Monday, September 19, 2011

Nighthawks (1981)

Title: Nighthawks (1981)

Director: Bruce Malmuth

Cast:  Sylvester Stallone, Rutger Hauer, Billy Dee Williams, Joe Spinell


Most of the time a films production problems are completely transparent to the audience. A film will arrive to theaters, people will embrace it and make it a blockbuster; but how the film got there, and all the troubles it went through to get made are sometimes never known to the audience. This was the case for me with Nighthawks, a film I have liked ever since I first saw it many years ago as a kid. I wasn’t aware it had gone through a couple of problems on its way to the silver screen. It was one of the first films I saw with a truly evil and memorable villain, Rutger Hauers performance as Wolfgar is one that I have never forgotten, it made an impression on my young mind. What problems did this film face? Well, for one, the films orginal director was to be Gary Nelson, the director behind The Black Hole (1979) and Allan Quartermain and The Lost City of Gold (1986), looking back at his filmology makes me happy that Gary Nelson didn’t end up directing Nighhawks. But moving on, the first problem the project faced came when Gary Nelson abandoned the project. He was then replaced him with Bruce Malmuth, a director who had worked with Stallone before. Everything seems to be running smoothly when suddenly, on the first day of filming, Malmuth failed to appear! And this was the day in which the awesome subway chase was to be filmed! What to do? What to do? Here’s what was done:  Stallone himself stepped in to direct the scene! Interestingly enough, that was my favorite scene in the whole movie, such a memorable chase! Thanks to Stallone stepping in to direct the sequence, the production didn’t fall behind schedule. Stallone was already a director himself, having directed Paradise Alley (1978) and Rocky II (1979) before, so I’m sure he would have no problems in directing the scene himself, and even though the  Directors Guild of America has strict rules about having actors directing a film they are starring in, he was given special permission to do it and so the film moved on. But you wouldn’t know any of these problems from watching the movie because the end result was such a solid film.

 Nighthawks tells the story of Deke DaSilva and Matthew Fox two street cops that work the night beat. Their job? To stop crime by working undercover, in disguise. And they are pretty good at what they do! But things change when their military backgrounds get them chosen for a special task force that is being trained to stop an international terrorist known as Wolfgar. You see, Wolfgar is the kind of terrorist that works doing other terrorist dirty work. And like Deke and Matthew, he is the best at what he does! Unfortunately, when the police in England get too close for comfort, he moves his operations to New York City where he is looking to establish himself as the best damn terrorist in town. Good enough to play with the big guys. This is a terrorist looking to prove himself as the best. And as the tagline for the film says “One man can bring the world down to its knees, and one man can stop him”. And that man is Deke Da Silva!

"You talking to me? That's what I thought!" 

 As I was watching the film, I got this feeling like I was watching The French Connection (1971) for some reason. I guess it had something to do with the films grimy look and feel; it’s not every film that can capture this grimy 'New York in the 70’s' feeling as effectively as The French Connection did. Nighthawks starts out with a sequence in which Stallone chases a criminal up the steps of a subway station, echoing a similar scene from The French Connection.  So you can imagine my surprise when I discovered that Nighthawks actually started out as The French Connection III! That film was supposed to have Gene Hackman returning to his iconic Popeye Doyle character, and this time around he was supposed to have a wise cracking partner, who was going to be played by none other than Richard Pryor himself. But when Gene Hackman didn’t return to play Popeye Doyle for a third time at 20th Century Fox, Universal Studios acquired the rights to the story and turned it into the film we now know as Nighthawks; a film that Sylvester got into as a way to get away from his Rocky character. He didn’t want to be type cast, so he was trying to play roles that were drastically different to Rocky, and that is the reason why on this film Stallone plays a cop with a beard and long hear as opposed to Rocky’s clean cut look. Stallone’s got a “hip” look on this movie, long hair, glasses, scarfs, jackets. He was looking all sorts of cool.

 Nighthawks is also special because it was Rutger Hauer’s first American film. In the opening sequences of the film he sports a beard, same as Stallone’s character does. I guess the idea was that Hauer and Stallone’s characters mirror each other. As Wolfgar points out to Deke at one point, they aren’t so different from each other, a theme that pops up through out the entire film. This mirror image idea between the hero and the villain carries itself even onto the films poster which is composed half of Stallone’s face and half of Hauer’s face. Speaking of Rutger Hauer’s performance on this film, it’s nothing short of awesome. As is to be expected from a Hauer villain, he exudes evil. I guess he was destined to play memorable characters from the get go. What makes this film special is that this is where Hauer’s long streak of memorable villains started.

"You people are never prepared, there is no security"

 Instead of Richard Pryor playing the comedy sidekick, we get Billy Dee William’s playing Matthew Fox, Deke’s partner. Matthew and Deke do sort of have a comedic back and forth between them, but it’s nothing overtly comical. They simply act as two buddy cops, I’m sure Matthew Fox would have turned out to be a completely different kind of character had Richard Pryor played it, certainly a bit more inclined towards the funny side of things. But not here, Nighthawks is a deadly serious film, the kind of movie that could have come out of the late 70’s early 80’s, where people where angrier and their anger bled into their art. Crime was certainly something that was annoying people to the max, it’s something that’s portrayed in films from this era as being a real problem. The Deathwish films are a good example of this. On Nighthawks we have Deke and Matthew dismantle a drug lab and save a woman from being raped in the first fifteen minutes of film! There is one scene in which Billy Dee Williams gets his moment to shine, where he finds these kids running a drug lab and he smacks the drug dealers around and tells them “I should kill you motherfucker! For all the lives you’re taking away with this shit!” He looks like he was going to do it too had Deke not stopped him! My only gripe with the film is that at one point they drop Matthew Fox and suddenly it’s all about Deke while Matthew is on the sidelines. It would have been cool to have them be together all through out the film, but it’s a minor hiccup in an otherwise great film. So we get a solid cast here, I mean Stallone, Hauer, Billy Dee Williams and we even get Joe Spinnell whom some of you might recognize from Maniac (1980) as the Police Lieutenant that screams and barks  orders at Deke and Matthew. So rest assured, we get a solid cast here.

 Some last words on the film: it has some great action sequences! Actually, I see this movie as going from one awesome sequence to the next. We get some cool street cop action when were introduced to Deke and Matthews every day job stopping crime on the streets, then were introduced to Hauer’s terrorist escapades in England, then we get to see him carry his terrorist work to New York City, and here’s the cool thing about this movie: it was shot entirely on location; something that adds to the realism of the film. The streets of  New York look just as grimy as they really were back in those days, nothing tops realism and shooting on location. This film was shot in 174th Street, in the Bronx, in Queens, in Manhattan and the actual Roosevelt Island Tram System  Hell, if were going to get down to it, the film also shot scenes in England and France! So we got a film that’s infused with lots of realism to it simply because of the choice to shoot in the actual places the story takes place in. For example, there are a couple of awesome action sequences that take place in New York Subway System, wow, that whole sequence is fantastic! Deke and Matthew chase Hauer all through the subway, then the sequence carries on into a train! The whole sequence is very kinetic, very action packed. What makes these scenes special is that they where shot in an actual New York Subway with actual trains that were decommissioned, but look awesome. If you look carefully, you will notice the train they used for these sequences was so old that it had ceiling fans in it! The films most memorable sequence takes place aboard the Roosevelt Island Tram, when Wolfgar takes everyone in it as hostage! Stallone did his own stunts on those scenes where he was lowered from the Tram into a boat! Stallone was really gung-ho about doing his own stunts on this film, again showing us that the filmmakers were going for lots of realism with this film.

 So what we got here my friends is a gritty as hell cop flick with lots of realism infused into it and a solid, solid cast. I mean, this film is terribly underrated. It’s not a complex or “deep” film, but it’s a solid thriller with an extremely memorable villain. Sadly, audiences at the time didn’t accept Stallone in other roles that weren’t Rocky Balboa, which is why quickly after this one “bombed” at the box office, Stallone went straight for the safe move and did Rocky III (1982). I say “bombed” because even thought the film made its money back (it was only made with a mere 5 million dollars if you can believe it!) it still didn’t make as much money as the studio expected. Stallone himself has said that this film was ahead of its time, and that audiences weren’t really ready for it. To top things off, the studio itself didn’t believe in the film. The film has found its audience in thanks to the home video market, I consider it one of Stallone’s best films and certainly one of his most underrated ones, so if you haven’t seen it I’d recommend checking it out for a night of solid action and thrills with an extremely satisfying ending.

Rating: 4 out of 5  



Mr. Fiendish said...

This movie rules. That is all.

Franco Macabro said...

Thanks for your comment. Brief and to the point!

Professor Brian O'Blivion said...

Great review! Nighthawks has been favorite for a long time.

Franco Macabro said...

Thanks Professor, it's a great one, criminally underrated in my book.

Unknown said...

I also consider it one of Stallone's best films and probably my fave of his. Sure, it feels a bit like a FRENCH CONNECTION wannabe but it still entertaining as hell and features such a fantastically creepy performance by Rutger Hauer playing a very Carlos the Jackal-esque baddie. He really sells the ruthlessness of his character as you feel that he would kill anyone who got in his way. More than a match for Stallone and Williams' cops. Hauer had some interesting things to say about the film and working with Stallone in his autobiography/memoirs, finding him very competitive and even recounting a pretty funny story about their chase sequence and how he outran Stallone on every take, much to his chagrin... heh!

I really dig this film as well and agree with all the points you made in your fine review. Shame it didn't do well when it first came out but the film certainly has its admirers and a dedicated cult following.

Franco Macabro said...

I read about Hauer's comments, they had told him that Stallone practiced by running up and down the subway stairs every day, then when the day of shooting came, Hauer outran Stallone every time.

I read somewhere that Wolfgar was actually based on the international terrorist Carlos The Jackal, so your comment makes a lot of sense.

Thanks for commenting J.D.

Shaun Anderson [The Celluloid Highway] said...

This is a good film, and it is entirely down to the presence of Rutger Hauer. I believe this was his first American film, and he owns it. His excellent performance highlights Stallone's hulking imbecility. It has also has a neat Keith Emerson soundtrack, who was fresh off doing INFERNO for that Italian has-been director..I've forgotten his name.

Franco Macabro said...

Italian has been director, let me look that up in my "HAS BEEN DIRECTOR'S DICTIONARY" Oh yes, here he is, Dario Argento.

But seriously, about the soundtrack, it was so seventies, I loved it.

It also has a cool sequence in which Stallone and Billy Dee walk into a disco looking for Wolfgar, the sequence is so freaking 70's early 80's it aint even funny. The music, the clothes, the lights.

Those sequences really captured the night life of those days in New York. I love it when a film can turn into a time capsule that way.

Thanks for commenting Shaun!

venoms5 said...

Haven't seen this one in a long time, but did have it on my DVR recently to see if it had any of the violence put back in that was cut out of it--it didn't. For whatever reason, scenes from this one ended up in that horror themed film clip movie hosted by Nancy Allen and Donald Pleasence called TERROR IN THE AISLES--they even show the ending if I remember correctly.

I am curious to see it again now, from start to finish.

Franco Macabro said...

I didnt know violent scenes where edited out, though thats a common practive in hollywood. Some films are famous for having various versions floating around with or without extra seconds of violence. Thanks for the info Venom!

Greg Stuart Smith said...

I think this flick is a very solid contribution to all the great films that were being made in New York during the 70's and early 80's. The best part of the film is its natural, gritty look, and as you touched on so well, its extensive use of actual locations. The locations are so realistic, it just gives the frame such authenticity. The production design work is fantastic, too, as are the various costumes. I agree that Stallone has never looked cooler; Bill D. Williams, too. I found myself wanting to go out on the job with those guys. Nice touch giving Stallone glasses, I thought.

And how great about Stallone stepping in to direct the subway chase, too! I have a one sheet on my computer that uses a wide shot from the subway chase that I love! I think it is better than the Stallone/Hauer split-face one, though the latter is more classic. I also agree that I would have liked Williams to be more apart of the endgame, which also felt a bit rushed and a tad contrived, I thought. I suppose you haven't brought up the end, so I stop here; I would hate to ruin it for other readers, and it's a minor gripe, because everyone should check out this film!

Another great, unsung gem out of this era that uses New York 70's grime to perfection, is THE SEVEN UPS, if you haven't seen it. This being the 70's they were able to talk the City into letting them shoot a car chase sequence through the center of Manhattan during the day, no less! And it's one hell of a car chase, easily as good as anything ever put on film, staged and orchestrated by the late, great Bill Hickman, the greatest stunt coordinator and drive to ever walk the face of the earth! Go see it!

Oh, and nice job by the way.

And I'm going to feel like a real ass if you've already reviewed THE SVEN UPS, by the way!

Franco Macabro said...

@Greg Stuart Smith: Yeah I didnt get into the ending of the film, because it's one of the best parts about it and I didnt want to spoil it.

But I liked that sequence in the bus, that was pretty cool. As I mentioned on the review, this movie just goes from one cool scene to the next, it never stops.

I havent seen the Seven Up's Greg, in fact I hadnt even heard of it! But I will be looking it up, thanks for the suggestion! I love grimmy cop movies from the seventies! A couple of years ago I saw Superfly and loved the hell out of that one, it doesnt get grimmier than Superfly!

Thanks for commenting!

Jack Thursby said...

If you love French Connection you'll like Seven-Ups - it feels a lot like a Cloudy spin-off in a lot of ways. Roy Scheider's the lead, Philip D'Antoni produces (and directs) and there's another awesomely tense car chase.

Anyway, back to Nighthawks. Love the vibe of this film. Good write-up. Can't help but think of what Stallone's career would have been like if he kept on doing thrillers like this rather than action films.

If you get the chance, check out a review I did a while back.

Franco Macabro said...

I've got Seven-Ups on my must watch list, expect a review soon! I will be heading over to your blog and checkint out your review, I've always loved Nighthawks, re-watching it recently reminded me why I loved it so much.

Thanks for commenting and welcome to the blog!

B said...

Was denzel washington an extra in this movie? Billy Dee goes to the hospital...look who's pushing the gurney.


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