Ah, the 80s. A time of big hair, big money and big ambitions. It was a time when actors could be presidents, MTV actually played music, and a young writer wrapped his hands around the joystick of an Atari 2600 for the first time. Many an afternoon in my house was spent with my sisters and me navigating digital corridors and writing down maps and passwords. Good times.
Okay, the nostalgia’s out of the way. Let’s take a look at a movie born of the 80s – Ladyhawke.
We are introduced to the medieval fortress city of Aquila, France through the eyes of young thief Phillipe Gastone, called the Mouse. Aquila is ruled by her corrupt and powerful bishop, and nobody has ever escaped from her hellish prison until the Mouse wiggles his way out at the very beginning at the movie. The captain of the guard catches up with the loquacious pickpocket only to have the arrest interrupted by a mysterious man, dressed in black and accompanied by a majestic hawk. The man’s name is Navarre, and he takes Phillpe with him to learn of a way into Aquila for a personal vendetta. By night, however, Navarre is nowhere to be found, and Phillpe instead encounters a vicious black wolf and a hauntingly beautiful woman named Isabeau.
With its setting and sparing use of magic, this is a story that could be taking place in the world of George RR Martin. Along with the trappings of the setting is a very strong ensemble cast of well-developed characters. Among other things, the movie does a good job of capturing the attitudes of the hawk and the wolf. The hawk is a spirited, beautiful creature, refusing to be bound and returning to whom she chooses. The wolf is a skilled and deadly hunter whose rage is only abated in the presence of Isabeau. I’m sure those of you who haven’t seen the film have already gotten an inkling of what’s going on, but I won’t say more for fear of spoiling the entire story. Which I do recommend you see, by the way.
“Wait,” I hear you ask. “Didn’t you recently review another fantasy movie from the 80s? And didn’t you hate its guts?” Yes and yes. Let me explain the difference.
Navarre is French for ‘badass’.
Here we have an example of how good storytelling can compensate for things that might not age or work all that well. Rutger Hauer, Leo MacKern and John Wood were already veterans of the stage and screen before Ladyhawke, and Matthew Broderick and Michelle Pfeiffer went on to become household names. Not every line is a complete winner, but lines good and bad are delivered with just enough sincerity and concrete emotion that we are drawn completely into the story. Nevarre is a strong and resolute man, but he’s also a man of deep emotion. Phillipe may seem a vain and somewhat cowardly thief, but he’s also a pious and generous one. The Bishop is all the more menacing for the rigid control he maintains over his emotions, rarely speaking above an cold and edgy rasp. There’s nuance and presence to pretty much every major character we meet, and they damn near carry the entire movie on their own.
It’s a good thing, too, as the story may have suffered at the hands of some of the 80s trappings. The music is permeated by the syths of the Alan Parsons Project, orchestral sequences underscored or outright interuppted by rock riffs influenced by early digitization. It shines in places and plummets in others, causing some major distraction from the story. Some of the special effects haven’t really held up, though one sequence in particular still chokes me up. You’ll know it when you see it. Lastly, while the fights in the movie are pretty gritty and lean more towards the realistic than the flamboyant or fanastical, some of the swords used in the action shots aree clearly not the sturdy ‘hero’ blades. I know steel is meant to bend before it breaks, but the degree to which some of these blades curl had me scratching my head a little.
The Mouse, having an argument with the Lord.
All of this fails to matter, though, when the story is this good and told this well by actors this skilled. This is the difference between a movie like Ladyhawke and one like Masters of the Universe, or Revenge of the Fallen or Attack of the Clones. At its core, Ladyhawke is all about the stories, the lives of its characters. It takes time to develop its players and weaves connections between all of them in a very deep way. Combine this compelling storytelling with good cinematography, well-done fight scenes and some moments of both geniune levity and heart-wrenching emotion, and you have a great movie. Without that story, it’d be just so much sound and fury.
The soundtrack dissonance is overcome in a few key places. The somewhat lackluster level of special effects fails to matter in the moments the story is at its best. Things like magic and curses work as framing devices for the drama, rather than shouldering the story out of its way. This is what sets Ladyhawke apart from those other attempts at film-making. This is why it succeeds and they fail. This is why, while it shows its age in places, the core of the movie is pretty close to timeless. Ladyhawke absolutely belongs on your Netflix queue, because it is one of those movies that tells its tale well no matter what the year is. In other words, it’s a classic. And classics never go out of style.
Josh Loomis can’t always make it to the local megaplex, and thus must turn to alternative forms of cinematic entertainment. There might not be overpriced soda pop & over-buttered popcorn, and it’s unclear if this week’s film came in the mail or was delivered via the dark & mysterious tubes of the Internet. Only one thing is certain… IT CAME FROM NETFLIX.
December 22, 2010 at 9:34 am
Nice writeup Josh! I haven’t seen this movie since it came out, but agree with you on all points. Story > visual effect.
I’m also an audiophile, and for me, audio comes second in movies, right behind story. Even when actors aren’t speaking, music continues to create tension and tug at your emotions.
I wonder how much better the movie would be if we simply replaced the cheesy 80’s music with some other soundtrack? Remember Dragonslayer? Another 80’s movie that I feel holds up rather well. The music was done by award winning composer Alex North.
Thanks again for writing.