Main cast: Matthew Broderick (Phillipe Gaston), Rutger Hauer (Etienne of Navarre), Michelle Pfeiffer (Isabeau of Anjou), Leo McKern (Imperius), John Wood (Bishop of Aquila), Ken Hutchison (Captain Marquet), and Alfred Molina (Cezar)
Director: Richard Donner
I love Ladyhawke, make no mistake. I first caught it in the early 1990s, when it showed up on TV one fine day, and I was enthralled. In fact, it was one of those things back in those days that pushed me into embracing romance novels wholeheartedly.
With Rutger Hauer’s passing, I thought it would only be appropriate to watch this movie again, hoping to write a lovely five-oogie review to celebrate a role that captured my heart as much as it got him maligned by critics… but holy bo-peep, this movie is so 1980s. I don’t know what the people behind the film were thinking, but I never realized until now how horribly out of place the music is. The music is ripped out of some Hallmark movie, giving me mood whiplash as the visuals of the movie are of a medieval sword and sorcery type – so mismatched with the music. Was Clannad too busy? How about Enya?
Still, that’s not as bad as Matthew Broderick, who plays a “French” thief, and I say “French” because there is nothing about Phillipe Gaston from his accent to his present day phraseology that screams French. Worse, the Mouse, as the thief is called, spends every sense mouthing out loud flippant one-liners that may work for Ferris Bueller but is just non-stop hammer on head kind of annoying here. This movie will be so much better if Mouse had been mute.
Oh yes, the plot. The Mouse is the only one who manages to successfully escape from the dungeon of the Bishop of Aquila. He foolishly brags about it the moment he is clear… to men who turns out to have been sent to capture him back. Oops. Fortunately, he is rescued by a warrior in black, Etienne of Navarre, but this warrior has his own reasons for doing so: he wants Mouse to get him into Aquila without being seen, so that he can kill his nemesis the Bishop. Mouse doesn’t really have much of a chance to say no, but he softens towards Etienne when he realizes that he and his love, Isabeau of Anjou, are under a curse inflicted the Bishop: by day, she is a hawk while by night, he is a wolf. Both do not recall what they did in their animal forms, and in animal form, the only thing that makes sense is their instinctive willingness to stay close to and follow the other who is in human form.
Thus, Etienne and Isabeau are effectively always together but never really are. While Isabeau still hopes that they can break the curse one day and be together again, Etienne has given up hope and is resigned to merely kill the Bishop for revenge. Of course, there is a happy ending here, and Mouse is going to help them find it.
The premise of the movie is lovely and intriguing, but the executing is quite the muddled chore. The pacing is solid, but much of the middle third of the movie consists of filler. Oh, there is too much time that passed since the last dramatic scene? Let’s have someone – usually Isabeau – get into random trouble! Still, this is in line with many of the sword and sorcery films that peppered the 1980s, so Ladyhawke isn’t unique in this regard.
If Matthew Broderick had been severely miscast here, oddly enough Leo McKern as the surly yet curmudgeonly and kindly former ally of Etienne makes perfect sense. Imperious once betrayed Etienne and Isabeau, and now he lives as a hermit as penance for his sins. When given a chance by Mouse to come along to redeem himself and help those two, why not? Yet, even as Mouse’s constant one-liners are like nails on chalkboard, Imperius’s are actually funny, mostly because they are earned and fit the context of a particular scene nicely. Mouse is just like a broken toilet that keeps spewing out sewage.
Yet, the movie still works very well for me because of Rutger Hauer and Michelle Pfeiffer – especially Mr Hauer. I shudder to imagine the result should Kurt Russell hadn’t quit the moment he saw how he looked in Etienne’s warrior outfit, because on paper, that character shouldn’t work. Stubborn to a fault, to the point of stupidity at times, this character could have been a meathead disaster. Yet, Mr Hauer pulls it off beautifully here. You see, there is always something manic about this man’s method of acting, as if there were always plenty of repressed craziness that will erupt at any moment, and this barely restrained brand of violent desperation transforms Etienne into exactly what this movie needs: a quiet lone wolf who is nonetheless so pushed over the brink by his desperation that he is going on a scorched earth path to end both his and Isabeau’s curse. If it doesn’t work, breaking the curse, it doesn’t matter, because he and Isabeau would then be dead and their pain would be over. Look at Mr Hauer’s eyes and the small tics on his face in Etienne’s every scene: the warrior may appear stoic, but this is a man bent of suicide due to desperation and love. Coupled to his ruthless efficiency in killing people, Etienne is glorious.
Watching Ladyhawke for the first time, I thought I’d go read romance novels if I would find more leading men like him – so I did and bought a few romance novels. So now you know: if you don’t like me, blame Rutger Hauer.
Michelle Pfeiffer is good too – her expressive face is a pleasure to behold her. Her character for the most part is predictably stuck in a “Rescue me! Eeek!” mode, but she goes beyond the call of duty and acts the rear end out of her role. What could have been a one-dimensional tragic victim of a curse ends up being instead a lady who may be out of her league when it comes to kicking rear ends, but Isabeau is still a strong lady at the end of the day.
So yes, there you have it. I do like this movie, but I can’t in good conscience recommend it without putting in many qualifiers. You have to be able to overlook the cheesy opening track and the even cheesier opening credits. You have to endure Matthew Broderick’s out of place everything. You have to sit through some pointless filler scenes. You have to also really love the 1980s aesthetic to watch this movie without cringing inside. If you can look past all these, you may find yourself watching a beautifully shot movie featuring a larger-than-life couple whose romance is simultaneously romantic and tragic, and you may even find yourself rooting for these two. You may fall in love with Ladyhawke, like I did, and you know it’s love because it endures even after you are fully aware of all its many huge flaws.