Sunday, September 12, 2010

A Forgotten Gem: Nighthawks (1981)

Recently I had the opportunity to view a print of the 1981 action thriller Nighthawks starring Sylvester Stallone, Billy Dee Williams and Rutger Hauer. Here's an example of an underrated cop picture: lean, tense, stylishly directed, strongly acted and engaging in a simple, direct and efficient fashion. It's no frills genre filmmaking.

Stallone plays a focused and dedicated NYC cop who patrols the streets at night either dressed in drag or expensive attire to attract and nail muggers. Billy Dee Williams is his buddy and partner. Their basic job of baiting and hooking dumb criminals is halted when a bold terrorism expert (Nigel Davenport, an interesting addition to the cast) comes to the NYPD to train street cops with military experience into becoming assassins to pursue a vicious German terrorist named Wulfgar (Hauer) and his female companion (Persis Khambatta) who have fled from overseas to bring fear and unpredictable violence to the Big Apple and it's United Nations representatives.

Stallone becomes frustrated in feeling co-opted into changing from a cop who practices due process and follows prodedure into a hunter with orders to shoot to kill his one target on sight. Despite his impressive record in Vietnam, he doesn't believe in being a cop cum soldier with a license to kill, but his ethics are put to the test when he must confront Wulfgar in the gritty urban jungle.

Nighthawks has fairly predictable police movie cliches: the cop who's more attentive to his work than his long suffering wife, the wise cracking partner, the angry superior (well played by the late great Joe Spinell, most famous for playing a psychopath in Maniac) But makes inspired use of the cat and mouse formula: a cop accustomed to practicing restraint
and now ordered to shoot to kill his target on sight.

Hauer is frightening and convincingly cold as a terrorist who claims to be killing in the name of "the people" but seems to be doing it more out of pathological enjoyment. Witnessing Hauer's character make his moves from Paris to London to New York are chilling and build some real tension.

The set pieces in the film are expert. The first time Stallone and Hauer come face to face in a disco with The Rolling Stones' Brown Sugar and Keith Emerson's driving score is pitch perfect. A harrowing scene on a cable car involving Stallone transporting a baby away from a hostage crisis is well executed.

Although lacking in real depth or character development, and what even seems like compromised editing (apparently Universal Pictures cut the film severly), Nighthawks contains solid suspense, action, outstanding stunt work, tight pacing and forceful performances. After it's release in the spring of 1981, a year before Stallone started the Rambo franchise with First Blood, Nighthawks received mixed reviews and mediocre box office. It deserves a second look thirty years after the fact.

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