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.”