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Nighthawks is a flick that has some nostalgic importance to me as I saw it at the long gone Rialto Theater in Ridgfield Park, N.J. which, at the time, was a block away from my home. It’s also a pretty good movie with some gritty NYC atmosphere and tackled the subject of terrorism on U.S. soil years before it would become an actual concern.
Story has two loose cannon New York City cops, Deke DaSilva (Sylvester Stallone) and partner Matthew Fox (Billy Dee Williams), being transferred into a new anti-terrorist unit headed by British operative Peter Hartman (Nigel Davenport). Their first objective is to track down a vicious international terrorist, who goes by the name Wulfgar (Rutger Hauer) and who may be headed for the Big Apple for his next strike. Despite not quite seeing eye to eye with Davenport’s methods, DaSilva and Fox have bigger problems to worry about when the merciless Wulfgar indeed shows up in the city and starts his reign of terror. Can the two NYC cops stop this stone cold killer before he brings the world’s greatest city to it’s knees?
This 1981 action flick still feels very 70s as directed by Bruce Malmuth from David Shaber’s script. It does have that gritty, backstreet NYC vibe and that goes a long way in making this enjoyable. It has that 70s style such as a police chief who shouts everything he says (the late, great Joe Spinell), a few disco scenes and a very Serpico-esque hero in the bearded and ear-ringed DaSilva. There are some nice action and chase sequences, though nothing groundbreaking and the film really makes good use of the film’s NYC locations. That and we get a strong villain for our heroes to try to bring down and with that, you have a recipe for a really good thriller. What holds Nighthawks back from being on a higher level, closer to something like French Connection, or at least The Seven-Ups, is a weak script and rumored studio interference that edited out some important character development, such as the relationship with Deke and his estranged wife (Lindsay Wagner), who is hardly in the finished film. Apparently some of the violence was edited down as well, to please an MPAA who was very strict at this time due to some of the slasher film backlash. The result is a film that moves almost too quickly for it’s own good and lacks some real meat in-between the bare bones. DaSilva and Fox track down Wulfgar basically due to a plot convenience and a ‘hunch’ instead of demonstrating the detective skills and street savvy the characters were supposedly chosen for…then you blink and the film is at it’s climactic set piece. Also, after being portrayed as a total badass early on, DaSilva suddenly becomes hesitant when faced with the terrorist in earlier confrontations. Doesn’t quite jell without a bit more backstory. Obviously, production issues effected this film, from the original director (Gary Nelson) being fired, to rumored tension between Stallone and Hauer, to the hatchet editing job by the studio and reportedly by Stallone, too. The result is a fun action flick instead of the well-rounded thriller with a lot more substance that the filmmakers supposedly set out to make. On the plus side, there is some atmospheric cinematography of old NYC by James Contner and a fitting score by ELP’s Keith Emerson to give the film some needed mood.*
The film has a good cast. Stallone is Stallone as DaSilva and it would have been nice to see excised footage that may have made this a meatier role for him. His military record is briefly mentioned, but there are hints it played a larger role with DaSilva’s character. Billy Dee is solid as Fox, but is basically a sidekick and we really don’t get much character development on him, either. Hauer is really effective as Wulfgar and his performance overcomes having some of his character development edited down as well. Davenport is the tough as nails as the director of the A.T.A.C. and he makes a good foil/mentor for Stallone’s rebellious DaSilva. Lindsay Wagner is long suffering/estranged wife, Irene and gets far too little screen time to make an impact, but serves her purpose well enough. Joe Spinell is dead-on as the gruff NYC police chief who seems to be drinking way too much caffeine and Persis Khambatta makes for a suitable cold killer as an associate of Wulfgar’s named Skakka.
I like this flick, but do wish a director’s cut would surface one day, so we could find out if the studio and star re-editing saved or hurt the movie we got. There was also violence removed to satisfy the MPAA which may have hurt some of the flick’s intensity, too. It’s still a fun, nostalgic action movie about a dirty, grimy, crime-ridden NYC, before the city got it’s act together in the 90s, and and features Stallone in a more human role before the success of Rocky III and First Blood would turn him into a larger than life character, for the rest of the 80s. There is also some personal sentimentality attached, but overall it’s a good Saturday night trip back to 80s NYC that is still worth taking.
*(Additional information concerning production details as per Nighthawks‘ Wikipedia page)