The classic 1981 thriller Nighthawks united ‘Rocky Balboa’, ‘Roy Batty’, ‘Lando Calrissian’ and the Bionic Woman in its tale of terrorism…
While he’ll always be best known as Rocky and Rambo ( and its great to see him getting the respect and awards for his dramatic turn as the older Mr Balboa in Creed) too often critics seem to act as if those two iconic roles are all Sylvester Stallone will ever be remembered for. In the course of an epic career he’s also delivered a number of very under-rated turns in films that for various reasons just didn’t get thebox-office or attention they deserved at the time. Some films simply slipped through the cracks or took their time to get the recognition. Nighthawks is one such title and it will shortly be given a long overdue Blu-ray release from our old friends at Shout Factory.
A bearded Stallone plays the wonderfully named Deke DaSilva, a tough NYPD detective struggling to maintain his personal and professional life. He’s estranged from his wife (the Bionic Woman herself, Lindsay Wagner), while he and his partner Fox (played by Billy Dee Williams – aka the Star Wars saga’s Lando Calrissian) battle rising crime and butt heads with their Captain (Maniac‘s Joe Spinelli). But the sudden arrival in New York of the rogue international terrorist Wulfgar (Blade Runner / The Hitcher / Ladyhawke‘s Rutger Hauer) sees battle lines drawn across the city and a deadly game played out on the mean streets of Manhattan.
Stallone had already found great success with Rocky and Rocky 2, but at the time of shooting and the release of this movie, nothing outside of the Rocky movies had struck a chord with audiences. Paradise Alley and FIST have since found acclaim with die-hard fans, but neither film had been the success Stallone had hoped for. Stallone gives a solid turn… not the flashiest performance but a good turn that for some reason was largely ignored by critic and audiences at the time, who seemed to only want to see Stallone as a boxer. It wasn’t until the following year when he played John Rambo for the first time in First Blood, that he really made a mark outside of the square ring. It’s also interesting to note that this could be looked at as the last time, before CopLand in 1997 where he plays a ‘normal’ person: he’s a cop, not a ‘Super Cop’, we don’t see his physique or see him training in a gym.
Rutger Hauer was at the top of his acting game in Europe when this film came out. He plays a charming bad guy, as sick and twisted as he is handsome and who is more than willing to flirt with a shop clerk at Arding & Hobs in Clapham Junction as cover for setting up a bomb attack… and to sacrifice anyone who gets in his way. Despite this scene being shot in UK, the perfume clerk is played by non-other than Catherine Mary-Stewart best known for The Last Starfighter and Night of the Comet). This was his first international movie, but it was the following year’s Blade Runner and his role as replicant Roy Batty that really made Hauer’s mark on the wider international market.
Billy Dee Williams gets an under-written turn as Stallone’s partner… who you know is gonna get hurt at some point. His character is shown to be a loose cannon and there’s an underlying racial tension between his character and many of the other cops, one that feels like an unexplored sub plot. Veteran UK actor Nigel Davenport gets to wear his stiff upper lip as the anti-terrorist specialist who is trying to bring Hauer to justice and push Stallone and his team to terminate with extreme prejudice if needs be – there’s no ‘let’s treat the bad guys with kid gloves‘ in this movie! Of course once a bond forms between Davenport and Stallone, you know his time s running out as well. The supporting cast acquit themselves: Lindsay Wagner as DaSilva’s long suffering estranged wife just wants him to get off the streets. (Yes, it’s a cliched role but handled nicely). The late Persis Khambatta – best known as the bald headed Ilya in Star Trek: The Motion Picture – plays the sadistic sidekick of Hauer’s character and Maniac‘s Joe Spinelli is fine as a Captain struggling to bring the rogue cop into line.
The project actually began life as a possibe French Connection 3, and would have seen Gene Hackman’s Popeye Doyle teaming up with a wisecracking cop intended to be played by Richard Pryor. However, when Hackman expressed no interest in returning, the idea was scrapped and Universal Studios acquired the rights to the storyline, which screenwriter David Shaber then reworked into Nighthawks – with the terrorist Carlos the Jackal being a very obvious mould for the Wulfgar character.
Pre-production began in 1979 and shooting took place from January to April 1980, with the films original director being Gary Nelson (The Black Hole and Freaky Friday). But he left the project after a week of shooting and was replaced by new director Bruce Malmuth (who would later helm Steven Seagal’s Hard to Kill), with Stallone himself directing one sequence only to be penalised by the DGA (Directors Guild of America) for violating their rules. There was drama elsewhere. Rutger Hauer who suffered a number of personal losses during the shoot including the passing of his mother and best friend, as well as injuries incurred during the finale and an awkward working relationship with Stallone. The film also had to weather the storm of both studio interference and Stallone’s tinkering with the script and the film’s post-production.
Although Stallone has spoken at various times of how strong a performance Hauer gave – and that perhaps at the time, the United States didn’t respond or relate to a movie about terrorism at home – now, with the changes in the world, people might respond differently. Hauer has always said that he felt the film missed the opportunity and that the original script was more dangerous… and that the finished film was a very toned-down affair.
Before its theatrical release, the film was severely edited for what was considered excessive violence, with several scenes including the club shoot-out (which saw Wulfgar shooting and killing more people in the night-club) and Wulfgar’s death scene being much more graphic. Legendary SFX maestro Dick Smith built an animatronic cast of Hauer’s head for the finale which would have seen Wulfgar be shot multiple times including a final head shot as opposed to what we see in the release version. Reportedly the film clocked in at close to two and half hours and a lot of scenes (such as those that fleshed out the relationships between Stallone and Wagner, Stallone and Williams as well as Rutger Hauer and his sadistic sidekick Persis Khambatta) were cut back because Universal wanted a faster paced ‘action’ thriller. There are also some reports that Stallone felt he was overshadowed by Hauer’s performance and that when two versions of the film were screened to test audiences (one that had more emphasis on Stallone and one with more on Hauer),that the Hauer version was better received. The allegation was that Stallone had Hauer’s performance cut back, something which is discussed in the book Stallone: A Rocky Life.
In a Q&A session with www.aintitcoolnews.com, Stallone noted that Nighthawks “...was a very difficult film to make namely because no one believed that urban terrorism would ever happen in New York thus felt the story was far fetched. Nighthawks was an even better film before the studio lost faith in it and cut it to pieces. What was in the missing scenes was extraordinary acting by Rutger Hauer, Lindsay Wagner, and the finale was a blood fest that rivaled the finale of Taxi Driver. But it was a blood fest with a purpose”
While he was disappointed with the way Universal re-edited the film (despite the fact that he did his own share of re-editing on the film prior to studio’s interference), Stallone was really upset because of the removal of his dramatic scenes with Lindsay Wagner, including an emotional scene between him and Wagner in a restaurant (only mentioned in the final version of the film) where his character breaks down and cries after his wife refuses to remarry him.
Lindsay Wagner said in an interview that because of problems during production, Stallone took over the film. Wagner was quoted about Nighthawks and working with Stallone: “He was really incredible. That film – I mean, history has shown that he’s so talented in so many different ways. He had made Rocky obviously before that. But, it was just incredible. They had some difficulties. Whatever they were, I wasn’t privy to the inside information about it. We started with one director, and all of the sudden there was some problems, and Sylvester ended up having to take over the film and he ended up directing it. So, just spontaneously, he just jumped into that role, and after [that] directed [it]. And, it was incredible watching him and his multi-talented self whip that film into shape. It was quite educational in some ways. But, just kind of awe inspiring watching him work on so many levels at one time.That’s not easy. Not many actors can do that.“
Interestingly, the US and international lobby-cards and promotional stills for the movie, show a number of deleted scenes including:
Aftermath of London bombing scene with victims lying on ground (this was one of the scenes which were cut because of the violence and gore)
DaSilva and Fox on another drug bust
A couple of deleted scenes between Deke and Irene including a scene during a party at her house
Deke and Irene talking in her bedroom (possibly part of a love scene between them which was cut out)
A love scene between Wulfgar and Shakka
A longer version of the scene at the Metropolitan Museum of Art
Deke talking with the French ambassador- whose wife was killed by Wulfgar on the tram car
Extended finale with Deke and Irene holding each other on the stairs inside her house after he killed Wulfgar.
The trailer also shows three extended scenes; Wulfgar looking at city map in subway while being observed by street co;, Wulfgar slowly moving towards the building which he is about to blow up; Deke and Matt walking across the street while searching for Wulfgar in disco bars.
The film features some very impressive stunt work coordinated by the late great Dar Robinson, with Stallone performing many of his own stunts (including the scene where he is winched up to and hangs from the cable car). In the same Q&A session on Harry Knowles www.aintitcoolnews.com , Stallone recalled the experience: “Hanging from the cable car… Gerber knife in my left hand so if the cable were to snap, and I survived the 230 foot fall into the East River with its ice cold 8 mile an hour current, I could cut myself free from the harness because the cable when stretched out weighed more than 300 lbs. I tell you this because it’s so stupid to believe that I would survive hitting the water so to go beyond that is absurd. So I actually thought the smart move would be to commit hari-kari on the way down and let the cards fold as they may.”
The film originally received mixed reviews and although it grossed more than four times its budget, the film wasn’t considered to be a great success. What’s interesting and also a little scary, is how relevant the film still seems and how easy it would be to update it or do a modern day remake.
Shout Factory will release Nighthawks on Blu-ray on 3rd May.