Release Date: April 12th, 1985 MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Richard Donner Actors: Matthew Broderick, Rutger Hauer, Michelle Pfeiffer, Leo McKern, John Wood, Ken Hutchison, Alfred Molina
ndrew Powell’s opening title music is far too electric-guitar-heavy and drum-kit-driven to appropriately match the knights-in-shining-armor time period – though the pervasive, clearly ‘80s rock melody is admittedly catchy. In any other movie (or by itself), this might have worked admirably. Here, when it surfaces, it grossly undermines the swashbuckling nature of the plot. It’s as if director Richard Donner is musically prepping himself for his “Lethal Weapon” series, which would arrive two years later. But the abrasive, jarring contrast in funky narrative tunes to the medieval imagery and subject matter is perhaps the film’s greatest downfall. During every action scene, just as the suspense and sword-fighting choreography ramps up, the horribly out-of-place score chimes in to remind audiences that they’re merely watching a movie. Fortunately, once or twice, there are nicely complementing orchestral compositions that stand out as superior (for a uniquely romantic Middle Ages adventure).
Masterful pickpocket Phillipe “The Mouse” Gaston (Matthew Broderick) escapes from his muddy dungeon confine as the prisoner of the merciless Bishop of Aquila (John Wood), who taxes his people cruelly while savoring his lavish castle and tremendous garden. Inciting a manhunt by Aquila’s chief henchman Captain of the Guard Marquet (Ken Hutchison), Gaston’s freedom is won by trudging through a great length of sewers and swimming through murky water. His first stop after stealing some clothes is to toast himself at a nearby village, where Marquet and his men wait. Despite a brief attempt to thwart the legion of armed knights, he’s captured and sentenced to death on the spot. But just as his throat is about to be slashed, he’s rescued by an armed soldier.
That warrior is Captain Etienne Navarre (Rutger Hauer), excelling in the use of a sword and crossbow, and a former legionnaire betrayed by Aquila. He’s cryptic, formidable, and accompanied by an elegant bird of prey. He’s also the victim of a powerful curse in which by day he’s a man and by night he’s transformed into a menacing black wolf. The hawk he guards is in fact his lover, Isabeau d’Anjou (Michelle Pfeiffer), who is similarly cursed to be avian by day and a beautiful woman by night, forever humanly separated from Navarre. The distinguished chevalier intends to use Phillipe to guide him back into the city (he’s also aided by a cantankerous but devoted monk named Father Imperius, played by Leo McKern), where he can take revenge against the bishop and break the dreaded spell.
Gaston speaks to himself continuously, not so much because he’s a quizzical, isolated soul forced to fend for himself at a young age, but because Donner feels that this is the only way to deliver insight into his mind – and also to impart character development and occasional narration. The annoying prattling is entirely unnecessary; and he keeps it up even after he’s met Navarre, resorting to talking to his savior’s horse, Goliath, or tending to chores while vocalizing his opinion on every activity. In the only worthwhile use of this communicative gimmick, Gaston pretends to be multiple people while trying to stave off an ambush in the woods.
The level of adventure is consistent and fun. It’s enthusiastically and convincingly led by Hauer, who can singlehandedly command a film; later the same year, he would star in Paul Verhoeven’s drastically more mature actioner “Flesh + Blood.” Nonetheless, “Ladyhawke” is a competent fantasy with likeable heroes and dastardly villains (Alfred Molina has a small but memorable role as grimy assassin Cezar), though the running time is slightly overlong, with duels stifled by slow-motion, brooding expressions, and a curious lack of sentries. The transformation special effects are practically nonexistent, using blended footage of a hawk overlapping Pfeiffer, accompanied by shocked stares from Broderick to convey that something miraculous is happening – offscreen. Similarly, Hauer’s metamorphosis is accomplished by cutting away from his figure. And peculiarly, like Marvel’s Hulk character, the wolf and the hawk have clothing issues (they must continually acquire new garbs) that get in the way of simplicity.
– Mike Massie