Dir: Bruce Mamuth, 1981. Starring: Sylvester Stallone, Billy Dee Williams, Rutger Hauer, Lindsay Wagner. Action/Adventure.

Important in the evolution (or devolution) of Sylvester Stallone is Nighthawks. From ‘81, it falls in that post-Rocky burst when Sly was still considered a legitimate actor. Though Paradise Alley, F.I.S.T or Rocky II didn’t threaten Hoffman or De Niro’s place as America’s top actor-laureates, Sly hadn’t yet become the steroidy, sequely crap machine he would come to be known as (of course with some quality films like Rocky III, First Blood to come and later Cop Land, but with mostly junk between). Today Nighthawks feels like a gritty '70s cop film. (It was originally developed to be French Connection 3.) It’s taut, strong but not overly muscular, and moves at a fast pace that you don’t notice till it’s over. Frankly, one of the most interesting aspects here is that Stallone in Serpico mode (bearded with longish hair) often wears glasses (big, clear disco-era glasses), which is something rarely seen in an action hero and symbolizes how the film was a leftover from the more character-driven film days (the glorious '70s) before guys like Schwarzenegger (and Sly) made them into total cartoons. Sly’s cop even pines for his ex-wife (played by TV’s Bionic Woman, Lindsay Wagner). The guy is vulnerable, not always successful and flawed. Nighthawks represents the end of an era, not just for Stallone but for the realistic action hero.

Actor Rutger Hauer made a name for himself on the international circuit from his work with director Paul Verhoeven in Turkish Delight, Soldier of Orange, Katie Tippel and Spetters. Nighthawks would be his first American film, though not his first English language one. (Earlier he had appeared in the British flick The Wilby Conspiracy.) Word from the set is that he and Stallone clashed. (More reason to love him!) Here the Dutchman plays a Euro terrorist known as Wulfgar who, after wearing out his welcome abroad, heads for the States. Meanwhile, New York street detectives Deke DaSilva (Stallone) and his partner Matthew Fox (Billy Dee Williams, fresh from The Empire Strikes Back introducing him to audiences outside of black '70s cinema, where he was already a superstar leading man) are being transferred from their play-by-their-own-rules undercover decoy work to a terrorist unit, which is already on the lookout for Wulfgar. Knowing he’s a sucker for foxy dancing queens, in a subtly intense scene, the eagle-eyed Deke manages to spot Wulfgar through the crowd at a discotheque, despite him getting face-changing plastic surgery, which leads to an exciting Friedkin-esque foot chase through lower Manhattan. Wulfgar manages to finally escape with a nasty knife slash to Fox’s face, making things personal now for Deke. And the cock-blocking Deke pulled makes things equally personal for Wulfgar. The one-upmanship eventually leads to an exciting highjacking showdown on the Roosevelt Island Tram and a crazy cross-dressing twist ending.

Stallone is at his best here (apparently doing much of his own impressive stunt work as well). The New York locations are unusual and exciting. And Hauer makes a great, fairly complicated villain (and of course he would top it a year later with his iconic performance in Blade Runner). The idea of the urban terrorist was ahead of its time (based kinda-sorta on Carlos the Jackal), and actually the days of the Aryan terrorist are rather refreshing, in retrospect. But how did Nighthawks achieve its deserved status as one of the best '80s action cop movies? Because of set problems, the original director, Gary Nelson (known for the more kid-friendly Freaky Friday and The Black Hole), was fired a week into shooting and fresh-faced Bruce Malmuth took the reins (and got the official credit). Unfortunately Nighthawks would be the apex of his brief resume; his followup, the Steve Guttenberg invisible man clunker The Man Who Wasn’t There ended any goodwill Nighthawks may have earned him and he later ended his short-lived directing career with the little seen Dolph Lundgren vehicle Pentathlon. If those guys were lightweights, who was responsible for Nighthawks holding up so well so many years later? The screenwriter David Shaber had previously written The Warriors with director Walter Hill, as well as the criminally under-appreciated backstage dramedy Those Lips, Those Eyes. Is he the genius behind Nighthawks whom fans of smart action need to thank? Actually this may be one of the few times where studio interference was a good thing. Apparently the original cut was much longer (more awkward romance between Sly and Wagner got sliced) and more violent. Word on the street also reports that Sly ended up doing much of the directing and then pushed for cutting some of Wulfgar’s on-screen romance with his partner in terrorism (played by Persis Khambatta, most famous as the beautiful bald woman in the otherwise completely boring first Star Trek movie), so that Sly himself would be more at the center of the story. So in the end, for once Stallone’s ego may be the creative conduit for making Nighthawks so special.

Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Apr 23, 2015 12:50pm
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