In honour of Billy Dee Williams, who didn’t get much respect in our Movember poll, I decided to take a look at one of the more underrated films in his filmography. Although the man is obviously best known for his role in the Star Wars series, he got his first big opportunity with the football drama Brian’s Song followed by some blaxploitation flicks in the early ’70s, which is where the ‘stache first took shape. In Nighthawks, however, we find him starring in an early ’80s buddy cop film alongside Sylvester Stallone, who has some pretty gnarly facial hair of his own. That’s right, Lando and Rambo together on screen… I think we can all agree that “Lando and Rambo” would have been a much cooler title than Nighthawks.
I think it’s fair to say that Nighthawks is a bit of a forgotten gem. It is also one of those unique films that bridges the gap between the ’70s and ’80s, mixing the feel of Dirty Harry with something like Lethal Weapon. Although some people credit 48 Hrs. as being the first true buddy cop film, this came out a year earlier. Granted, it’s violent and gritty and takes itself pretty seriously, but I don’t think humour is a requirement of the genre. It’s interesting to note that it was originally being developed as The French Connection III with Gene Hackman’s character intended to be paired with a comedic sidekick like Richard Pryor. When Hackman wasn’t interested, the script was sold to a different studio and turned into Nighthawks instead.
Stallone was just coming off of Rocky II and was not yet the massive action star we know today. He was still taking his art somewhat seriously and was also looking to avoid being typecast. With the beard and moustache, he looks a bit like Al Pacino in Serpico, and it makes me wish he had gone back to this look a few more times in his career. Admittedly, he did bring out a moustache for The Expendables 2 recently, but it’s much more delicate and closely trimmed than the manly mane he is sporting here.
Stallone and Williams play two NYC undercover cops named Deke DaSilva and Matthew Fox (yep) who are recruited to take part in an anti-terrorism squad. Their task is to track down an international terrorist named Wulfgar, who is planning an attack somewhere in New York City. As it turns out, Wulfgar is played by none other than Rutger Hauer in his very first American movie, one year before he would appear in Blade Runner. He commands the screen here, portraying a cold and sinister villain as only he can.
There are a few standout scenes, including a tense hostage situation that takes place on the Roosevelt Island Tram. Stallone supposedly did many of his own stunts, including the scene where he is hoisted up to the tram with a cable, which he still counts as one of the most dangerous stunts he has ever performed. There is also a shootout in a disco club set to The Rolling Stones’ “Brown Sugar” and Keith Emerson’s “I’m A Man”; unfortunately, the widescreen DVD release replaces these songs with something else because Universal didn’t want to pay for the licensing rights. At least Keith Emerson’s pulsating synth score remained intact, which is pretty fantastic as well.
The movie is directed by Bruce Malmuth (who would also go on to direct the Steven Seagal vehicle Hard to Kill), but supposedly Stallone had to fill in for him on the first day of production, shooting the subway chase scene. This kind of make sense considering that the scene ends with Stallone screaming at the top of his lungs, “You’re fucking dead, you motherfucker!” over and over again. I’m guessing that another director would have had him dial it back a little, but it’s still a pretty raw and memorable moment.
Arguably, this is Stallone’s movie and Billy Dee Williams sort of fades into the background after a while. However, Williams does get to step up in an early scene where they bust a drug operation and he becomes enraged, almost killing one of the criminals. I guess he is supposed to be the loose cannon of the duo, but they don’t play up that contrast as much some other buddy cop flicks do.
You also can’t talk about Nighthawks without mentioning the fact that DaSilva and Fox have a unique method for catching criminals that involves dressing in drag to bait muggers. This makes for a few surprising twists and some unintentional laughs as well. Clearly Martin Lawrence and his Big Momma’s House series owe a serious debt to this movie as well!
This was my first time watching Nighthawks, and I have to say I’m a bit surprised that it isn’t more widely known. It’s pretty clear that the studio didn’t think highly of it at the time, and Stallone himself has said that they cut it to pieces before releasing it in theatres. However, considering the cast, the performances and the overall grittiness of the film, this is well worth seeking out even after Movember has ended!