Gawky fantasy of a lady who's a hawk

There's an exchange in ``Ladyhawke'' that's already becoming a camp classic. One of the heroes, a young scamp, has found the bewitched damsel who caught his eye a few reels earlier. ``Are you flesh or are you spirit?'' he asks, making moon-eyes at her.

``I am sorrow,'' she replies, making moon-eyes back. And the audience hoots. What is this, an adventure yarn or a poetry contest?

Dialogue like that would be a problem under any conditions, and it's a steady drain on ``Ladyhawke,'' which is otherwise a lively and likable picture. The plot and characters prime us for a rip-roaring tale of swords and sorcery. Each time the action gets ready to cut loose, though, someone utters an ill-written line that makes you want to crawl under your seat.

Matthew Broderick and Michelle Pfeiffer give the script a game try, including the ``flesh or spirit'' nonsense. But they can't wrap their mouths around the awkward syllables. Ditto for Rutger Hauer and everyone else on board except John Wood, who gets away with sounding phony because he plays a corrupt clergyman.

How did a competent director like Richard Donner get stuck with this screenplay? Perhaps he thought it was ``refined'' and ``sensitive,'' without noting how gawkily it pursues those qualities. This has been a problem in his movie career. After establishing himself with a tough-minded horror film, ``The Omen,'' he went a little gooey in ``Superman,'' with its ripe romance and slippery logic. Then he plunged headlong into hokum with ``Inside Moves,'' a manipulative ``human drama'' with a leaden touch. His credibility has suffered ever since.

``Ladyhawke'' aims for the epic style of his early successes. You can tell from the score, a bombastic blend of old-fashioned mood music and anachronistic rock. But an eagerness to be high-toned is still weighing Donner down. Fantasy is fun when it's flighty and free, not strained and self-conscious.

We're meant to applaud the sheer giddiness of some scenes, as when the heroine -- cursed to be a hawk by day, a woman by night -- grows her feathers just in time to escape a nasty death by falling. You can almost hear the filmmakers patting their own backs for having the courage to be so corny. But like much else in the picture, the episode is hammered home too insistently. And that isn't bravery, it's just bad taste.

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