1981 Motion Picture Starring Sylvester Stallone, Billy Dee Williams and Rutger Hauer

"One man can bring the world to its knees and only one man can stop him."

NOTE: It is going to be hard to discuss this film without some small spoilers. I will confine anything that I believe to be serious spoiler material to the last couple of paragraphs of the writeup, and I will mark that portion off with horizontal rules.

It may be a little bit absurd, in light of his more recent work, to imagine Sylvester Stallone playing a gritty and intelligent New York police detective, but in 1981 it made perfect sense.

Fresh from his extraordinary triumph as writer and star of Rocky (and his not-quite-so-extraordinary Rocky II), Stallone took on a number of interesting and challenging roles over the next few years.

Nighthawks pits the menacingly icy international terrorist Heymar Reinhardt* (Rutger Hauer, in his U.S. movie debut), codenamed Wulfgar, against New York cops Deke DaSilva (Stallone, bearded and looking quite good) and his hotheaded partner Matthew Fox (played with characteristic charisma by Billy Dee Williams).

In Nighthawks, Wulfgar comes to the U.S. in order to re-establish his reputation as a terrorist-for-hire after a string of snafus. Police and FBI agents are co-operating in order to bring the murderous Wulfgar to heel. To complicate things, he has slightly altered his appearance through plastic surgery (he now looks just like Rutger Hauer–because, come on, who wouldn't?). Detective Sergeant DaSilva, described as "the gung-ho Lone Ranger of the street crime unit" and his hair-trigger, practical joking partner, Fox bring intelligence and cunning to the hunt. When a close encounter in the subway brings them face-to-face with the criminal, the rivalry becomes dramatically personal.

The remainder of the film is a fast-paced chase with steely-nerved Wulfgar eluding the persistent cops. While it is a simple story, it contains some clever elements that make it quite above the norm for the genre. There are a few potential plot holes that stand out, most notably the fact that Wulfgar, the most wanted terrorist in the world (apparently based on the real-life terrorist Carlos, the Jackal), screws up repeatedly. The only way the cops even manage to keep finding him is that he leaves a wide trail of clues that should not be to challenging to follow. It might bear pointing out that the whole reason he went to the United States is because he needs to get his reputation back after making some egregious mistakes. Still, some parts don't necessarily make consistent sense (although they do pretty well, considering a lot of the material in the genre). There also a few factual errors that can make some viewers wince—also typical for the genre.

Lovely Lindsey Wagner co-stars as DaSilva's ex-wife and Persis Khambatta plays the eerily icy Shakka Holland, Wulfgar's contact in the Big Apple.

The story and screenplay are by David Shaber (Flight of the Intruder, the Warriors) and Paul Sybert (who is more noted for his career as a production designer). Initially, Gary Nelson was the director, but he left and was replaced by Bruce Malmuth, who finished out the film. Interestingly, there was a day before Malmuth got there when Stallone actually directed, but, being that he was not in the Directors' Guild at the time, this caused a bit of a problem.

The Rumors Fly!

The rumor mill has claimed for many years that this movie was the main reason why Hauer never became a bigger star in the United States. Supposedly, Stallone's legendary ego came into conflict with Hauer's considerable acting prowess. Tired of feeling upstaged, Stallone became increasingly bellicose and demanded scenes with the Dutch actor be removed, re-cut or even re-shot. Stallone had something like carte blanche in the movie world at that time, and got some of his demands, to Hauer's disgust. Hauer, who turned down a higher-paying role in a bigger film to do Nighthawks, felt that the finished product did not live up to the screenplay.

When a stunt went awry and injured Hauer's back rather badly, he blamed Stallone, who supposedly wanted the stunt to look more dramatic—this made it more dangerous.

After the experience, Hauer's exposure on this side of the Atlantic was quite limited. It may be (as some have claimed) that Sylvester Stallone's badmouthing made the Dutch actor less popular to those who were casting films, or it may be that the whole ego-fest simply soured him to the Hollywood experience, as so often happens.

I have checked with several sources to try to track down these rumors. While a few people (mostly movie or Rutger Hauer-oriented websites) had heard the stories, none could positively confirm or deny them.

...and My Own Thoughts

There are a few elements of Nighthawks that can feel a bit hackneyed to a modern viewer seeing the film for the first time. It may help to remember that, in the late 70s when this screenplay was written, many of these cliches had not yet become cliches (okay, maybe some of them had, but they weren't nearly so hoary).

Williams and Hauer are both perfectly cast, although it is easy to take issue with some of Mr. Stallone's performance. Stallone, in an effort to expand his acting creds, runs right up to the limits of his acting skill and it seems to me that he sometimes oversteps just a little bit. There are also a few moments that made me sit up and say "Hey! Sly can act!"

Watching this movie for the first time in over 20 years, I was delighted to discover that it actually holds up reasonably well after all that time. A few of the plot elements are a bit old-hat at this point, and it is disquieting to watch Rambo showing off intellectual wattage and Lando Calrissian screaming curse words and threatening to pop a cap in a perp's head, but still, in all, this is a very entertaining movie–think Serpico, Chinatown, even a tiny bit of Dirty Harry (albeit a brainy, sensitive** Harry Callahan).

A few elements of the film are weirdly dated. Wulfgar, a real ladies' man, loves to go to discos and the music and clothing can inspire some inappropriate chuckles (or cringes). The music, by Keith Emerson, is a good fit most of the time but can be somewhat jarring and a bit dated as well. The credits music, both beginning and ending, absolutely screams "Hey everybody! Welcome to 1981!!"

The screenplay of this movie clips along and the direction and editing are very well-done. The fantastic cinematography vividly brings out 1981 New York City in its gritty, spoiled glory. The director of photography was James A. Contner, who would later go on to blow people away as one of the cinematographers on Miami Vice. Nighthawks belongs to the odd subgenre of hunt-and-chase thrillers with the French Connection, Marathon Man and, perhaps, Hitchcock's immortal North by Northwest.

It is interesting to see a film dealing, even in a highly fictionalized way, with terrorism from an early 1980s perspective. In 1981, terrorism was a pretty abstract concept to many Americans (come to think of it, Europeans were probably an abstract concept to a great many Americans—reader is invited to whatever sarcastic comments may come to mind). Apart from the news stories about hijackings and boats being blown up, the conflicts that brought about terrorism in Europe, Great Britain and Ireland were pretty remote from the United States, so a movie with a terrorist as the villain was an interesting change of pace. While Wulfgar was undoubtedly not the first Euro-terrorist on the silver screen, and certainly he would not be the last (Gary Oldman's Hans Gruber from Die Hard comes to mind), he was unusual enough to be memorable, and something of a nice change from the rather threadbare archetypes: gangsters, psychopaths, Nazis, drug kingpins and the assorted hoodlums of 70s film.

*The imdb had the character's name incorrectly listed as Reinhardt Heymar! I actually checked out the film on VHS, and discovered that my memory was better than I thought!
**Deke DaSilva may qualify as the first action hero in film history who has to wear glasses. Oh, sure, they are cool, 80's drop-tint glasses, but it is made abundantly clear that he does not just wear them to be cool, but that he actually needs them.

Beware! Here there be spoilers!

Okay, it is a big cliche to have the bad guy injure the cop's partner and thus, the cop has to avenge his fallen comrade. As I recall, this was bit of a cliche even when Nighthawks was written, but not as much of one as it is now. Billy Dee gets cut, Sly has to avenge him (although he does not die, nor is he three days from retirement, nor does he buy a boat called the "Live Forever"). I'll be the first to admit, even though I like this flick, that if the execution weren't so good, the plot might read like something from McBain on the Simpsons! Also, a modern viewer won't help but notice that it is the black guy who gets hurt. That was typical at the time.

Hauer is said to have been very angry about the way Wulfgar dies. In case you don't intend to see the movie, or don't mind spoilers, Wulfgar comes after DaSilva's ex-wife. DaSilva, anticipating this (somehow) dons his gal's clothes and a blonde wig and surprises the terrorist, then blows him away. THIS was the stunt that apparently injured Hauer. According to rumor, Stallone wanted the blast to knock Wulfgar far out of the room, and got his wish. The cable that yanked the actor backwards was turned up too high (they had to use Hauer, as his face is visible) and Hauer was hurt. Stallone was supposedly unapologetic.

Hauer did not like this end to the terrorist at all. He thought that the super-cunning Wulfgar would never fall for such a ridiculous trap (and really, muscle-bound Italian Stallone posing as willowy blonde Wagner ... weird at best). He thought that something more complex would have to be cooked up, but the plot contrivance stayed.

Here endeth the spoiler section

the imdb, of course (entries for Nighthawks (1981), and all major stars and crew of the film
Stomp Tokyo reviews - http://www.stomptokyo.com/movies/nighthawks.html
Hauer’s site - http://www.rutgerhauer.org/filmography/night.php
Action Kings - http://www.geocities.com/theactionkingsa/ActionKings-Stallone-Nighthawks.html
Walker, David, "Two Sylvester Stallone Movies that Don't Suck" (this and Copland), Willamette Week Online at http://www.wweek.com/story.php?story=5181