by A.J. Hakari
To have come upon 1985’s Ladyhawke during the decade’s wave of fantasy cinema must be like an ethereal and wistful Spider-Man popping up in our current superhero renaissance. It’s a major studio production with fairly prominent talent behind and in front of the camera, yet it’s strangely unconcerned with showing off the bag of visual tricks its budget bought. The film wants to achieve fairy tale charm the old-fashioned way, through a story and characters who touch us with their unflappable virtue, without the need to lean on trotting out the most dazzlingly distracting special effects that ’80s dollars could get. Sobering pictures on as handsomely-mounted of a scale as Ladyhawke are rare birds indeed, but unfortunately, being stout of heart can’t excuse the passive plotting that nearly derails its otherworldly appeal. When seen at the right, impressionable age, the movie’s soaring spirit can wrap you up in no time, but any scrutiny from a grown-up’s perspective will expose the padding used to try patching up its gaping narrative holes just as swiftly.
No soul has escaped the dreaded dungeons of Aquila and lived to tell about it…until Philippe Gaston (Matthew Broderick). A wise-cracking thief with a talent for worming his way out of the tightest of spots, Philippe’s latest escape has earned both the attention and the wrath of Aquila’s corrupt bishop (John Wood). However, a second party has also taken note of this astounding feat: Navarre (Rutger Hauer), former captain of the city’s guards. The good knight swoops young Philippe out of harm’s way and approaches him with a proposition — to break right back into Aquila. It seems that long ago, the jealous bishop called upon dark forces to forever separate Navarre from his lover Isabeau (Michelle Pfeiffer), transforming the latter into a hawk at daybreak and the former into a wolf at nightfall. Driven by years of only sharing his beloved’s company in human form for a split second at dawn, Navarre is on a mission to kill the bishop and needs Philippe’s help evading his guards in the city. But as he’s reluctantly swept up into this quest, the cowardly thief learns that death might not be the answer to breaking the curse and struggles to help his new master realize the same, before his bloodlust makes things even worse.
If I can say anything in Ladyhawke‘s favor, it’s that it buys a hundred percent into the notion of love conquering all. It’s romantic to the core, unwavering in its lack of cynicism and the gentleness with which it acclimates viewers to its mythology. Predicting the rolled eyes and derisive sighs of those hesitant to accept its magical premise, director Richard Donner (who helmed The Goonies the same year) proceeds to explore the fantastic universe before him with a surprising amount of patience. He’s in no rush to legitimize the story for jaded audience members, allowing him to focus on setting up the intimate foundation on which the movie stands. Ladyhawke doesn’t venture far beyond the few key members of its ensemble, sidestepping the common fantasy pitfall of cramming each frame with ancillary characters whose kooky antics serve no other purpose than to bring the plot to a screeching halt. From start to finish, this is Navarre and Isabeau’s show, and though the premise may not have been based on an actual legend (which Warner Brothers reportedly claimed in its marketing back in the day), the film’s atmosphere feels akin to that of an ancient tale being given new life. Pfeiffer and Hauer truly commit to their roles as lovers torn apart by mystical forces, so good as to conquer the corny effects one scene uses to play out the single moment they can see one another in human mode.
However, the issue with a movie like Ladyhawke keeping its characters and story as close-knit as it does is that all it takes to collapse the whole endeavor is one piece that doesn’t fit right. In this case, that piece is Broderick’s Philippe, who initially doesn’t raise any red flags. Broderick gives an appropriately twitchy and smart-alecky performance, and his character’s frequent pleas to the Almighty to get him out of a jam are witty and amusing. But the further the story progresses, the more evident it becomes that Philippe simply doesn’t need to be there. Navarre says that the kid is best fitted to help him sneak into Aquila, but when the time comes to put his plans into action, Philippe barely makes any difference, as the bulk of the assistance is provided by Leo McKern’s holy man, Imperius. With his connection to Navarre and Isabeau’s dilemma, Imperius is blessed with a richer backstory and much more of a drive to reunite the pair than Broderick’s thief, whose journey entails learning how to be slightly less weaselly. Aside from one-liners, Philippe contributes zilch, and the pacing suffers as the film insists on preserving his prominence in the story and scrounging around in vain to find him things to do. Plus, Wood’s bishop is an ineffectual villain whose most diabolical deeds are told to us through hearsay, and Andrew Powell’s score is an almost outright disaster, a cringingly-synthesized hodgepodge of a soundtrack that couldn’t be less appropriate for the film’s setting if it were performed by Kool and the Gang.
I really admire Ladyhawke‘s attitude towards fantasy world-building, but its inability to solve its storytelling problems had my interest waning before the halfway point. There is genuine charm, humor, and emotion at work here, although they’re all too often at odds with those instances when the movie is too stubborn to realize that the elements it’s struggling so hard to make work are holding it back from flourishing. Its photography and actors are in tip-top shape, but Ladyhawke is one more draft away from achieving true liftoff and taking our imaginations with it.
(Ladyhawke is available on Blu-ray from the Warner Archive Collection.)