In Defense of ‘Ladyhawke’

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Richard Donner’s tale of love, magic, and swordplay is a rousing ’80s adventure with a kick-ass synth score. Yeah, I said it.

Welcome to Missed Connections, a weekly column where I get to highlight films that are little known and/or unfairly maligned. I’ll be shining a light in two directions ‐ I hope to introduce you to movies you’ve never seen and possibly never heard of, and I’ll attempt to defend films that history, critical consensus, and maybe even your own memories haven’t been very kind to.

This week’s pick is my first of the latter variety ‐ defending a movie that far too many of you seem to dislike. Fools!

Some people knew immediately that Ladyhawke was not the action/fantasy for them. As the opening title credits appear onscreen they’re accompanied by a thrilling synth track that to me screams adventure, victory, and the announcement of something new. Others though apparently felt the Alan Parsons-produced sound was too anachronistic ‐ essentially too unrealistic ‐ for a movie about an evil bishop who curses two lovers and turns them into animals.

That is, as the French say, le nonsense.

The film opens on a dreary day in the 14th century (although I imagine every day was dreary in the 14th century) with prisoners being hung in the walled city of Aquila. One young man, Philippe Gaston aka the Mouse (Matthew Broderick) is next for the rope but isn’t waiting around for the honor. He escapes from the dungeon, something no one has managed before, and begins his run across the countryside. He has a penchant for talking to God and exaggerating his own worth, and it’s the latter that nearly gets him caught outside the city’s walls.

A brief tussle later and he’s facing the sharp edge of a sword, but a stranger in black arrives and saves him. Navarre (Rutger Hauer) is the old captain of the guard, banished by the Bishop (John Wood) along with the woman they both loved, Isabeau (Michelle Pfeiffer), but returning now for revenge. So far so normal, but Mouse soon discovers the doomed lovers are living a harsher fate than mere banishment.

The bishop cursed them both ensuring that even as they’re “always together” they will also be “eternally apart.” Navarre’s a a man during the day but transforms into a wolf by night, and while Isabeau’s human at night she becomes a hawk at the break of dawn. They have the briefest of seconds between transformations where they can see each other as who they really are, and then it’s gone.

At his wit’s end with the tragedy of their lives, Navarre has decided to kill the Bishop even if it means his own demise, but Mouse is made privy to an alternate plan when he crosses paths with a disgraced priest named Imperius (Leo McKern). It seems the curse can be lifted if the one who inflicted the curse sees the pair during a time that’s both day and night ‐ and Imperius believes a solar eclipse is just days away.

Navarre refuses to believe the old man for understandable personal reasons and instead moves forward with his suicide mission, but Mouse can’t let the possibility go. It’s his first real selfless act, one that he even acknowledges to God as being an unusual move for him, and he proceeds to work with the priest and the woman he’s nicknamed Ladyhawke to trick the determined knight.

Look, Richard Donner’s 1985 feature is a fun, exciting, and emotionally satisfying adventure. I will accept no disagreement on this assessment.

The biggest stumbling block for some viewers seems to be Andrew Powell’s score, and there’s a fleeting logic to it on its face. Inspired by The Alan Parsons Project ‐ Donner was listening to their music while scouting locations and became enamored with including their sounds into the world he was envisioning ‐ Powell’s score is synth-heavy with occasionally chanting vocals, and it can feel inauthentic to the period. To that I can only say that it’s a movie featuring magical curses and people who transform into animals, so your argument about authenticity is already dead on arrival. More than that though, that title track is a fucking rousing delight! It makes your body move, and as it appears in minor variations throughout during action scenes it works beautifully to mirror the energy onscreen.

Similarly, Mouse’s comedic monologues were criticized as appearing too modern in their patter, but again I feel like it’s a stylized choice that works for the character and film. It’s a very Broderick thing to do. Ladyhawke was only his third feature and sandwiched between WarGames and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, and this was very much in his awkwardly humorous wheelhouse.

The other issue cited in numerous criticisms of the film is its light-hearted tone. I don’t understand this one as movies come in all shapes, sizes, and tones, and not everything needs to be a dark and gritty experience. (That said, if you do feel this way I recommend a double feature of Ladyhawke and Hauer’s other 1985 release, Flesh & Blood.) Donner’s filmography consists almost entirely of light entertainment ‐ The Omen and parts of Lethal Weapon 2 excepted ‐ and this enjoyable romp is exactly what you’d expect from him. The action sequences are exciting while still having consequences, and characters do die, but the film is wholeheartedly an adventure suitable for family viewing.

And that’s okay!

Ladyhawke has a lot to offer as a thrilling action/fantasy if you can get past these two non-issues. (And as an aside, the only complaint I will tolerate is the “what if?” of knowing that Kurt Russell was originally cast as Navarre but dropped out just days before production began.)

Broderick is great fun as the wily thief constantly trying to make deals with the God who never answers back. He’s comic relief, but Mouse finds himself in a dramatic entanglement with Navarre when the latter grows jealous of the young man’s time with Isabeau. The humor Broderick brings tot he character makes the more serious bites sting all the more.

Wood, who was far nicer to Broderick in WarGames, plays the evil Bishop with a creepy, lecherous edge, and we even get a brief appearance by a very hairy Alfred Molina. Hauer is at his best in action-oriented roles, and the film offers him the rare opportunity to play hero ‐ seriously, we have this, Blind Fury, and Wanted: Dead or Alive, and that’s it! ‐ with the added benefit of being a romantic lead.

Speaking of romance, Isabeau spends a lot of time as a hawk here, but the real magic occurs when Pfeiffer’s onscreen. There’s an ethereal, angelic beauty to her that she balances with a sexy sweetness, and while much of that’s in her physical appearance she confirms it through a performance that evokes passion, a sly sense of humor, and an unavoidable sadness. “Are you flesh or are you spirit?” asks Mouse at one point, to which she replies “I am sorrow.” You believe it too.

Ladyhawke may not be a film that sits heavy on your heart or leaves you dwelling on its intricacies for days on end, but it is a gorgeously-shot, well-cast action/fantasy/romance that more than satisfies. We care about these characters, and we’re entertained and enthralled by their adventure. Give it another shot people ‐ your heart may be more open to simple pleasures than it once was.

Read more entries in last year’s The Essentials, and follow along every Monday with Missed Connections — my appreciations of movies that failed to find an audience for one reason or another.

Ladyhawke [Blu-ray]

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