Movember Movies: Nighthawks (1981)

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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!

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  • Kasper

    Nighthawks is great. I really love Rutger Hauers psychopathic villain who kills at a whim. Surprised this is the first time you caught it, Sean!

  • UKMark

    Another under rated Stallone movie (like First Blood was at the time, that too didn’t light up the box office), I watch this from time to time, and enjoy it everytime, but to be honest I remember when it originally came out, critics and fans were just banging on about Sly’s moustache and that it didn’t suit him. I still find the reading the rights line to the perp at the beginning very amusing. Grab a copy (not the German Baby Blu as it’s terrible, just the DVD).

  • devolutionary

    Totally agree with Kaspar. Even though he’s (Rutger) nearly unrecognizeable in the film (with his odd choice of disguises), he’s by far the best “actor” of the main characters. I also really enjoyed the simple low-budget deception play to end the film. Caught it on Netflix before it was removed.

    I recall hearing a lot of critical backlash over the brute violence in the film which is obviously tame compared to the 80s action films that would succeed it but it’s nice seeing Sly in a film where he seems more grounded as a street-wise cop. I think the angle w/ his g/f in the film was pretty weak though.

  • Adam D.

    Oh hot damn brother! Now this is why I fucking LOVE Film Junk. Excellent post Sean. I feel suitably ashamed and my film education has been seriously neglected because Nighthawks never showed up on my radar before. Based upon the film’s plot (which by all accounts sounds suitably bad ass) I need to make viewing it a top priority. Hell, the photo on top with “Lando and Rambo” already had me hooked. Great fucking narrator voice over: “52 registered kills, occupation…COP”. I love the grit, the violence and the commitment to rock the ’stache. To bad though man that “Brown Sugar” from the Stones was axed, seeing how it is a killer tune. Just thinking about the subway chase scene “You’re fucking dead, you motherfucker!” threat from Sly brings me tears of happiness. I hope Nighthawks gets discussed in the next podcast at length.

  • This is a winner. I love Nighthawks!

  • bg

    Ive always loved Nighthawks. I think I saw it on Hbo as a youngster. Ill stop down anytime its on and watch a little bit of it. The ending has always stuck with me love it.

  • Derek McFarland

    @bg agreed

  • Great “Dirty New York” movie and one of my longtime favorites. As for the director(s) of this film, Gary Nelson (THE BLACK HOLE) was the original director, but there were creative differences with Stallone, so Nelson was dropped in favor of Malmuth. Stallone shot the subway chase before Malmuth arrived. Nelson shot some of the film, but I’m not sure which of the footage is his.

    Rutger Hauer tells some humorous stories in his memoir about filming this movie and the competitiveness and tension that flared between him and Stallone, though as Hauer tells it, the competition was coming from Stallone, who was miffed that Hauer continually bested him physically and athletically.

    As for buddy cop films (or cop-buddy films), there were ’70s antecedents such as FREEBIE AND THE BEAN (Alan Arkin and James Caan) and BUSTING (Elliott Gould and Robert Blake), the latter directed by Peter Hyams, who would return to the sub-genre with ’86’s RUNNING SCARED.

  • jim

    This is by far my favorite Stallone film. I saw it when it was first released in theaters and i would love to get a copy of the original ending as well. I also uploadd it on my veoh page and it has all the original music as well.