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Stallone's 80s Action Alpha and Omega: Nighthawks and Lock Up

  In the nineteen-eighties, there were a number of stars vying for position as king of the action movie, from Arnold Schwarzenegger and Chuck Norris to Jackie Chan and Charles Bronson, but it would be difficult to decide on who was the most eighties of all. Sylvester Stallone would never be left off that list, as his seventies grounding in his Rocky hits placed him in the position as the decade dawned that was privileged, as it needed the musclebound heroes to populate its popular entertainment, this was the ideal for masculinity at the time. Thus the eighties action genre was born, and though it took a few months to a year to establish itself, it dominated thereafter.

But the genre looked different at the end of the decade than when it started, you just have to compare Stallone's anti-terrorist thriller Nighthawks, released 1981, with one of his last of this era, Lock Up from 1989. Technically it was not his very final action flick from the eighties, for that was Tango and Cash, but that was largely released in 1990 around the globe, and Lock Up had a better case to make for closing off the period where Stallone had had his ups and downs at the box office, yet remained inseparable from it thanks to at least two of the most iconic franchises to feature there, through his Rocky and Rambo characters.

Nighthawks owed more to the seventies, indeed it was intended as a second sequel to The French Connection where if all had gone to plan, Gene Hackman as Popeye Doyle would have teamed up with comedian Richard Pryor, potentially setting out the buddy action movie for the next ten years in the process. As it was, the script was rewritten and the comedy was more or less left out, with Billy Dee Williams, fresh off The Empire Strikes Back, as Stallone's cop partner and as a sign of what was to come, the studio editing out much of the character business that would have flown in the previous decade to pare it down to its essentials.

Rutger Hauer was the villain, an international terrorist from Europe, another indication this was written in the time of the Baader-Meinhof Gang, and he stole the show, much to Stallone's chagrin: Sly stepped in to edit out as much of Hauer from the final cut as possible, but it was not enough, the Dutchman remained the most charismatic character in the film. Stallone was actually pretty stolid here as the humourless cop, beaten down by life so that his only catharsis would be bringing down the bad guys when he got to work - as the title suggested, he was on the night shift, emphasising his loner status as his relationship with Williams is respectful but he lets him down.

After Hauer's madman sets about taking his campaign against Imperialist running dogs to New York, where Stallone's cop is based, what unfolded was a downbeat and gritty piece, shaded in deep blacks. But the lurid, over the top qualities we would associate with eighties action were elbowing their way in, from such lunacies as Stallone donning a dress to catch the crims (as a disguise, not a fetish) or an entire sequence based around a cable car where the star had to do his own stunts - he just had to. The real element that marked out Nighthawks was how ruthless it was, a nastiness that would be offset by absurdity as the decade wore on.

One aspect these needed was a boo hiss baddie to contrast the heroics, and in Lock Up our man was pitted against one of the best in the business. It was a prison story, a genre not above clich├ęs itself, and if director John Flynn did not go all out on the craziness as the Penitentiary sequels had, it was sufficiently sweaty and claustrophobic to build a real cult following. Stallone was the inmate who was behind bars because he had been a Good Samaritan, helping out an elderly man who was victimised by the Mob which landed him with an eighteenth month sentence for assaulting the wrongdoers, just so we know he was justified in his violence.

But pushing him over the edge, as in Rambo: First Blood Part II, was the motivating factor for the warden, played by Donald Sutherland, who had been humiliated by the protagonist in an earlier jail experience and now had Stallone hauled out of his cell in a nice prison where he was able to get out and about to frolic with his girlfriend (Darlanne Fluegel) during the day, and into supposedly the worst prison in America. All Sutherland wants to do to get his own back is to have this inmate to kick around for the next thirty years, and sets about ensuring his sentence is extended massively - but will Stallone bite and lose control of his senses?

Obviously, a pacifist Sly would not sell many tickets, so it's a close-run thing whether his character loses it completely or not, but as it was Lock Up was considered a bit of a flop in a career littered with them. Yet Tango and Cash had featured him (and Kurt Russell) in a jail and that had done all right, and incarceration was a theme in the genre movies of the late eighties elsewhere (notably in the horror field, but often an electric chair was involved, as it is here), and prison films did have their fans, so it was that after underachieving at the box office, Lock Up began to pick up interest on home video, and after that became a late night television staple.

Despite its particular setting, the action tenets were adhered to, such as Sonny Landham as the enormous henchman of the boss baddie who must be bested before our lead can square up against the man who is putting him through this Hell, or the montage, often a training one, certainly in the Rocky instalments, but here a putting a car together item of mechanics set to Ides of March's Vehicle which includes hijinks of a kind that belies the fact these men are meant to be miserable prisoners. Let us not forget, too, the football game, not Escape to Victory football but the other variety, where the players crash into each other with sickening thuds.

This closed off Stallone's defining decade with some muscular style, a preposterously macho example of what made action movies of this stretch so diverting, and why there will never be another decade like the eighties to feature them so definitively. All that was lacking in Lock Up was an explosion, but Sly supplied plenty of those elsewhere. And he was not even finished, as since then he has had more comebacks than Gloria Swanson, with Rocky and Rambo making successful reappearances at the multiplex, and he was sent to prison twice more in Demolition Man and Escape Plan - which had sequels, suggesting Lock Up's time had come, just not in the original form of Lock Up.

[Lock Up is rereleased on 4K UHD, Blu-ray and DVD by Studio Canal with the following features (basically the original press kit):

Making Of
Sylvester Stallone Profile
Behind the Scenes
-Sylvester Stallone
-Donald Sutherland
-Sonny Landham
-John Amos
-Darlanne Fluegel.]

Author: Graeme Clark.


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