Sylvester Stallone (appearing twice in drag, no less) and Billy Dee Williams (trading in his Colt 45 for…well, a Colt 45 of a different kind) hunt down international terrorists in director, Bruce Malmuth’s Nighthawks (1981), an intermittently involving, though largely bellicose and increasingly one-dimensional thriller. That said; it’s still one of Stallone’s better post-Rocky/pre-steroids actioners; Stallone, Deke DaSilva - basically, a good cop with his Serpico-ian beard and self-righteous attitude; the latter, particularly ill-served in his personal relationship with fashion designer, Irene (Lindsay Wagner). Nighthawks is a good – if not a great – actioner: a genuine pity because the picture definitely has potential. For starters, largely owed thanks to cinematographer, James A. Contner, it has that wonderfully seedy look of a seventies police procedural, and, a score by Keith Emerson, vaguely reminiscent of Don Ellis’ iconic and sparse interludes for The French Connection – made a decade earlier, and, an infinitely better movie on all accounts. The dystopian atmosphere achieved throughout is palpably dark, the urban landscape bleak and beleaguered; exposed under the stark winter’s light. Alas, mood alone can only carry a picture so far; and in Nighthawks’ case, the apocalyptic ambiance is increasingly the only cause for menace; the plot, a risk–burdened booby-trap of obfuscating urban topography.
Nighthawks could have been a better show; the initial setup, featuring a deliciously slimy Heymar Reinhardt (a.k.a. Wulfgar, played with sinister aplomb by Dutch-born Rutger Hauer in his American debut), sleazily sniffing the nape of a very young and slightly unnerved notions counter clerk (Catherine Mary Stewart) before stuffing an undetected satchel containing a pre-activated bomb underneath her kiosk; casually exiting Arding and Hobbs Department Store seconds before its detonation, killing everyone inside. For its first third, Nighthawks toggles back and forth between London, Paris and New York City; tracing Wulfgar’s ‘rake’s progress’. He murders one of his operatives, Kenna (Robert Pugh), at a London frat party after it becomes clear Kenna has snitched on him during a police interrogation. In Paris’ Sainte-Chapelle cathedral, Wulfgar hooks up with an infinitely more dedicated and lethal contact, Shakka Holland (Persis Khambatta). She forewarns Wulfgar their handlers have grown weary of his heavy-handed approach to ‘liberation’, especially as several children died in the Arding and Hobbs attack. Shakka also takes Wulfgar to an underground plastic surgeon who obscures his East German features at the point of a scalpel; the surgeon’s body later discovered by the Sûreté nationale floating face down in the Seine.
So far, so good. Except immediately following this brilliant setup, Nighthawks virtually unravels into one of the most pedestrian and straight forward ‘chase’ movies on record; decidedly not good for a project originally begun at 2oth Century-Fox by screenwriter, David Shaber as The French Connection III and meant to team Gene Hackman’s Popeye Doyle with a new wiseass partner (in some Fox memos, Richard Pryor’s name suggested for the part). During its preliminary phase, Hackman wisely backed out. It’s easy to see why. The French Connection II (1975) had proven a critical and box office dud, disturbingly unlike its gritty and hard-edge predecessor. Plunged into turnaround, the project was eventually resuscitated at Universal, under two nondescript working titles; ‘Attack’, then ‘Hawks’ before director, Malmuth added ‘Night’ to the latter moniker, achieving the desired result. Yet, from the outset Nighthawks was shaping up as the poster child for the old adage about ‘too many cooks spoiling the broth’; Stallone’s chronic bickering over artistic details, and, Universal’s post-editing interferences to achieve a PG-rating resulting in a thoroughly emasculated thriller, delayed almost an entire year in its general release while more postproduction tinkering went on. The original director, Gary Nelson, who had made Freaky Friday (1976) and The Black Hole (1979) for the Walt Disney Co. was dismissed after only a week. Malmuth, who had never directed anything beyond a ‘segment’ in 1975’s Fore Play, inherited the reins.
Malmuth’s last minute absence and Universal’s sweaty-palmed anxiety, not to incur any more costly delays, resulted in a snafu with the Director’s Guild; Stallone – no stranger to directing – assuming control of the first day’s shoot; the adrenaline-pumping chase within the bowels of New York’s subway system. Arguably, this remains Nighthawks high water mark in high stakes tension. Unquestionably, it has a different vibe and pulse than the rest of the picture, more ‘in the moment’ and uncompromisingly tenacious; Stallone, Hauer and Billy Dee Williams clearly seen leaping to and from moving train cars; racing up and down crowded loading platforms, and sprinting down long gravely, half-lit canals and curving tunnels with a blind ambition to make it all look good – or at least, dangerous and exhilarating. As for Rutger Hauer; his first day’s work– shooting Wulfgar’s death – nearly became his last when a squib misfired, severely charring his skin. To add insult to injury, Hauer would later learn that the cord strapped to his waist, meant to simulate the impact of his body taking a bullet, had been yanked too hard at Stallone’s behest for more realism; the incident straining the muscles in Hauer’s lower back. Perhaps, Stallone was right. After all, he did insist on doing all of his own stunt work, frequently placing himself in imminent peril to achieve uncanny verisimilitude. But Hauer, who had given up a better paying assignment to do Nighthawks - a picture, fast shaping up to encourage his sincere misgivings – never quite forgave Stallone his verve. Whatever the cause, Hauer and Stallone did not get on from this point on, their professional relationship steadily deteriorating and frequently marked by some now infamous and legendary on-set disagreements.
In the intervening decades, Stallone’s outlook mellowed considerably, praising Hauer’s performance, while suggesting the picture’s failure at the box office was largely due to its theme of urban terrorism; much too progressive for its time. Perhaps: the world in general and the United States in particular since on very high alert and acutely attuned to fanatical threats, both from within and without since 9-11, the Boston Marathon bombing, etc. et al. However, it should be pointed out Nighthawks takes the concept of guerrilla activity and badly bungles its modus operandi. Real terrorism never gets personal. It is an affront to a way of life rather than directly targeted at specific individuals. It seeks to exact the most casualties and destruction for the sake of achieving international notoriety in support of its own cause. While Hauer’s baddie is the best thing in Nighthawks; beady-eyed and full of tautly manic vengeance, unfortunately, he increasingly becomes fixated on Stallone’s DaSilva; his venom never entirely explained away in David Shaber’s finished script; based on a story idea coauthored with Paul Sylbert. Despite being afforded only a thumbnail sketch of his character’s motivations, Hauer creates a thoroughly fascinating predator… up to a point; a real lady killer – figuratively and literally – with a psychotic blood lust exercised most effectively in the scene where Wulfgar mercilessly executes the wife of the French Ambassador (Jacques Roux) on the aerial tram bound for Roosevelt Island, simply because he can.
Alas, as Shaber’s script cannot help but side with the ‘big dumb chest-thumping male machismo’ of New York City’s finest undercover detectives, DaSilva and Sgt. Matthew Fox (Billy Dee Williams utterly pointless as the ineffectual sidekick) what we are left with is an intellectual-free game of cat and mouse; Interpol’s spymaster/assassin wrangler, Peter Hartman (Nigel Davenport); meant to add an air of Brit-born class to these proceedings, but generally spent in a few counterintuitive, if causal moments, debriefing his ragtag crew as per Wulfgar’s intentions, before being unceremoniously offed by Shakka on an escalator during a U.N. gala. So much for Hartman’s team of elite security! Nighthawks has a few sparkles of brilliance scattered throughout, and it does manage some nifty ‘set pieces’; electro-statically charged to get the juices flowing. Personally, I am not in favor of action movies where the plot becomes subservient to the wall-to-wall bloodbath, so anesthetizing one could install a McDonald’s styled counter over the screen to keep track of the billions and billions being obliterated in the name of popular entertainment. Yet, it’s the quiescent and conjoining moments in Nighthawks that leave one wanting for something better – even, something more – to become emotionally invested in the storytelling. DaSilva’s troubled amour with Irene never gets beyond a footnote. She doesn’t want him to be a cop. He can’t give it up. Each chronically fears for the other’s safety, as it turns out, for very good reasons. There is also some angst burrowing into the buddy/buddy camaraderie between DaSilva and Fox; their flashpoints fizzling out as Fox, encourages his partner to remain aloof where Irene is concerned; also, to abstain from foaming at the mouth when addressing their superior, Lt. Munafo (Joe Spinell). Curiously, Fox is not above losing his own cool, nearly blowing the head off a foul-mouthed junkie during one of their routine drug busts.
Nighthawks opens with a nondescript main title sequence; Keith Emerson’s score very near copycatting Don Ellis’ iconic French Connection theme. From here we digress to a moodily lit vacant street at night, a young woman hurrying home, accosted by a trio of bad news purse snatchers looking for their next easy mark. This isn’t their night, however; as the woman reveals herself to be DaSilva in drag. For those already having seen Nighthawks, director Bruce Malmuth all but gives away the climactic ending of his movie in these first few moments. In short order, DaSilva and his partner, Matthew Fox prevail upon the attackers with force to surrender; DaSilva subduing the last of these nondescript Latino ruffians (José Angel Santana) atop an elevated train platform (shades of the celebrated French Connection standoff between Gene Hackman’s Doyle and the assassin, Pierre Nicoli, played by Marcel Bozzuffi). In the meantime, we meet uber-slick Wulfgar in London, plying his creepy charm to a female clerk at the perfume counter in order to distract her from the satchel he has hidden beneath her kiosk. Moments later, Arding and Hobbs Department Store erupts in a hellish fireball; Wulfgar pleasurably alerting the press by taking credit for the attack. A short while later, Wulfgar is seen as a beatnik with guitar in hand, having crashed a noisy house party while attempting to seduce a blonde college student. His lure is thwarted by Kenna’s arrival; nervously delaying remuneration for the department store bombing and suggesting that Wulfgar’s methods have attracted unwanted and negative publicity for their cause.
It is one of the movie’s muddles we never entirely unearth the purpose behind the ‘cause’; a rogue liberation movement meant to free political prisoners – other terrorists, actually, already apprehended by authorities throughout Europe. Wulfgar senses a rat in Kenna; his hunch paying off when he spies a police car and three officers hurrying into the apartment building. Isolating Kenna in an upstairs hall, Wulfgar reveals an automatic weapon concealed in his guitar; annihilating the officers and sending Kenna – as Wulfgar puts it – to a ‘better life’. We meet Inspector Peter Hartman. He tried to forewarn the local authorities they were out of their depth. Wulfgar is not a man. He is a sociopath and a monster of almost superhuman cunning. As the police tighten the parameters of their manhunt, Wulfgar makes his way to Paris; contacting Shakka Holland – his female equivalent, who sets him up with a plastic surgeon. The timeline gets a little wonky here; as the next time we see Wulfgar he has shed his more angular features and reddish brown hair and beard for a blonde mop and smooth-shaven visage utterly void of any lasting scar tissue. Wulfgar enters the U.S. on a forged passport. At the same time, Hartman crosses the Atlantic and begins to assemble a crackerjack team of ex-military and present-day law enforcement officers he plans to train in the art of becoming paid assassins. DaSilva and Fox are inexplicably chosen for this task; a real blow to DaSilva’s conceit. He refuses to act under the same ruthless principles as the man he is hunting; Hartman assuring DaSilva there is a very fine line of distinction to separate him from his opponent.
In the meantime, Wulfgar begins to scope out New York City with stops at the U.N. and the nearby Roosevelt Island tram. He picks up his next easy mark; Pam (Hilarie Thompson), a National Airlines stewardess he first meets at a popular discothèque. In no time, Wulfgar, pretending to be Erik, woos Pam to move him into her apartment, using it as his base of operations while she is off on interconnecting flights between New York and L.A. Wulfgar becomes enamored with the hub of media outlets near Time Square: ABC, NBC and CBS. Indeed, a guy with his warped perspective and predilection for violence could get a lot of coverage in support for his cause in a town like this. The truly unsettling aspect of Wulfgar’s relationship with Pam is he is completely honest with her from the outset. When asked about his profession, Wulfgar glibly confesses to being an internationally hunted terrorist. It all sounds too fantastical; especially to a floozy like Pam – that is, until she pries into Wulfgar’s affairs by searching his closet, discovering a heavy case with a rifle and hand grenades inside. It’s the kiss of death for Pam; her body later discovered. Meanwhile, Wulfgar wastes no time bombing one of the buildings on Wall Street after hours, once again taking credit for the assault. DaSilva and Fox decide to work the nightclub angle; making their rounds until one club’s manager and bouncer remember Pam from her mugshot and vaguely recall her meeting a blonde guy with whom she left the club several nights before.
DaSilva and Fox are about to pack it in when DaSilva, cribbing from a sketch he made of Wulfgar’s previously known facial features, now makes the startling connection between the man in his sketch and the one standing only a few feet away from him, presently in the process of seducing another unsuspecting tart on the dance floor. DaSilva makes his call; Wulfgar responding by opening fire and wounding several bystanders before making a break down the back way and into the darkened alley far below. DaSilva and Fox pursue Wulfgar on foot through some of the spookiest urban blight; a near ‘haunted house’ cacophony of dilapidated and boarded up store fronts and torn up construction zones, descending into the bowels of the New York subway. Wulfgar keeps DaSilva and Fox at bay by taking an elderly woman (Zoya Leporska) hostage. He eludes capture by surprising Fox with his knife, carving a very deep, though ultimately nonfatal gash into Fox’s cheek and chin. For a known assassin, Wulfgar is remarkably respectful of human life. While Fox recovers from his injuries, DaSilva vows revenge. A few days later, DaSilva, Fox and Hartman, along with a small entourage of security trained by Hartman, descend upon the U.N.’s gala. At first, everything appears to be going as planned. Wulfgar is nowhere in sight. But then Hartman makes the lethal mistake of becoming isolated from his men, taking the south escalator, presumably for another sweep of the building, but instead surprised by Shakka at the top, who shoots him through the head.
DaSilva redoubles his efforts to avenge Hartman’s murder. Somewhere along the way, he has become rather fond of the old bugger. Now, Wulfgar makes his big play – a rather idiotic one at that; with Shakka’s complicity, taking a group of U.N. delegates returning from the gala hostage aboard the Roosevelt Island tram. As an A.T.A.C. helicopter carrying DaSilva hovers near the stalled tram suspended over the river, Wulfgar brings the French Ambassador’s wife to the window; killing her in plain sight for DaSilva’s benefit before even more cold-bloodedly opening the hatch to toss her bloody remains into the swirling waters below. Wulfgar orders DaSilva to attend him aboard the tram, lowering a winch down to a waiting Coast Guard vessel. Once inside the tram, DaSilva is given an infant from one of the tram’s passengers to protect; also, a list of Wulfgar’s ultimatums to carry out before he begins executing the rest of the hostages. Wulfgar’s list of demands includes a bus at the other end, to be driven by DaSilva, carrying Wulfgar, Shakka and the hostages to the airport where a plane will be waiting to fly them to Europe. None of this makes any sense, as it is rather unlikely the plane would either be given permission to fly, or in fact, be immediately surrounded by authorities. As the tram is brought back into its docking station, Wulfgar and Shakka surround themselves with terrified hostages tied together, creating a human shield between them and the A.T.A.C. hit squad awaiting their arrival. Nevertheless, DaSilva distracts Shakka with a tape recording of the dossier they have on her. She is taken down by Fox; Wulfgar driving away in the bus, riddled in bullets and eventually careening off a steep embankment into the river.
Alas, his body is not recovered from the wreck, leading DaSilva to assume Wulfgar is still very much alive. Earlier fearing for her safety, DaSilva impressed upon Irene to keep vigilante at all times and double check her doors locked at night. Now, DaSilva races to Irene’s brownstone. What happens next is rather badly bungled. We see Irene walking home alone in a long fur coat; presumably, having completely forgotten and/or discounted DaSilva’s forewarning about not placing herself in such obviously perilous circumstances. True to the conventions of Shaber’s screenplay, we also catch a glimpse of Wulfgar; miraculously survived the bus wreck, quivering in his still damp clothes as he observes Irene, before stealthily approaching from behind. Never mind the subzero temperatures of a New York winter would have all but ensured his freezing to death in these icy waters or, at the very least, caused Wulfgar to succumb to hypothermia. Remember, it’s only a movie. Hence, Wulfgar is merciless as he skulks in plain view up the front steps, picking the lock on Irene’s front door and breaking past her deadbolt. He slithers down the hall and around the corner wall leading to the kitchen, never losing sight of Irene, her back presumably to him as she obtusely prepares a midnight snack for herself. At precisely the moment when it appears Irene will meet with an untimely end, it is revealed to Wulfgar and the audience the person he has been prowling is actually DaSilva in drag; the men regarding one another for just a moment with mutual bloodlust before DaSilva unloads his piece, sending Wulfgar back into a bloody pile, left dangling off the front stoop.
Nighthawks’ finale was severely watered down after Universal execs screened a rough cut and balked at the bloodstained grotesqueness of this penultimate confrontation, fearing it would achieve the dreaded ‘R’ rating and thus limit the picture’s box office drawing power. What we do get is an extremely peculiar moment of retribution; DaSilva’s single gunshot creating two massive holes in both Wulfgar’s shoulders before a second shot sends Wulfgar pivoting back and through Irene’s front doors and onto her front porch. Yet, even before this truncated conclusion we are left head-scratching over the timeline. Permit us to reconsider that it takes DaSilva some moments to discover Wulfgar’s body is not to be found aboard the careening bus, and, even longer for him to return to the makeshift headquarters where he gradually reasons Wulfgar’s next target will be his most personal; Irene. Exactly when DaSilva realizes he has become the bulls-eye of Wulfgar’s payback, has time to telephone Irene, and, warn her, creates another narrative incongruity, as we see DaSilva attempting to make contact, only to be shown an empty apartment at the other end with the telephone ringing incessantly off the hook. Exactly how DaSilva employs near superhuman speed to make it half way across the city to Irene’s in time to intercept Wulfgar is also left unanswered. Is the woman approaching the apartment, casually acknowledged by a neighbor as she ascends the steps, actually DaSilva in drag, or are we to assume DaSilva has somehow managed to get into Irene’s brownstone ahead of her; perhaps even hurried Irene upstairs and out of harm’s way, before donning a wig and housecoat to recreate the illusion of her presence for Wulfgar? Whatever scenario one chooses to accept, none entirely satisfies or resolves this inconsistently rendered timeline. And the ending; DaSilva, deflated and taking a seat on the snowy steps next to Wulfgar’s lifeless remains, his ordeal over, lacks the necessary closure to assure us the relationship between him and Irene is once again on solid ground.
There are too many loopholes throughout Nighthawks’ storytelling to truly make it a classic thriller; even a competently made and plausible one. Stallone’s career during this period was preceded by another passable actioner (1978’s F.I.S.T) and the first of what would later become far too many Rocky sequels (Rocky II, 1979). Immediately following Nighthawks’ rather tepid performance at the box office, Stallone reinvented himself (sort of); at least, his physicality utterly transformed on a crash diet of performance-enhancing drugs into the hulking/rippling mass featured in Rocky III and First Blood (both made and released in 1982). But let us be fair in reassessing Stallone’s acting capabilities as fairly limited and unprepossessing. In chronic competition with Graz-born bodybuilder, Arnold Schwarzenegger and the kickboxing ‘muscles from Brussels’ – Jean-Claude Van Damme, Stallone’s synthetic musculature helped sell and propel his movie career into the body-conscious obsessed eighties. Without this inflated girth, we are left with…well…a character like Deke DaSilva; just a big and lumpy, unremarkable brute, deep-voiced, but with an awfully big chip on his shoulder; his mouth writing checks his body cannot pay. There is, to be sure, an audience eager to embrace this sort of antisocial clod. After all, it makes the rest of us appear so damn normal by direct comparison.
Yet, I am not entirely certain what screenwriter David Shaber was going for here; giving lone wolf DaSilva his token sidekick; Billy Dee Williams barely noticeable as background or the guy on the side. Nighthawks would have functioned far better as a ‘mano-a-mano’ of cheap and body-pulverizing thrills; drawing blood and parallels, as well as differences between DaSilva and Wulfgar. But the plot never entirely comes together as a buddy/buddy flick; Shaber’s woeful camaraderie between DeSilva and Hartman even less persuasive. In one scene, Hartman and DeSilva are utterly at odds and each other’s throats while in the next scene DeSilva is inviting Hartman out for Chinese food. What?!? The international flair of the piece, established by the London/Paris locations, is thrown off kilter as Shaber and director, Bruce Malmuth, increasingly endeavor to create another French Connection. With Gene Hackman’s participation, this might have come off; Hackman possessing that rare and true actor’s gift for chameleon-esque transformations from within. Stallone’s makeover, alas, is superficial, and even more directly (in the drag sequences), cosmetic at best. Nighthawks has its moments, I suppose. But they lack the basic structure of good, solid and cohesive threads to effectively tell the story.
There is better news for fans of this movie on Blu-ray. A bare-bones release of Nighthawks was announced well over a year ago to be distributed by Shout! Factory; the release later postponed and then indefinitely canceled. At the time, it was impossible to assume the reasons why; now made clear by the fact Nighthawks has emerged as part of the company’s newly inaugurated ‘Shout! Select’ titles: special editions with added extra content and newly remastered 1080p transfers to boot. The wait, in fact, has been all to the good for this release; the print elements employed herein looking consistently sharper and more detailed, preserving the deep shadow focus in James A Contner’s cinematography. Colors too are more robust than anticipated, with flesh tones looking very natural. Contrast is excellent, and film grain appears very indigenous to its source.
Best of all, Shout! has worked out whatever kinks and glad-handing were needed to restore the original soundtrack. For decades, Nighthawks on home video contained two glaring omissions; the Spencer Davis Group’s cover of ‘I’m a Man’ and The Rolling Stone’s ‘Brown Sugar’ –prominently featured as backdrop during the nightclub sequence, excised because of ASCAP rights issues. Both tracks have been reinstated on this Blu-ray release; albeit, folded into the mono Foley, remastered as 2.0 DTS. As part of the company’s new Shout! Select branding, this collector’s edition also includes 6 new featurettes, collectively topping out at just a little over an hour’s worth of intriguing back stories, told by producer, Herb Nanas, James A. Contner, Lindsay Wagner, Catherine Mary Stewart, first draft screenwriter, Paul Sylbert, and, technical adviser, Randy Jurgensen. Interestingly, both Stallone and Hauer were contacted by representatives from Shout! and both respectfully declined the offer to partake of this retrospective. I could easily overlook their absence. But it is more than a tad disappointing Shout!’s due diligence to gain access to all those deleted scenes and missing/excised footage – still rumored to be archived somewhere within Universal’s vaults – did not go beyond the query phase. Why Universal should have resisted it, we will likely never know. Bottom line: if you are a fan of Nighthawks you will want to pick up this Blu-ray. Although not perfect, it does achieve a level of viewing satisfaction none of the previously issued DVD incarnations even come close to rivaling. Shout!’s extras alone make it a ‘must have’.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)