Nighthawks (Bruce Malmuth, 1981)

by Douglas Buck April 1, 2022 3 minutes (634 words) Bluray

A tough undercover Lieutenant (Sylvester Stallone, looking ultra-cool in his shades and beard) and his equally street savvy partner (Billy Dee Williams) are reluctantly thrust onto a newly formed international terrorism detail in which they go after an evil international terrorist (Rutger Hauer) who has settled into NYC to blow some shit up.

Film two of what turned out to be a reactionary 80’s crimewave double bill, with the Michael Mann-produced Band of the Hand leading the way, Nighthawks is the better quality of the two, having been made in the early part of the decade and still carrying a lot of the style and grit of 70’s cinema. Sly looks great and all sexy with his long mane of hair (I mean, the camera absolutely loves the guy) and Hauer manages an extraordinarily creepy and convincing performance out of a role that, as written, has absolutely no shadings (playing a terrorist with no ideology other than a desire for nihilism and chaos — the exact opposite, in fact, of the way it REALLY is — I mean one thing you can grant your average terrorist is they’re usually coming at their position from, to put it mildly, a pretty, pretty strong ideological viewpoint, which is what allows them to sacrifice their lives in the first place — though, of course, stripping them of that and presenting them as simple psychopathic villains — whether through the media or mainstream entertainment — makes it that much easier to convince us to turn over our hard earned tax dollars to that massive monetarily-driven cash cow known as the military/weapons industry).

The seedy New York street settings are nicely captured and the set-pieces are gripping, with that effective sense of brutality that 80’s action cinema often had (man, those international villains were bloodthirsty). And you can see it’s actually Stallone doing some of those remarkable stunts (including being wenched up to the hijacked Roosevelt Island Tram hundreds of feet above the icy East River).

Word is it was a particularly troubled shoot, with the first director quickly getting fired and editing going on for many months, and that may explain some of the odd quirks in the film; such as Stallone’s unconvincing dressing up in drag to apprehend bad guys in both the beginning (where, even on the shadowy street, it’s entirely apparent it’s a guy in a dress and some kind of failed Planet of the Ape mask) and the end — SPOILER ALERT — where anyone who doesn’t notice those are the broad shoulders and muscular arms of a guy under that dress and blonde wig is just not paying attention. There’s also the interesting philosophical idea, introduced early in the film, with Stallone’s cop adamantly arguing with the more cold-hearted terrorist training crew that, as a policeman, he refuses to kill anyone except in self-defence… yet oddly (considering with the attention to which it is introduced)… the idea –- one that could have been a fascinating thematic underpinning to dramatically play with — is raised and just as quickly dropped with little pay-off or further attention.

Romancing the Bionic Woman, Lindsay Wagner

It’s fascinating listening to one of the original Nighthawks writers describe how he was originally hired by studio head Mike Medavoy (considered to be one of the more thoughtful studio CEOs of that time) to make a film about terrorism that echoed the events of the headlining bloody Israeli Raid on Entebbe against Palestinian hijackers, only to experience, during the development process, a mass studio upheaval, that lead to the new execs abjectly dismissing his attempts at a daringly complex political narrative; so, instead of a film that looks provocatively and thoughtfully at both sides, the tale morphed into the star-driven right wing propaganda vehicle it ended up becoming.

Engaging and well-made propaganda, though.

Nighthawks (Bruce Malmuth, 1981)

Douglas Buck. Filmmaker. Full-time cinephile. Part-time electrical engineer. You can also follow Buck on “Buck a Review,” his film column of smart, snappy, at times irreverent reviews.

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