In terms of sheer steel-jawed force, a showdown between Sylvester Stallone and Rutger Hauer is almost impossible to match. In his American feature debut, Hauer brings his usual icy intensity to Wulfgar, a nonspecific Eurotrash take on real life terrorist Carlos the Jackal (on which David Shaber’s original script was loosely based – back when it was supposed to be The French Connection III*). Stallone, on the other hand, leans more toward Johnny Kovak than Rocky Balboa as Sergeant Deke DaSilva, the NYC Detective who is recruited into an ATAC (Anti-Terrorist Action Command) in order to hunt down the ruthless intercontinental renegade. The Big Apple subsequently becomes a massive concourse, as the two stealthily maneuver around one another, DaSilva hesitant to pull the trigger as Wulfgar mercilessly mows down innocent civilians.
Stripped to its unembellished thriller essentials (mostly due to post-production interference by both Universal and Stallone), Nighthawks doesn’t have much in terms of plot, coasting from set piece to set piece like The Untouchables modified for the Cold War era. Replacement director Bruce Malmuth (stepping in for a fired Gary Nelson) seems more comfortable painting grime capsule portraits of NYC with cinematographer James A. Contner (who would eventually bathe in pastels and Florida sunshine filming episodes of Michael Mann’s landmark TV series, Miami Vice). The action is sufficiently staged, with a few bravura flashes of suspense, as the extremist hijacks a cable car, shooting women and threatening to toss babies into the Hudson. You can feels the BTS meddling in nearly every frame, as the jangly handheld camerawork is strung together via barely sketched A + B = C narrative editing. It’s undoubtedly a mess, but one that’s certainly fun to revel in.
Perhaps the most frustrating element is Wulfgar’s complete lack of discernible motive, outside of being presented as a stock revolutionary maniac with bombs to spare. Yet this dearth of character development is more than made up for by another bit of off-camera drama that bleeds into the actual text of the picture. Stallone and Hauer reportedly hated each other, as the newly minted American icon seemed intent on pushing his rookie co-star’s buttons from the first day of shooting. While filming the bloody climax, a cable that yanked the Dutch actor backward (in order to simulate getting shot by a large caliber round) strained his back, while the squib burned his shoulder. Upon learning that Stallone ordered the stunt crew to apply such force without his knowledge or consent, Hauer confronted the Italian Stallion, threatening to “break his balls” if he ever did such a thing again. The rest of the shoot was marked by multiple arguments between the two, creating a palpable tension that can be felt onscreen. Every time Wulfgar lays his eyes on DaSilva, you can feel Hauer’s red hot hate for the film’s hero, as he justifiably wanted to kill Stallone.
Surrounding the feuding front men is a cast of character actors that are as lumpy as they are remarkable. Billy Dee Williams oozes his usual superhuman charm as DaSilva’s partner, Matthew Fox (a role originally intended for Richard Pryor). Maniac icon Joe Spinell brings a “fuggedaboutit” NYC authenticity to the otherwise thankless role of barking watchdog, Lieutenant Munafo. Nigel Davenport gets to school Stallone and Williams in the ways of overseas brutality as ATAC leader, Peter Hartman. Sadly given the short end of the stick due to re-edits (through which many of her scenes ended up on the cutting room floor), Bionic Woman Lindsay Wagner is never really afforded an opportunity to generate genuine chemistry with Stallone as DaSilva’s estranged wife, Irene. Yet while some of the movie’s plot points are notably ridiculous (especially the intro, in which DaSilva poses as a little old lady in order to foil a mugger), the performers are all incredibly committed to this world and its chancy story, allowing us to fully invest and become immersed in its danger.
Nevertheless, Nighthawks is most memorable for being a rather novel entry into the "NYC as a battleground" mode of filmmaking; a style so prevalent during the '70s and early '80s that it practically became a genre unto itself. Only where filmmakers like Walter Hill, Bill Lustig and John Flynn -- whose The Warriors, Vigilante and Defiance are all touchstones -- focused on the homegrown threat of street gangs, Malmuth and Stallone present the urban Hellscape as an arena that could be invaded by nefarious elements hailing from beyond its borders. In a pre-9/11 world, the idea of NYC being attacked was unfathomable, to the point that Stallone has often credited the terrorism plot as being the reason why Universal never believed in the project and ultimately ended up butchering it in the editing bay (the original cut of the movie reportedly ran two-and-a-half hours and was much, much bloodier**). Still – the final theatrical cut is often a thrilling, bizarre reminder of a city that once was, and how it could never sleep due to threats both domestic and foreign.
*The script was altered after Gene Hackman balked at reprising the role of Popeye Doyle for a third time, despite starring in John Frankenheimer’s superlative sequel.
**Though an MPAA crackdown on screen violence is the main culprit for the movie’s neutering.