are less spectacular then the big special effects of “Superman” or the gritty action of the “Lethal Weapon” movies. However, they have a certain charm of their own. An early sword fight between Hauer and a group of attackers at a tavern has some nice leaping, dodging, and clashing of blades. A horseback chase scene also throws in some cool crossbow action. When the Bishop’s men attempt to raid Imperius’ home, they fall victim to his traps, which nicely combines humor and thrills. The action high-light of “Ladyhawke” occurs at the end, when Hauer’s hero single-handedly fights off a number of men before facing Marquet. Though the use of slow motion is a bit melodramatic, the sword fight is still plenty satisfying.

“Ladyhawke” is a top notch production in a lot of ways. The scenery is often lovely. The Italian countryside is beautifully photographed, with its rolling green hills. The forests are dark, foggy, and mysterious, which provides some fine atmosphere to many scenes. Many genuine medieval locations were utilized during filming. Imperius’ hideout is Rocco Calascio. Torrechiara in Parma appears briefly. The village of Castell’Arquato puts in an appearance, with the climax being set inside one of its churches. Aside from the great locations and photography, “Ladyhawke” also features some top notch costume designs. The costumes and props are filled with period detail but feature enough personal quirks to prevent them from feeling like museum recreations. Navarre’s sword is an especially noteworthy example, its bejeweled handle being very memorable.

The most divisive element of “Ladyhawke” is its score. Andrew Powell’s music foregoes the sweeping strings and bellowing horns most associated with the fantastic genre. Instead, the soundtrack combines electronic elements with orchestral ones. This doesn’t always work. The opening theme sounds good when focusing on the violins. When the rock guitar and synthesizers kick in, it starts to sound like the theme song to a 1980s cop show. The love theme features some lovely mandolin and piano work, easily being my favorite piece of music in the movie. A reprised version heard later is hopelessly cheesy, with yet more beeping synth and overwrought guitars. There’s no doubt in my mind that the score is best when focusing on traditional elements. The electronic stuff is mostly distracting. However, it’s definitely memorable, for better or worst.

The exact mechanics of the curse in “Ladyhawke” are not expounded on in great detail. How the Bishop cursed the two is not shown nor explained. Early on, Navarre makes his intention to murder the Bishop known. By the mid-way point, it becomes clear that he’s obsessed with revenge. The film never outright states this but it seems to be implied that Navarre’s thirst for vengeance is elongating the curse. By the end of the film, he realizes revenge is fruitless and spares the man responsible, at which point the curse is broken and he’s reunited with his love… Until the bad guy picks up a spear and tries to impale Isabeua, forcing the hero to kill the villain anyway. I mean, I get it. I feel cheated too if the bad guy survives an action movie. However, “Ladyhawke” seemed to be making a serious statement about the price of revenge before throwing it away in favor of a crowd-pleasing denouncement.

Still, that happy ending counts for something. The script thinks up a clever subversion to its own rule. Navaree is a wolf by night, Isabeau is a hawk by day, and the two can never be reunited. That is until a solar eclipse occurs, when neither day nor night is on Earth. Thus, the two are human at the same time. For the first time, Hauer and Pfeiffer are together on-screen. Another movie having the hero lift his love interest overhead and cheer about their reunion might play as overdone. “Ladyhawke” earns it, the conclusion playing as genuinely touching.

I’m surprised “Ladyhawke” underwhelmed at the box office. The film’s mixture of adventure, action, romance, and comedy seems like it would’ve produced a surefire hit. Maybe Rutger Hauer wasn’t a big enough box office star for that. These same qualities would lead to the movie’s cult classic status. References to the film still crop up, in music and television shows. A winning cast, a clever central premise, and an even execution has keeps the film entertaining to this day. [Grade: B]

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