Movie review: ‘Nighthawks’

I happened to see the film “Nighthawks” again recently for the first time in many years. The Sylvester Stallone-Billy Dee Williams buddy film is a little long in the tooth, but it does have remarkable relevance today in regards to terrorism (which, like the war on drugs, appears to have a never-ending script that plays out across the globe). “Nighthawks” doesn’t suffer from being too TV-like in its appearance like many early 1980s films and it leaves its mark through solid acting with one especially good turn by a European actor making his first U.S. big-screen movie. The action is good and Stallone and Williams make a good team here. Check it out!

‘Nighthawks’
(1981; 99 minutes; rated R; directed by Bruce Malmuth and starring Sylvester Stallone, Billy Dee Williams and Rutger Hauer)

FIGHTING TERROR THE OLD-SCHOOL WAY

(NOTE: I updated this review by adding links on Sept. 20, 2015. I again updated the review on March 20, 2020.)

I’ve always had a weak spot for Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger action films, but it wasn’t until I again watched Stallone’s “Nighthawks” that I remembered such a good acting turn. No, not from Stallone or co-star Billy Dee Williams, but from supporting actor Rutger Hauer, a European star who was in his first major U.S. film. Any flaws in “Nighthawks” can easily be overlooked by Hauer’s powerful performance.

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Hauer gives a tremendous effort as “Heymar ‘Wulfgar’ Reinhardt” (just call him “Wulfgar”), who is the terrorist bent on creating a world sensation after a London bombing went awry – as if terrorist bosses ever consider that a bombing can “go awry.” Anyway, Hauer landed his first big U.S. role in “Nighthawks” after more than a decade in European work (a parallel to his character here) and would go on to a much more recognized and remembered role the next year as “Roy Batty” in the sci-fi classic “Blade Runner” with Harrison Ford.

In “Nighthawks,” Stallone plays “Det. Sgt. Deke DaSilva” and Billy Dee Williams as “Det. Sgt. Matthew Fox” are the superstars in the New York Police Department’s undercover street crime unit. They pose as anyone – a businessman or even a woman – to draw out street criminals. They are transferred to a joint state-federal anti-terrorism task force because of their knowledge of New York’s streets and Stallone immediately butts heads with the Interpol man who’s leading the effort to find a terrorist known as “Wulfgar.”

The terrorist, modeled on the real-life 1970s terrorist “Carlos the Jackal,” has come to New York to re-establish himself with the international terror community. He sets up shop, does an attention-getting bombing and then pulls off his main stunt: the kidnapping of people in a cable car that include United Nations personnel. All the while Stallone is wrestling with his conscience about being able to kill on sight – something not covered in his police work.

Of course, it ultimately drills down to a personal war between Stallone and Hauer after the cop spots the terrorist at a disco (remember those?), has a shootout and chase in which Hauer wounds Williams in the face with a knife. The two have their first close-up encounter in the cable car and then again at the climax of the film. I guess you can tell who wins this one in the end.

Filmmakers did a good job of keeping the film tight (99 minutes) but didn’t sacrifice details of Hauer setting up his bases through an unwitting stewardess and in a small store’s basement and although the ending is pretty predictable it is carried off better than most here (although the final scene was reportedly extensively cut because of its extreme violence).

Now, let me turn my attention to the cast …

  • As I already noted, Golden Globe winner and nominee (not for this one) Hauer is the real star here. He’s great moving through London at the beginning of the film doing a bombing and killing a comrade who led police to him. He’s transformed by plastic surgery and a shave and comes to the U.S. Hauer is simply believable as the terrorist. He is cold, calculating and convinces you that he enjoys killing. Hauer was also in “Sin City” and “Batman Begins” and enjoyed a prolific career of 176 acting credits over seven decades of work since the first in 1968. Hauer died at 75 in 2019 and had three films either completed or in post-production as 2020 arrived. He won his Globe for “Escape from Sobidor” and was nominated for “Fatherland.”

Both Stallone and Williams are good, but each could have done better in the buddy-buddy chemistry department. Williams sometimes forces the emotion too much, but both are solid as the streetwise cops who know how to target a suspect.

  • A two-time Oscar nominee (not for this one), Stallone was in his first role as a cop in this one and you’ll never forget that he IS “Rocky” and “Rambo.” His lesser-remembered works include “Cobra” as well as doing guest spots on TV shows such as “Las Vegas” with James Caan (I liked him in that one). Sly received both nominations for work in the “Rocky” franchise and I also liked his work in “Assassins” (click here for my review) and, best of all, his wonderful turn with Wesley Snipes in “Demolition Man” (click here for my review).
  • A Primetime Emmy nominee, Williams is most recognized as “Lando Calrissian” in two “Star Wars” films (episodes V and VI). He plays a good partner in this one, but, like others, doesn’t manage to make his character stand out. I guess the best you can say about his effort here is that he doesn’t drag the film down. Williams has notched 147 credits over seven decades of work beginning in 1959 and has been in the most recent “Star Wars” flick – “Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker” in which he reprises the role of “Lando.” He was nominated for the powerful football TV flick “Brian’s Song” from 1971.
  • The most interesting supporting actor is Persis Khambatta as terrorist “Shakka Holland.” She plays Hauer’s liaison with the terrorist community as well as his comrade in killing. Khambatta does a really nice job as the messenger and then helper in terror and was a shock to see her with hair after she appeared as the bald “Ilia” the year before in “Star Trek: The Motion Picture.” It’ too bad the role wasn’t bigger to allow Khambatta to elevate it to compete with others. She was also in the exceptionally cheesy “Megaforce.” Sadly, Khambatta died young at 49 in 1998 of a heart attack in her native India.
  • Nigel Davenport plays terrorism expert “Peter Hartman” and he’s grimly focused on “Wulfgar.” Davenport has the most verbally volatile character in the film and he does good work as the motivated supervisor who must get Stallone on board with the program. Davenport also did a great job in another 1981 film: “Chariots of Fire” (click here for my review). He has also been in “A Man for All Seasons.” He died at 85 in 2013.
  • Just about completely lost in the film but doing an acceptable job is TV’s “The Bionic Woman” herself and a two-time Golden Globe nominee (not for this one), Lindsay Wagner. She plays “Irene DaSilva” and is Stallone’s estranged wife and he’s trying to get her back. I believe her character is here to set up the film’s ending, otherwise I could not explain its relevance. Wagner has also been in the film version of “The Paper Chase” (she’s “Kingsfield’s” daughter) and dozens of roles on television. Her two nominations were for “The Bionic Woman.”

Really, really lost in the film is veteran actor Edward Fox, who starred in “The Day of the Jackal” (click here for my review). Fox’s is credited here but his character is not named. After watching the film again, I couldn’t even tell you when, where or even if he appears in the film. He’s listed as a member of the anti-terrorism team. I’m really not sure why an actor of his caliber would take this role at that point in their career. He was also in “A Bridge Too Far” (click here for my review).

Nighthawks” was the 49th ranked film at the domestic box office with $14.9 million in ticket sales in 1981, according to Box Office Mojo. Worldwide, “Nighthawks” made $19.9 million on its $5 million budget, according to Wiki. Here are the films that I’ve reviewed from 1981:

Assorted cast and film notes (via IMDb.com):

  • A young(er) Catherine Mary Stewart plays a “sales girl” at the store that Hauer bombs in London. Stewart would go on to be in “Weekend at Bernie’s” (click here for my review) as well as the little remembered but neat sci-fi thriller “Night of the Comet” (click here for my review).
  • Directly from IMDb.com: “The meaning and relevance of this movie’s title is that Nighthawks (1981) refers to the men and women street cops of the New York City Crime Unit who patrol the city at nighttime.”
  • Because of a travel mix-up and the director not being available the day of the scheduled shooting of the cable car stunt, Stallone (with permission from the Director’s Guild) did the directing himself. He said the stunt, in which he had no double, was one of the “most dangerous” he ever did.
  • One of the violent scenes cut from the film included an animatronic head of one of the characters that explodes when being shot in the brain. If “Nighthawks” had been made today, that most likely would have been the trailer and even expanded further in the “director’s cut.”
  • The actor with the best name here is Jellybean Benitez, who plays a club DJ. I’d say that Jellybean is overqualified for this motion picture. Benitez has also been in “Get Carter” with Stallone as well as “Carlito’s Way.”
  • Finally and directly from IMDb.com: “Rutger Hauer lost his mother and his best friend during the production of this movie. He returned to his native Netherlands for both of their respective funerals, but returned to the production each time within a few days. Despite all of the personal drama and all the difficulties on the set, Hauer stated in his autobiography that he was happy he stayed aboard, as this movie caused him to be noticed in Hollywood, and started an impressive international career.”

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