#9 Box Office Bust: Hudson Hawk

Synopsis: Due to the tremendous success of Die Hard (1988), Bruce Willis was given an opportunity to star in a movie based on a character he helped create while still a struggling actor in his twenties. That character was the inspiration behind the action adventure spoof Hudson Hawk (1991). Given the film’s budget of $70 million, fans expected a traditional Bruce Willis action adventure movie, but were forced to sit through a poorly written (and acted) spoof. With only $17 million in gross ticket sales, the movie ended up losing over $60 million for the studio. In addition to suffering financially, the movie suffered critically and won three Razzies for Worst Picture, Worst Director, and Worst Screenplay. Given its failure despite the resources dedicated to it, the movie has earned the #9 spot as a Top 10 Box Office Bust.


Plot: Recently released from prison, a cat burgler is forced back into a life a crime in order to save the life of his long-time partner. As part of a scheme to dominate the world, a deranged couple recruits him to steal several Leonardo da Vinci artifacts which are needed to reconstruct a machine that converts lead into gold.

Producer: Joel Silver

Director: Michael Lehmann

Writer: Bruce Willis and Robert Kraft (story) / Steven E. deSouza and Daniel Waters (screenplay)

Actors: Bruce Willis, Danny Aiello, Andie MacDowell

Metacritic Score: 17 (overwhelming dislike)

Movie Release Date Estimated Production Costs** Opening Gross Ticket Sales Theaters Opening Gross / Theater Lifetime Gross Ticket Sales
Hudson Hawk May 24, 1991 $70 million $7.1 million 2,071 $3,400 $17.2 million

* Information provided by boxofficemojo.com

** Information provided by IMDb.

Set-up: In the late 1980s, Bruce Willis transitioned rather quickly from TV star to movie star. After getting a few bit parts during the first half of the decade, Willis scored his first leading television role co-staring with Cybil Shephard on Moonlighting (1985-89). Starting as a late-season replacement with only six original episodes from March-April 1985, the show gained popularity in its second season before breaking into the top 10 in the Nielsen ratings for its third. Based on his work that season, Willis won an Emmy Award in 1987 as Best Actor in a Comedy / Musical. That year also was monumental because he got his first leading role in a major motion picture co-staring with Kim Bassinger in Blind Date (1987). With an $18 million budget and $39 million in domestic ticket sales, the movie was considered a modest success. One year later, Willis really hit it big when his movie Die Hard (1988) topped $80 million domestically and $140 million worldwide. Given the success of the movie, the studio made Die Hard 2 (1990), which did even better and grossed approximately $120 million domestically and $240 million worldwide. Within five years, Willis had gone from a bit actor on TV to an A-List movie star.

For as good as Willis’ career as an actor was going at the time, Joel Silver’s career as a producer was even better. In addition to producing both Die Hard movies, Silver demonstrated an ability to make commercially successful movies such as Lethal Weapon (1987), Predator (1987), and Lethal Weapon 2 (1989). In all, those five movies combined to gross approximately $480 million domestically and $830 million worldwide. Given Silver’s success, studios were willing to give him ever increasing budgets to produce the next hit. For instance, Lethal Weapon had a budget of $15 million, Die Hard had a budget of $30 million, and Die Hard 2 had a budget of $70 million.

Clearly, Silver and Willis had formed a winning team with the Die Hard franchise. Silver showed he could produce successful action movies whereas Willis showed he could carry an action movie. While the full exchange that led to the decision to make Hudson Hawk is unknown, I imagine it went something like this:

Silver: Bruce, we really have something going here. Do you have any ideas for another movie we could do?

Willis: Joel, funny you ask. You know how David Addison (his character from Moonlighting) was a wisecracking private detective and John McClane (his character from Die Hard) is a wisecracking police detective, how about a movie based on a wisecracking cat burglar?

Silver: What’s the story?

Willis: The guy goes on an international adventure to foil a plan for world domination.

Silver: Sounds good. Let’s go for it.

Continuing with this fictitious version of events, I imagine Silver followed up his conversation with Willis by talking to Tri-Star Chairman Mike Medavoy.

Silver: Mike, I have a blockbuster for you.

Medavoy: I’ll bite. What’s the pitch?

Silver: Bruce Willis as a wisecracking something or other who travels the world in an attempt to stop world domination.

Medavoy: How big is the budget?

Silver: 50 mil.

Medavoy: Things are getting a little tight here. How about 40?

Silver: That’ll work. We’ll make sure the story’s tight so production goes smoothly.

Medavoy: Ok. I’m in.

Despite my overly simplified version of events, I doubt it took too long for Silver to get the money to produce another action adventure movie starring Willis. Too bad the description was misleading.


  • Questionable Source Material – As inspiration for the lead character, Willis reached back to a song he co-wrote with Robert Kraft (the composer, not the Patriots’ owner) while they were roommates 12 years earlier. To repeat, the source material was not an actual story but rather a song written by two guys in their early to mid-twenties. I’d really like to know how drunk and/or stoned they were at the time. Similarly, I’d like to know which one told the other that they should make a movie about the character when they made it big someday.
  • Cart before the horse – Apparently, Willis was so enamored with the character of Hudson Hawk that the story was an afterthought. To rekindle (or reignite) the magic from yesteryear, Willis recruited Kraft to help write the story. By that time, the roommate had become an award-winning composer for the following song [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u0iuXeOfmdQ], but he certainly wasn’t a screenwriter.
whos boss
If you recognize this van, you’ll want to click on the link to the award-winning song – at least for nostalgic reasons [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u0iuXeOfmdQ]

Willis and Kraft accepted credit for coming up with the story, but at least they let two actual writers take control of the screenplay. Then again, the whole writing process was a fiasco earning all four a Razzie (i.e. the anti-Oscar) for Worst Screenplay.

  • Tail wagging the dog – I can’t distinguish between the last two lead-ins either, but the concept bears repeating because the problem happened again. Specifically, the movie was driven more by the desire to film in certain locations regardless of the storyline. Willis envisioned his character as an international jet setter so filming was planned for Los Angeles, New York, Rome, London, and Budapest. It seemed that the story was written (and rewritten) to fit the locations instead of the other way around. Furthermore, the initial budget of $40 million soared to $70 million in large part because of complications arising filming in so many countries, especially ones with restrictive labor laws.
  • Lack of control – As a first-time director of the movie Heathers (1988) starring Winona Rider and Christian Slater, Michael Lehmann received positive reviews and even was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival. He was lauded for making a good movie (Metascore of 73) on a shoe-string budget of only $3 million. Even though the film’s stars were promising young actors, they hadn’t become Hollywood brats yet so Lehmann’s direction wasn’t undermined. In contrast, Lehmann didn’t have an easy time directing Willis, who had already become an A-List movie star with an ego to match. Heck, the studio was spending tens of millions of dollars making a movie about some cockamamie character developed by Willis in his twenties, so why wouldn’t the actor have a big head. Given that Hudson Hawk was Lehmann’s first big-budget movie, the director unfortunately didn’t have the clout to rein in his star.
  • Know thyself – Perhaps, the biggest mistake may have occurred in the marketing of the film. Several months before the release of Hudson Hawk, Willis failed to resonate in his role as a smaller-than-life reporter in the suspense thriller The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990). Hoping to avoid the stigma of Willis’ recent role, the promoters made sure to position him as a larger-than-life character in an exciting adventure film. In particular, they used the following poster for the movie.


Many moviegoers went to the theaters expecting a traditional action adventure film but were confused because it was a feeble attempt at a spoof. Given the high budget scenes, their eyes saw one thing. Given the farcical dialogue, their ears heard something completely different. Realizing the mistake, the film’s marketing team decided to change the tagline – but not before it was too late.

Notice the line “CATCH THE ADVENTURE” was changed to “CATCH THE LAUGHTER.”

Conclusion: Given all of the production problems, it shouldn’t have been a surprise that the movie would fail. With a Metascore of 17, it was panned by most critics. As written in the New York Times at the time of its release,

Now and then, a Hollywood megabomb explodes with so much force that it actually sheds some light. “Hudson Hawk,” a colossally sour and ill-conceived misfire, is at least a film from which someone may learn something, if only the hard way.

With gross ticket sales of $17 million and production budget of $70 million, the estimated loss from the movie was in excess of $60 million ($120 million adjusted for inflation). By any definition, it was a flop. Given its failure despite the resources dedicated to it, the movie has been named as the #9 Box Office Bust.

Postscript: By the time everyone knew how much of a failure Hudson Hawk had become, Silver and Willis already had The Last Boy Scout (1991) in the pipeline for release later in the year. Both films opened similarly ($7 million), but The Last Boy Scout had much stronger legs and ultimately grossed close to $60 million. Not surprisingly, fans returned as Willis returned to his bread and butter role (i.e. a wisecracking detective in a traditional action film). Despite their success, Silver and Willis didn’t work together again, not even for any of the subsequent Die Hard movies. Silver continued to produce hit action movies (e.g. the Matrix franchise) and Willis’ movies have gone on to gross over $2.5 billion so both of them have been very successful, but just not together.

Perhaps the biggest loser from the fiasco was Lehmann, who went on to direct Airheads (1994) and The Truth About Cats & Dogs (1996) but never got another chance to direct a big budget film. I don’t know if he chose not to do one because of his experience with Willis or if he never got another offer, but it’s unfortunate nonetheless.

If you’re wondering what happened to the guy who co-wrote the theme song to Who’s the Boss (yeah, that was the clip that might have missed earlier), he won a Grammy in 1991 for a song from The Little Mermaid (1989) and was nominated for an Oscar in 1993 for a song from The Mambo Kings (1992). In addition, he served as the president of Fox Music from 1994-2012. Overall, not bad for the guy who co-wrote the song responsible for the impetus behind Hudson Hawk.