Warner Bros. // 1985 // 121 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Magistrate Lindsey Hoffman (Retired) // March 1st, 2001
"You have stumbled onto a tragic story, Phillipe Gaston, and now, whether you like it or not, you are lost in it." -- Brother Imperius
A timeless fairy tale with a not-so-timeless soundtrack, Ladyhawke will delight anyone with a penchant for sword duels, chivalric romance, and/or Matthew Broderick. Director Richard Donner (The Goonies, Superman) accurately described the film as "adventurous, outrageously romantic and pure escapism."
Though not based on any one tale, Ladyhawke draws its inspiration from folklore stretching back to the 13th century. An evil bishop holds sway over the fictitious medieval city of Aquila. When a young thief escapes from the dungeon, he sends the captain of the city guard out after him, because "a single random spark can ignite the fires of rebellion."
The thief, Phillipe "The Mouse" Gaston, is a wily but unlucky lad who frequently talks aloud to himself and God. At an inn far from Aquila, he boasts of his clever escape through the city's sewer system, only to discover that the city guard is among his audience. In the ensuing struggle, a mysterious black-clad knight, Etienne Navarre, comes to his rescue. But Navarre demands a price for his intervention: Phillipe must guide him through the sewers of Aquila so that he can slay the evil bishop.
Navarre says little, but his ruthlessness is persuasive, and Phillipe is quickly convinced to accompany him back to Aquila. The two travel with Navarre's great Friesian horse, aptly named Goliath, and a magnificent hawk with whom the knight shares a strange bond. At night, Phillipe discovers a hauntingly beautiful lady whose presence he cannot account for, and he begins to suspect that there is much more to Navarre's quest than he ever imagined...
As befits a good fantasy, Ladyhawke is visually enchanting. Phillipe's journey takes him through snow-covered mountain passes, deep shadowy forests, sunlit fields and crumbling ruins. Many scenes were shot in the golden light just after sunrise or before sunset. The cathedral and fortress of Aquila are authentic and impressive, and the costuming is subtle and even fairly plausible. Though the film was shot in full color, sets and costumes alike draw heavily on muted tones, creating an atmosphere of age and mystery.
The plot revolves around the love story of Navarre and Isabeau. Rutger Hauer (Blade Runner, Buffy the Vampire Slayer) and Michelle Pfeiffer (Batman Returns, Wolf) do what they can with these roles, but the film really belongs to the young thief through whose eyes their story unfolds. This character, played by Matthew Broderick (Ferris Bueller's Day Off, Glory), is by far the most memorable part of the movie. His British accent may come and go, but his characterization is charming, funny, and very believable. As the film's comic relief, his cocky yet nervous demeanor is the perfect foil for Hauer's dour knight.
Other memorable roles include the evil trapper Cezar, played by a very scruffy Alfred Molina (Chocolat, Raiders of the Lost Ark), and Brother Imperius, a bumbling monk played with relish by Leo McKern (perhaps best known as British TV's Horace Rumpole of "Rumpole of the Bailey"). John Wood (WarGames, Sabrina) performs some amazing facial contortions as the diabolical bishop of Aquila.
The disc's few special features are, nonetheless, better than nothing at all. The special features menu includes a brief bio and "film highlights" for the major players of the cast and crew. These are fun to flip through once, but have little to offer beyond what could be found at any actor's fan site or at IMDb. Of slightly greater interest are the 19 screens of textual trivia about the film's inspiration, locations, costuming and animal training challenges. All of the above are "enhanced" by annoying and confusing photo-montage backgrounds. The disc also includes a theatrical trailer that, if nothing else, serves as a reminder of how far trailers have come in the last fifteen years.
Ladyhawke does a reasonably good job of evoking the look of the Middle Ages, but its soundtrack screams "early 1980s." Keyboards, synthesized rhythms, and the occasional electric guitar riff clash with the quot;once upon a timequot; ambience of the film, increasing its cheesiness factor by a good 30%. The score was written, orchestrated and conducted by Andrew Powell of the Alan Parsons Project, and most of the regular band members (including Alan Parsons) participated in its execution. No doubt this seemed like a good idea in 1985, but modern listeners will cringe. Gentle viewer, do not give up hope: the worst is over within the first ten minutes.
The quality of the non-anamorphic transfer leaves much to be desired. Many scenes are heavily marred by dust motes, particularly those which take place at night or in shadow (and there are several). A nasty moiré effect is noticeable in several areas, particularly scenes shot among the trees. The audio was mostly adequate for my stereo system, but I occasionally had trouble catching bits of the dialogue. This film is well-loved by many, and deserves a little restoration, an anamorphic presentation, and something better in the way of extras.
Despite its flaws, Ladyhawke is a classic well worth owning. The price is right, and the film is fun and family-friendly (though a couple of moderately bloody scenes may disturb sensitive viewers). Despite the ominous quote at the top of this review, the story does have a happy ending. And if you didn't already know that, don't read the blurb on the disc's snapper case until you've watched the movie; it gives away far too much of the plot.
Director Richard Donner is to receive a slap on the wrist for turning over his soundtrack to a band, which is never a good idea. Warner Home Video shall be thrown into the dungeons for not ensuring a transfer quality worthy of the DVD format, with a chance at parole if behavior improves. All others are acquitted.
Review content copyright © 2001 Lindsey Hoffman; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* Bottom 100 Discs: #75
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 2.40:1 Non-Anamorphic
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (Spanish)
Running Time: 121 Minutes
Release Year: 1985
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* Production Notes
* Theatrical Trailer