When an international terrorist arrives in New York City, streetwise super-cop Deke DaSilva (a bearded Sylvester Stallone) and his partner Matthew Fox (Billy Dee Williams, a.k.a. space pimp Lando Calrissian) are reassigned to a counterterrorist unit. The idealistic Deke clashes with his bluff, no-nonsense new boss, Interpol terrorist expert Hartmann (Nigel Davenport), who argues a shoot first, ask questions later policy is the only way to deal with ruthless mass murderer, Wulfgar (Rutger Hauer). Sure enough, soon after Deke inadvertently lets Wulfgar slip through his fingers, the terrorist makes his presence felt by hijacking a cable car full of United Nations personnel alongside his equally murderous compatriot Shakka Holland (Persis Khambatta, formerly the slinky slaphead from Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)). However, Deke has a trick or two up his sleeve…
There are edgy, intense thrillers and there are those that perhaps try a little too hard. A childhood viewing of Nighthawks left this writer envisioning it as the former, though seen today it’s surprising how unintentionally comical several sequences are. The film clearly wants to be a gritty and authentic urban thriller like The French Connection (1971) and in fact, was originally intended to be the second sequel to that groundbreaking cop classic with Gene Hackman back as “Popeye” Doyle and teamed with a wisecracking partner, possibly played by Richard Pryor. With Hackman reluctant to reprise his famous role, screenwriter David Shaber dutifully reworked the script into Nighthawks, with Disney hand Gary Nelson (Freaky Friday (1976), The Black Hole (1979)) the surprising original choice for director, though he was swiftly given the heave-ho in favour of newcomer Bruce Malmuth.
Malmuth went on to a largely undistinguished career, ranging from a horrendous invisible man comedy The Man Who Wasn’t There (1983) - not to be confused with the superior Coen Brothers offering of the same name - to the Steven Seagal action flick Hard to Kill (1990), though the underrated Where Are the Children? (1986) contains his best work. At the time the inexperienced Malmuth had only a segment of the portmanteau sex comedy Fore Play (1975) to his credit and was unable to reach the set in time for the first day of shooting. Stallone himself stepped in to film the cops’ pursuit of Wulfgar through a subway tunnel and onto a moving train, and actually produced the best handled, most suspenseful sequence in the whole movie.
The rest is wildly hit and miss. Cinematographer James A. Contner lends an air of urban menace, yet while Stallone is for the most part intriguingly low-key, he and his co-stars sometimes over-emote through the profanity-laden “cop talk”, straining so hard to be gritty that they’re camp. And of course there is that infamous opening sequence where a pair of knife-wielding street punks have their asses kicked by a seemingly defenceless woman, who is unmasked as - gasp! - hairy Sylvester Stallone. He then chases them down the street still wearing a skirt. This cross-dressing twist also plays a part in the finale, one of several sequences that were re-shot and mishandled by the studio. By all accounts the original version of Nighthawks was a far more complex and unsettling movie, and supposedly a lot bloodier. Stallone himself recently attacked Universal studios for mishandling the movie, though a restored cut has yet to resurface.
Making his Hollywood debut, Rutger Hauer gives a typically chilling performance, but Wulfgar is another of those politically ambiguous, all-purpose terrorists you only find in movies: a German-born, communist educated, hedonist psycho media whore. His biggest accomplishment is forcing Deke to declare “the police are cowards” in front of the hostages, which is something of a schoolboy prank by terrorist standards. In spite of Hauer’s efforts, Wulfgar’s terrorist routine comes across rather ridiculous, whether urging a plastic surgeon to “make me beautiful!” (and being transformed into movie star Rutger Hauer. Mmm…) or hanging out at a garish New York disco where he picks up naïve air stewardess Pam (Hilary Thompson) with the priceless line: “I’m an international terrorist wanted on three continents.” And yet his standoffs with Stallone’s cop crackle with genuine menace.
Former Bionic Woman Lindsay Wagner is wasted in a boring subplot about Deke trying to reconnect with his wife, though the dramatic weight behind their scenes was allegedly spoiled by studio interference. Nigel Davenport grounds a silly movie with his solid turn as the gruff Interpol expert, but his character is at the centre of a dubious right-wing message about how “hesitation must be removed from the police department” and “you need violence to combat violence.” Rather surprisingly, it is Stallone who - despite playing another Vietnam veteran with “fifty-two registered kills” - puts forward the liberal point of view and argues against being turned into a killing machine and endangering innocent people. However, his argument is weakened when that is exactly what happens. Ultimately, Nighthawks is a movie whose original intentions can only be guessed at and comes across like a hastily assembled jigsaw with false pieces forced in. Music by prog rocker Keith Emerson.