In many respects, Nighthawks (1981) is an inferior variation on The French Connection (1971) with two New York City cops tracking down a criminal mastermind in the mean streets only replacing international drug smuggling with international terrorism. In fact, Nighthawks was originally intended to be a sequel to The French Connection II (1975), but was shelved with Gene Hackman decided not to reprise his character from the first two films. You could make a list of the ways in which William Friedkin’s film is superior to Nighthawks but it has Rutger Hauer going for it, which is a big plus, and he commands the screen in every scene he’s in as a Carlos the Jackal-esque terrorist. If this movie is a French Connection rip-off then it’s a very entertaining one with plenty of exciting action sequences and a fascinating, tension-filled cat and mouse game at its core.
We are introduced to our protagonists – police detectives Deke DaSilva (Sylvester Stallone) and Matthew Fox (Billy Dee Williams) – on decoy duty as they bust a bunch of muggers. Already the subpar French Connection aspects become apparent as Deke chases one of the muggers onto an elevated train platform but not before engaging in some cheesy tough guy-speak. If this opening scene wasn’t a good enough example of Deke and Matt’s skills as crackerjack cops, we get another one where they break up a drug den and the latter freaks out when one of the crooks tries to pay him off. It gives Billy Dee Williams the chance to do some intense yelling but also gives him a nice moment when he spots a scared little kid among the drug peddlers and that’s the reality check that cools him off.
Meanwhile, in London, England, international terrorist Wulfgar (Hauer) blows up a department store (not before interacting with a beautiful young clerk played by Catherine Mary Stewart no less). In a nicely orchestrated sequence, he’s set-up by one of his own and with ruthless efficiency kills three cops. He escapes to Paris where he hooks up with a loyal cohort known as Shakka (Persis Khambatta) and we get an amusing bit where he threatens a plastic surgeon to do some work on his face and make look “beautiful” before heading to New York City after realizing that he’s become too high-profile in Europe.
Back at police headquarters, Deke and Matt have been summoned and told by their boss (played by consummate New York character actor Joe Spinell), who’s tired of their loose cannon antics, that they’ve been reassigned to a terrorist taskforce known as the Anti Terrorist Action Command squad (or A.T.A.C.) in conjunction with Interpol. Naturally, this doesn’t sit well with our heroes who’d rather be on the streets busting drug dealers and other low-lifes. When they voice their protests it gives their boss a chance to cut loose and chew them out in the grand tradition of the genre: “Understand this, sucker! You’re a cop and you’ll go where you’re assigned!” Normally, this would be eye-rolling, cliché dialogue, but Joe Spinell, god bless him, delivers it with conviction.
Soon, Deke and Matt find themselves being taught counter-terrorist techniques by Peter Hartman (Nigel Davenport), a Brit and the head of A.T.A.C. He stresses that in dealing with Wulfgar they must be ruthless and kill him without hesitation – something that goes against their training as police officers. Sylvester Stallone and Billy Dee Williams play well off each other in this scene as their characters mess with each other while Hartman drones on. They’d rather be on the streets but he makes a convincing argument for them absorbing all of this information. The more they know about Wulfgar the better their chances are of finding and stopping him.
It is significant to note that Nighthawks features Stallone before he became a successful action star and he still had one foot in serious acting. You can see him mustering all the gravitas he can for the role and this is especially evident in the scenes he has with Hauer who forces Stallone to raise his game. Billy Dee Williams was also a big deal at the time, coming off high-profile films like Lady Sings the Blues (1972), Mahogany (1975), Star Wars: Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (1980). The actor brings his trademark easy-going charm to the role. Stallone and Williams are very believable as partners and this is conveyed in the ease and familiarity of how they interact with each other. Deke is the headstrong one while Matt is more rational and they complement each other well.
Wulfgar would be the first of three memorable antagonistic roles Rutger Hauer would play in the 1980s, along with Blade Runner (1982) and The Hitcher (1986). Each character is distinctive as he makes them fascinating due in large part to his skill as an actor and his charisma. It is also the way Hauer carries himself. In Nighthawks, Wulfgar can turn on the charm when he needs to and then become ruthless in an instant. Hauer portrays his character as a cold-hearted sociopath intent on high-profile acts of terrorism. I like that the movie shows Wulfgar doing his homework – reviewing not just the international dignitaries of his next target but also Hartman and the members of A.T.A.C., in particular, Deke. At times, you can tell that Hauer is having fun with the role, like in the scene where Wulfgar commandeers a cable car full of people and after warning them about the lethal nature of Shakka (“Do not underestimate her because she’s a woman, she has no maternal instincts.”), he compliments one of the hostage’s hat.
To prepare for the role, Sylvester Stallone and producer Martin Poll spent weeks out on patrol with decoy cops, police officers that make themselves available to being robbed or mugged and then backup arrives and arrests the crooks. Actor and producer had to sign releases not to sue if they were shot or killed. “We stayed in the backup vehicles,” Poll said. He found that many decoy cops were divorced, like Deke in the movie: “They’re out late, and it’s dangerous, and after awhile the wives get tired of waiting to see whether the men are coming home or not.” Poll remembered that decoy cops faced a lot of danger on the job. One of the men they went out with had his throat cut: “He got to the hospital, they sewed him up, and about eight weeks later, he was shot and killed.”
When it came to casting Wulfgar, Poll’s son told his father about a Dutch actor named Rutger Hauer that he saw in Paul Verhoeven’s Soldier of Orange (1977). Poll saw it and had Hauer fly to California to meet with him and Stallone. Within a minute, Poll and Stallone knew Hauer was right for the role. At the time, the actor had gotten an offer to appear in The Sphinx, a big budget Hollywood movie for more money but he found the premise of Nighthawks and the character he was to play more interesting and chose it instead. To prepare for the part, the actor read “anything that had been written on terrorist groups operating in Europe.” He was drawn to the character of Wulfgar because “I love a character who says, ‘I’m bad. You understand?’ I think it’s good to admit things about yourself, to come out with them.”
The production of Nighthawks was rife with problems. Just over a week into principal photography, Poll fired director Gary Nelson (The Black Hole) and hired Bruce Malmuth. He had been directing commercials for years and, thanks to his friendship with director John Avildsen, befriended Stallone during the early stages of Rocky (1976). The actor was impressed with his work and asked him to take over for Nelson. The studio agreed with this decision and told Poll, “It’s your picture, just don’t stop shooting.”
According to Hauer, since Rocky, Stallone had made a few commercially unsuccessful movies and “felt it was important for this one to be good. And he made everybody around him know it.” During principal photography, Hauer and Stallone had an antagonistic relationship that mirrored the one on-screen. In the scene where Deke and Matt chase Wulfgar through the New York subway system, Hauer consistently outran “fitness fanatic” Stallone, who, according to Hauer, “trained by running up the staircases of office buildings.”
Further along into production, some of the residents of Roosevelt Island didn’t want the filmmakers shooting on the tramway that connected the island with Manhattan. An injunction was granted and the production was forced to shut down while the studio went to court. The judge ruled in favor of the studio and filming continued. Stallone decided to do most of his own stunts, including a dangerous one that saw him suspended 242 feet in the air above the East River from a 1/8 inch steel cable. The day before, he saw a man jump off the bridge to his death. “I saw that, and had to go up the next day. There was a fireboat down below with two divers in it. I made the mistake of calling them ‘lifeguards.’ It was explained to me that they were not lifeguards. They were there to retrieve my body, if necessary.”
Problems continued into post-production. According to Stallone, the studio didn’t believe that “urban terrorism would ever happen in New York thus felt the story was far-fetched.” He has said that the studio lost faith in the movie “and cut it to pieces. What was in the missing scenes was extraordinary acting by Rutger Hauer, Lindsay Wagner, and the finale was a blood fest that rivaled the finale of Taxi Driver. But it was a blood fest with a purpose.” Wagner said at the time of the film’s release, “Sly and I had some powerful scenes together. But the picture was too long, and they wanted to keep the action moving. So our scenes together were cut.”
Nighthawks was not well-received by critics at the time of its release. In her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote, “It is particularly helped by the performance of Rutger Hauer, a Dutch actor who makes a startling impression as a cold-blooded fiend, and Sylvester Stallone, from whom less is definitely more.” Time magazine’s Richard Schickel wrote, “Nighthawks is so moronically written and directed, so entirely without wit or novelty, that there is plenty of time to wonder about its many missing explanations.” In his review for the Globe and Mail, Jay Scott wrote that the film “has a dirty job to do and does it. That is not an endorsement. Thumbscrews and cattle prods are real good at what they do, too.” The Washington Post’s Gary Arnold wrote, “In order to facilitate a grandstanding, harebrained heroic role assigned to Sylvester Stallone, the filmmakers brush off every opportunity for intelligent dramatization and authentic suspense that the plot would seem to possess.”
Nighthawks certainly has its share of exciting action sequences, like an intense chase on a subway platform and a tense cable car rescue where Deke meets Wulfgar face-to-face and is suspended precariously above the East River. The movie is a fast-paced thriller that not only harkens back to cop procedurals from the 1970s, like The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974) but also looks ahead to the action movies of the ‘80s that Stallone would help popularize. One can’t help but lament the movie that could have been before he and the studio got their editorial hands all over it, gutting it into the entertaining but ultimately subpar French Connection wannabe that is the final product. It is a testimony to the material and the performances of the cast that the compromised version is as good as it is, surviving the myriad of production problems to become the movie that its fans know and love.
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