Saturday, February 2, 2008

Overlooked Classics: Nighthawks (1981)

Nighthawks is, by nearly all accounts, a film that should have probably been a failure. Plagued immediately by directorial problems, clashes between the actors, underwritten back story lines and on location difficulties, it is probably a miracle that Nighthawks got completed at all. It did get finished though and amazingly enough it is a successful film, in fact at its best Nighthawks remains one of the most exciting cop films to come out of the eighties which is no small feat by any means.
Scripted by The Warriors screenwriter David Shaber, Nighthawks tells the story of an international terrorist on the loose in New York City and the two cops who are out to stop him. Television director Gary Nelson had originally been attached to the project but was removed almost immediately and star Sylvester Stallone took over for at least one key sequence (although rumor has it that he actually directed more) before relative novice Bruce Malmuth took over the challenging project.
Malmuth’s filmography is relatively small with a few acting credits and just a handful of directorial titles to his credit. Nighthawks biggest liability is problems with its tone and this can perhaps be blamed on Malmuth’s inexperience and the fact that more than one man had their hand in directing the film.
Stallone, looking great here bearded and giving one of his best performances, plays Detective Deke DaSilva and his partner, Detective Matthew Fox is played by the sly and always cool Billy Dee Williams. Filling out the rest of the cast are legendary character actor Joe Spinell as the Lieutenant and the original Bionic Woman herself Lindsay Wagner as DaSilva’s girlfriend Irene.
Perhaps the films greatest assist though can be found in the casting of the role of the terrorist, Wulfgar. The incredible Dutch actor Rutger Hauer had just been known mostly for the amazing set of films he had appeared in for director Paul Verhoeven in the seventies. Nighthawks marks his earliest English language role and predates his legendary turn in Blade Runner by a year. Hauer is simply stunning in Nighthawks and his Wulgar is one of the most simultaneously chilling and charming terrorists in screen history.

Nighthawks works best in the action sequences that are spread throughout the film. From the thrilling opening on foot chase by Stallone through the streets of New York to the Battle Of Algiers like introduction of Hauer’s character, Nighthawks gets off and running immediately. The film is filled with many impressive sequences, almost all of which are helped immeasurably by Stallone’s insistence at doing as many of his own stunts as possible, with special note going to the brilliantly shot Roosevelt Island sky-lift scene. Special mention has to go to the late Stunt Coordinator Dar Robinson who sets up some of the most chilling and memorable work in his career here. Robinson would deliver another one of his finest achievements the same year with Burt Reynold’s incredible Sharky’s Machine. He would be killed tragically just a few years after both films were first released.
While Nighthawks best moments can be found in its action sequences, it also works well as a tough buddy cop movie and the chemistry between Stallone and Williams is a really nice and balanced one. Williams might be a little too slick at times but he has an undeniable charisma and works well here for the most part. Stallone on the other hand is just awesome. His performance as the bitter and fed up DaSilva is one of his great creations and the images of him walking through the streets of New York exuding the kind of superstar charisma rarely seen anymore are some of the most iconic and unforgettable shots of the period.
The rest of the supporting cast is fairly solid as well. It is always a pleasure to see Joe Spinell and his scenes are splendid. They also have a bit of sadness to them as they mark the last time he would work with his friend Stallone. The two would have a falling out after Nighthawks and the talented Spinell would be dead in less than a decade after Nighthawks.
Lindsay Wagner is the most troubling aspect of Nighthawks. She does the best she can with the role but the part, and the relationship with DaSilva, is so underwritten that one wishes the unnecessary love story would have just been removed from the film. Still it is always a pleasure to see Wagner in any role and she does have a couple of nice moments with Stallone and the relationship does at least allow the key concluding set up in the film.

Nighthawks is a nicely shot film and television cinematographer James A. Contner gives it a suitably grimy and downtrodden feel. The film also benefits heavily from the cutting styles of Stanford Allen and Christopher Holmes. Allen had worked with Stallone previously on the gripping Rocky 2 and Holmes had cut his editing teeth on some of the mid seventies best exploitation films, including Dirty Mary Crazy Larry.

Prog rock legend Keith Emerson provides Nighthawks with one of its more debated aspects, the score. His work here seems to be either a fan favorite or one of the most despised aspects of the film. I like it for the most part even though it does suffer from the same overcrowding and overbearing aspects of most of his work. Emerson had just scored the more successful Inferno soundtrack for Dario Argento and while Nighthawks is nowhere near as good as that it actually isn’t that bad of a soundtrack. One does have to wonder what a subtler composer might have brought to the table for Nighthawks and how it might have affected the film.
Nighthawks came out in the spring of 1981 to mixed reviews and so-so business. It wasn’t the smash Stallone had hoped for although it was a solid hit. Within a year though Stallone would score huge with both Rocky 3 and First Blood, both of which cemented him as one of the biggest stars of the eighties.

Nighthawks would become a solid hit on VHS and is now available on two very distinct DVDS. The original Goodtimes version features all of the original songs used, including The Rolling Stones Brown Sugar, but it is unfortunately a full frame VHS port. The newer DVD does have a nice sharp widescreen presentation but it is has replaced a couple of the songs due to copyright reasons and the film suffers from it. The often-rumored deleted scenes have still not surfaced, as both discs are unfortunately free of extras of any kind save for the trailer (where some of the deleted footage can be seen).
Nighthawks is a great imperfect film that has often fallen in the shadow of some of Stallone’s other more financially successful work. Its introduction of Rutger Hauer alone to American audiences make it an important work, but the film has proven extremely resonate and can now be viewed as one of the classic cop films of its day. One wishes that the original version would surface as Stallone had this to say to Ain’t It Cool News just over a year ago:
“NIGHTHAWKS was even a better film before the studio lost faith in it and cut it to pieces. What was in the missing scenes was extraordinary acting by Rutger Hauer, Lindsey Wagner, and the finale was a blood fest that rivaled the finale of "Taxi Driver." But it was a blood fest with a purpose.”


Anonymous said...

Never seen Nighthawks. Gonna have to give it a look for sure though.

Jeffrey Allen Rydell said...

Ya gotta mention that Contner photographed CRUISING immediately prior to NIGHTHAWKS!


Cinebeats said...

Great overview of a terrific film Jeremy! This is probably my favorite Stallone movie, but I think I really like it thanks to the appearance of Rutger Hauer since he's one of my favorite modern actors. I had no idea that Stallone was so involved with the film and I find that really interesting. It had a great look and some nicely done suspense.

Lastyear said...

I have to second what cinebeats says.I've read that Hauer actually had a bigger role but was cut back at Stallone's insistance because he thought Hauer was stealing the film.The same thing happened to James Woods on The Assassins.

Rogue Spy 007 said...

Great blog post, Jeremy. I mentioned to you that this is my favorite non-Rocky and non-Rambo Stallone film. It's awesome. Stallone was at the top of his game here. I loved his bearded look. He and Billy Dee Williams had fantastic chemistry together. This is one of the first cop movies I remember seeing. I loved Rutger Hauer is this film. He is wonderfully creepy and cruel. He blew me away here. I loved the ending. This is how movies should be made.

Craig Zablo said...

One of Sly's best!

Steve Langton said...

Definitely my fave Sly film. Great review and good point about the score, too.

Jeremy Richey said...

Thanks CG,
I'd love to see your write up on it if it inspires such...

Thanks Jeffrey,
Totally blanked on that and I think the ironic thing is that I mentioned NIGHTHAWKS in my CRUISING Post a while back! I will have to check that...shows that I wrote this one too quick.

Thanks Kimberly,
There are all kinds of stories and disagreements about the making of this film. Whatever happened worked for it though I think...I agree about Hauer. He is one of my favorites too and he is amazing in this role.

Thanks LastYear,
I have read the same thing but have also read Stallone praising him as one of the best things in the who knows. I have yet to read Hauer's book but I know he talks about the making of the film and problems with Sly in it...

Thanks Keith...I couldn't agree more. I would love to see more movies this tough and cool made like this these days...and like you I can't get over Sly and that beard. Killer look and film...

Thanks Craig...I appreciated your support this week here and at Stallone Zone. Keep up the great work paying tribute to the man.

Thanks Steve,
Glad you liked it. I go back and forth on the score...Emerson is obviously a talented guy but damn some of his work is just so overblown...

Thanks to you all for the great comments!

Joe said...

Terrific review, Jeremy. I had never heard of the behind the scenes intrigue on this one.

Nighthawks is indeed overlooked. The fact that Rutger Hauer plays such a memorable bad guy and that Stallone disappears into his role - as opposed to pretending he's Cobra - definitely make the film worth checking out.

Jeremy Richey said...

Thanks Joe for the nice comments...I really appreciate them.

Ed Hardy, Jr. said...

The Overlooked Classics series is a great idea, and often has equally great execution. I'm not familiar with NIGHTHAWKS but if the quality of the other films you've selected thusfar is any indication, I'll have to check it out.

Jeremy Richey said...

Thanks Ed,
I am glad you are enjoying the series...I know I have flaked ona couple but it has become the one I enjoy doing the most...hope you enjoy NIGHTHAWKS. It is a lot of fun...

Ned Merrill said...

I've always loved NIGHTHAWKS and it definitely says something for the film that I'm never tempted to flip it no matter how many times one of the Turner networks (save for TCM) plays it--those television screenings have also been the most accessible way to see the film with original score intact.

I've owned the MCA Discovision and original MCA VHS releases, both of which included the original score. Subsequent VHS and laserdisc issues were "rescored." I have the Goodtimes DVD (with original score), but apparently some Goodtimes DVDs have the rescored soundtrack--there were snapper and keepcase Goodtimes releases causing complication.

I must put a plug in for Keith Emerson's score, as "overblown" as it might be in some spots. "The Chopper" is an especially good cue, IMHO. Also, Emerson's rendition "I'm A Man" is very effective and is sadly rescored, along with "Brown Sugar" on video. There were several other songs rescored, which were detailed on an old Mobius Home Video Forum post, but most viewers only notice "Brown Sugar." For those interested, the soundtrack is available on CD and on iTunes via the KEITH EMERSON AT THE MOVIES compilation.

D.P. James Contner would later photograph Romero's fine MONKEY SHINES before embarking on his own directorial career. Around the same time as CRUISING and NIGHTHAWKS, Contner also did TIMES SQUARE, quite a trio of early '80s New York cinematic sojourns.

There are some funny on-set stories about the strength and agility of Rutger Hauer simply blowing Sly out of the water. I will have to find the source, but it seems that at least some of the tension was caused by the fact that Sly was maybe a little intimidated or threatened by the Dutchman.

I must echo the love for Joe Spinell who is hilarious in this film in the best possible way--"Get this, sucka! You're a cop and you'll go where your assigned!"

According to IMDb, legendary NY dance music producer, dj, and early Madonna boyfriend, John "Jellybean" Benitez is the dj in one of the club scenes.

"I want that bastard."
"What bastard?!"

Jeremy Richey said...

Hey Ned,
Thanks so much for the detailed comments and fascinating info.

The Goodtimes DVD I got was indeed the first one. I had no idea they put out another version with the rescored soundtrack.

Thanks also for your thoughts on Emerson's I said, I dig it for the most part and do admire the guy. INFERNO is a masterful soundtrack.

That's interesting about Hauer and Sly. I just found some behind the scenes photos of them at a Rutger fan site and you can almost feel the tension in a couple of them. Whatever the case may be...I still think they both turn in two of their best performances...

I really blew it on James Contner in referring to him as a 'television' I mentioned to Jeffrey, I wrote this one too quick.

Wonder when Madonna and Jellybean" Benitez started dating? She was of course already on the scene in this period in New York...I had no idea he played the DJ in that scene...

Finally, always good to hear nice words for the great Joe Spinell...forever one of my favorites.

Thanks again for the nice comments.

Ned Merrill said...

Well, the story I spoke of actually came from the Wikipedia article on the film of all places, so take it with a grain of salt:

"The film marked the American debut of Dutch actor Rutger Hauer. According to a recent interview in Premiere, Hauer was told before filming that Stallone ran up building stairwells for exercise. However, during the subway chase, Hauer continually outran the American star, who is known for his competitive streak (see also Victory)."

Ned Merrill said...


Good ole Wikipedia's the link for Jellybean's page:

He dated Madonna during production of her 1983 debut.

Ned Merrill said...

From Rutger's 2007 autobiography/memoir:

In short, NIGHTHAWKS was a nightmare to shoot because Rutger lost his mother and best friend during the time he was shooting and...Stallone was a horse's ass who lived up to all the worst stories about his rampant ego.

Hauer liked the original director, Gary Nelson, who was fired in something of a power struggle with Stallone and Malmuth, his replacement, was a nice guy, but also very green and so very easy for Stallone to control.

Hauer concurs with Stallone that the producers/studio were scared to take chances with the terrorism aspect of the story--for instance, Hauer lost his battle to give Wulfgar more complexity as a character. Instead, Wulfgar was painted as purely evil rather than as someone with tangible motives or beliefs. Hauer posits that Europe had much more exposure to terrorists (Carlos the Jackal), and a more nuanced viewpoint, than the Americans at the time.

Hauer says that the first thing shot was the final shootout and that Stallone had a hand in changing the effects from rehearsal to the actual shoot, causing Hauer injury. Hauer then threatened to break Stallone's balls if he ever tried something like that again. And so the tension between the two started on the first night of shooting.

In the end, Hauer calls NIGHTHAWKS a good movie, but it is clear that he believes it should have been better.

Jeremy Richey said...

Thanks so much Ned,
That is really interesting and I am grateful you took the time to share it here.
I have to get that book. It sounds like a real must have.

Whatever the circumstances were that went into making the film definately worked for it as there is a real electricity to it I think...thanks again for the fascinating quote.