Written by Edward Khmara, Michael Thomas, Tom Mankiewicz, and David Peoples
Directed by Richard Donner
Director Richard Donner released two films three months apart in 1985: Ladyhawke in April and The Goonies in June. That’s quite a feat and two more genres tackled by the director who was never an auteur but simply made movies he was interested in. While Donner is still alive, he hasn’t directed a film since 2006 and will likely stick to producing and semi-retirement. His filmography is quite eclectic with everything from The Omen to Superman the Movie to Lethal Weapon to Scrooged, the two films mentioned above, and more. Donner doesn’t have a particular style or signature trademark, he’s one of those journeyman directors like Ron Howard or Joe Johnston that simply do the work. This can lead to great films just as much as it can deliver duds.
Set in medieval Europe, Ladyhawke tells the story of the thief Phillipe Gaston (Matthew Broderick), who escapes the dungeons of Aquila. The Bishop rules the city and regularly executes those deemed heretical to the faith. Gaston is recaptured by guards sent to hunt him down but is rescued by the mysterious Etienne Navarre (Rutger Hauer), a falconer who has a complicated history with the Bishop.
Gaston notices strange occurrences around Navarre, particularly how at night, he vanishes, and a mysterious young woman shows up (Michelle Pfeiffer). The young thief gets to know them both better and learns of their tragic love story and how the end of their curse relies on the end of the Bishop’s reign of terror.
Donner made a choice to pull back on magical and mystical elements, trying to ground the film in as much realism as he could. There are still lots of plot points that rely on spells and incantations, but they don’t overwhelm the movie with special effects. Visually, the film looks good. There were smart choices on filming locations that make for enjoyable scenery. I particularly liked the crumbling mountaintop fortress of the monk (Leo McKern), which plays an integral part in a perilous set piece. But that is basically where my love for this movie ends because overall, I really disliked Ladyhawke.
The basic skeleton of the picture is good. I like the premise and the choice to tell the story from the perspective of a character outside of the central love story. But the execution by the actors is a profoundly mixed bag. Michelle Pfeiffer is the one element that I think consistently works throughout, but her two male leads are shockingly bad. Rutger Hauer just struggles with the role and never feels like he inhabits the qualities Navarre is supposed to possess, he seems more sinister than heroic half the time.
Matthew Broderick is the big disappointment for me here, he is so incredibly obnoxious from his first frame to the end, and it grated on me the whole time. He can’t consistently perform an accent, so his voice is changing throughout, and some of his line deliveries that needed to be emotive are so flat and embarrassing. I almost wish the Gaston character would have spoken less and therefore given Navarre and his love more time to develop their relationship.
There are long stretches of dull nothing happening on the screen, and that was the part that really turned me off. The film starts with a lot of promises, but the second act drags on way too long, and the picture could have had a good twenty minutes cut and not lost a thing. If I had to pick which Donner film of 1985 was best, it is The Goonies hands down. This is a pretty stark example of the realities of being a journeyman director, the movies are always serviceable but rarely fantastic.