The period between Rocky and First Blood was a tough one for Sylvester Stallone: high profile films like F.I.S.T., Paradise Alley and Victory either underperformed or barely covered their costs in the U.S. Rocky II was the hit that kept his career afloat during this time but another film as worthy of mention from this period is Nighthawks. This unique blend of cop movie and espionage thriller did okay at the box office but has grown into a real cult item with fans over the years.
Nighthawks starts with two parallel plotlines. The first deals with Deke DaSilva (Stallone), a cop who specializes in undercover stings with his similarly cowboy-ish partner Matthew Fox (Billy Dee Williams). The other plot strand deals with Wulfgar (Rutger Hauer), a coolly psychotic terrorist who has to flee Europe when his terror campaigns get too violent.
Wulfgar lands in New York and is tracked there by international terrorism expert Peter Hartman (Nigel Davenport), who presses DaSilva and Fox into service to track him down. Wulfgar responds by using his terror tactics on NYC, forcing DaSilva into a showdown that challenges his ideas of what a cop is supposed to do.
If you’ve heard the stories surrounding the production of Nighthawks, it might have sounded like a disaster in the making: the first director was replaced early in the shoot after disagreements with Stallone, Stallone rewrote the script himself to downplay the Wulfgar character and Universal dramatically cut the film down to thin out the bloodshed and jettison any story elements outside the “cops and terrorists” aspect (a subplot involving Lindsay Wagner as a love interest really suffers in this regard).
That said, the film that emerged from this troubled birth is a cracking little action-thriller. Even when pared down, the script is smart and substantial, with a use of terrorism as a theme that sadly remain timely today. It is also consistently exciting from start to finish, boasting an interesting villain for the heroes to match wits with and a tight plot that houses an impressive array of setpieces throughout. Highlights include a tense scene where the cops stalk Wulfgar in a busy disco, a complex standoff where Wulfgar holds a cable-car hostage in mid-air and a pair of suspense scenes bookending the film that make clever, Brian DePalma-esque use of misdirection to toy with the viewer.
Nighthawks also boasts a smart sense of style that gives the busy plot plenty of energy. Director Bruce Malmuth hits a nice blend of grittiness and kinetic energy, using photography from James Contner that captures the urban locales with atmospheric style and a funky, keyboard-driven score from Keith Emerson to draw the viewer in. Stallone makes a compelling leading man, underplaying nicely, and Williams is suitably charismatic co-lead. Hauer makes his villain more disturbing that he might have been by playing him in a casually charismatic way that thus enhances the horror of what he does. Elsewhere, Davenport brings a gruff gravitas to what could have been an expositional role and the eclectic support cast includes Joe Spinell, Persis Khambatta, Catherine Mary Stewart, Glory Annen and erstwhile porn actor Jamie Gillis(!).
In short, Nighthawks is one of the best vehicles from the first part of Stallone’s star career, an exciting action flick with a bit more substance than usual. If you’re a fan of films that capture NYC during its grittier days, consider it doubly worthwhile.