PROGRAMMING NOTE: I’m still working on one more piece that will cap off the Last Summer of ’80s Action series next week. But last night, while celebrating the life of Rutger Hauer and linking to my reviews of his action movie roles (BLIND FURY!), I was confused as to why I couldn’t find a review of NIGHTHAWKS. It turned out I was working on one two years ago that I never posted, so I polished it up and have it for you today. R.I.P.
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NIGHTHAWKS. A couple of tough street cops who go out at night like, uh… a couple of hawks. Or probly more like that famous Edward Hopper painting of the mostly empty diner at night. Except no diner and not always at night.
You know what, you and I together are going to have to face that I actually have no idea why it’s call NIGHTHAWKS, but the point is it’s the story of NYPD (New York Police Department) undercover dudes Deke DaSilva (Sylvester Stallone, DEATH RACE 2000) and Matthew Fox (Billy Dee Williams, HIT!) who, just because they’re war veterans and also familiar with where all the low lifes go around here, are recruited by ATAC (Anti-Terrorist Action Command) to stop a terrorist (Rutger Hauer, WANTED DEAD OR ALIVE, in his first American film) who is in NYC (New York City) to attack the U.N. (United Nations) which in my opinion is B.S. (bullshit), you shouldn’t do something like that you jerk.
This is 1981, an era when terrorists in movies were based on Carlos the Jackal, so Hauer’s character Wulfgar is a master criminal who we see in different European cities, fearlessly plying his trade. He has a way with ladies, so his contacts all seem to be women, many of them unwitting dupes who think he’s their cool European boyfriend. He goes into a department store and hits on the young woman at the makeup counter while he slides a bomb under the counter to murder her.
At first I thought Hauer looked really different in this movie, but it turned out he was wearing a fake nose and stuff that he takes off when he has to get plastic surgery to look like the real Rutger Hauer.
According to my mathematics, 1981 is closer to ROCKY than to ROCKY IV, so it’s Stallone bringing his vulnerable lug persona to a cop movie. He’s trying to get his wife to come back to him. He gets insulted alot and doesn’t get angry or betray any sadness on his face. He just gives a look that says, “You said that, I heard it, we both have to deal with it.”
Deke and Fox are very skeptical and joke around during their briefing and training, not taking it seriously enough. The big lesson that Deke ignores is to be ruthless and not hesitate. It’s supposed to be a big mistake when he doesn’t take a shot because of a hostage. I don’t know if I agree with that. (Of course, he goes straight to the gun range for a marksmanship montage.)
Wulfgar sets up shop in New York by immediately finding a girlfriend to move in with. A nice contrast to Deke, who is not even hiding a secret life of bombings and assassinations but can’t keep a relationship together. I wonder if this type of character comes from fear of murderous charmers like Ted Bundy, or from a screenwriter’s resentment of the smooth operators they think get all the women?
The most effective sequence I think is the foot chase into the subway station and onto and through the train. It really shows the difficulty of shooting somebody in a crowded area. And maybe the most memorable is Wulfgar takes some U.N. members hostage on the Roosevelt Island Tramway. Here Hauer gets an I-think-improvised moment when he sees that one of the hostages is wearing a white fedora and he says to her “I like your hat!” Then he doesn’t take it off her head or single her out or anything, so it wasn’t part of a bullying technique, it was a sincere compliment, just maybe not at the most appropriate time.
The ol’ American Film Institute has a NIGHTHAWKS catalog entry with some good information about the production. It goes into the difficulties of arranging to film that scene, including all the negotiating and donating to local youth centers and stuff they had to do to shut the thing down for shooting. It mentions a town meeting where a producer, representatives of the New York State Film Office and Stallone himself were “shouted away” by “angry residents.” Fuck you, Rocky, you’re gonna mess up my commute!
“Island residents complained about the inconvenience and some were disturbed that the film would contain violence.” Thirty of the locals went to court trying to get a temporary restraining order against them using the tram. I couldn’t find how long they actually filmed on the thing – I had to wonder if those people were really delayed anymore by the filming than they were by attending meetings and court hearings. But I guess it’s the principle of the thing. Anyway the scene is even more impressive when you realize how hard it was just to get permission, and I would like to thank the Roosevelt Island area residents for the sacrifices they made, however unwillingly, to share this cool scene with the world.
There’s also a part where Stallone hangs off a helicopter, and he did the stunt for real. That’s why he’s known as “Helicopter Nighthawk Stallone” to this very day.
I like the ’70s hangover feel of this one. There’s a scene in a disco – disco music still playing in ’81. The score is by Keith Emerson (his first score, though released after Argento’s INFERNO). It gets a little funky and also uses some weird synth squeals.
I just convinced myself to order the soundtrack. It has a die-cut cover. Things are looking up.
The glasses, facial hair and shirts are aggressive enough that I couldn’t tell the difference between Deke’s off-duty look and his street disguise that he thought was so embarrassing it made him use the back entrance to visit his ex (Lindsay Wagner, RICOCHET) at work.
Speaking of disguises, Deke is dressed as a woman for both the opening and closing of the movie. Although he gets to chase and beat up a guy while wearing a nurse’s white skirt and shoes it did not strike me as being played for laughs, which is much better than if it was.
And holy shit, I was surprised to read on Wikipedia that Shaber originally wrote this as THE FRENCH CONNECTION III and they’d hoped to team Popeye Doyle with “a wisecracking cop (possibly played by Richard Pryor).” Hackman had to wash his hair that day or something so Shaber rewrote it to be directed by Gary Nelson (FREAKY FRIDAY, THE BLACK HOLE, JIMMY THE KID), who was then fired after a week of shooting. Stallone recommended the replacement director Bruce Malmuth, who had only done a segment of the 1975 comedy anthology FOREPLAY with ROCKY director John G. Avildsen. Not wanting to lose a day of shooting while Malmuth flew in, Stallone declared an emergency and directed the subway chase for a day. The DGA later fined the studio $50,000. It was worth it.
There were also re-editing shenanigans between the studio and Stallone that delayed the movie’s release by a year. That part doesn’t surprise me – something feels slightly off or missing. I guess Billy Dee was just supposed to be the sidekick to faux-Popeye Doyle, but to me it plays like a buddy movie where they didn’t give one of the buddies enough to do. He’s not comic relief, and his screen presence is too big for the slot they’re trying to cram it into. I wonder if his best bits got cut out?
By the way, this was around when he made EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, so he looks just like Lando.
Malmuth was later the ring announcer in the first two KARATE KID pictures. More importantly he directed the Seagal classic HARD TO KILL and the underrated Dolph picture PENTATHLON. This is definitely not as fun as HARD TO KILL, but between Hauer’s great villain, Stallone’s performance, the Emerson score and the general early-’80s-New-York-City/Carlos-the-Jackal-paranoia vibe of the thing I couldn’t help but dig it.