NIGHTHAWKS takes place in a delicate time in which Sylvester Stallone was still just an actor. While he was on the other side of the first two ROCKYs and certainly a known guy, Rambo and iconic action stardom was still in his future. 1981’s NIGHTHAWKS gives us a brief glimpse of Stallone as just a ‘70s New York player. He even looks like Serpico. And while I truly adore FIRST BLOOD, this probably Stallone’s last big bit of ego-free acting until 1997’s COP LAND.
As such, it’s not all about Stallone here. NIGHTHAWKS also counts as Forgotten Billy Dee Williams or Forgotten Rutger Hauer or Forgotten Joe Spinell or Forgotten Films That Wanted To Be THE FRENCH CONNECTION. I’m not sure it’s totally accurate to call it “Forgotten” but it’s not considered a classic, which feels almost criminal.
On the other hand, as the film progresses, it does focus more on Stallone’s Deke DaSilva. In fact, my main complaint of the film is that it isn’t as much a two-hander between Stallone and Williams as I’d want. But you can’t have everything, and there is still so much here to love.
Let’s start with Hauer as Wulfgar, a terrorist who comes to America to re-establish himself as a threat after getting into hot water with his crew in Europe. He’s a curious guy. Totally ruthless, yes, but also the kind of person who’ll play acoustic guitar at house parties. The film utilizes a genius conceit requiring him to get plastic surgery so he looks like Rutger Hauer, or has he puts it, “I want you to make me beautiful.” Pre-1981 plastic surgery by gunpoint, he looks a lot like Richard Harris. Post-1981 plastic surgery by gunpoint, you have this classic Adonis. I wish it were that easy.
Deke and Williams’ Fox have their own little thing going on where they dress up and bait criminals to pull some shit. Famously, this film begins and ends with Stallone dressed as a woman. I know this gets a lot of laughs, but I kind of love it.
They’re pulled off this detail to instead take classes that will train them against the at-large Wulfgar. Deke is not happy with this shit. He doesn’t want to do any learning, and he doesn’t want to shoot Wulfgar in public where he might wing a bystander. He did a ton of killing in the war, and he's all done with it.
In his beard and dad glasses, there is something uneasy about Stallone in NIGHTHAWKS. He has a nerdy stubbornness that makes him slightly south of cool. The big question: “Will Deke take a dangerous shot when the times comes?” is answered definitively. No, he won’t. He gets his chance and his failure to do so leads to Fox getting his face slashed and a hostage losing her life much later. It’s unclear how we’re supposed to feel about his reticence. Is it noble or cowardly? The film doesn’t give us an easy answer; at no point in the moment are we made privy to a clean shot Deke could have taken.
Hauer plays this absolutely evil terrorist at a very vulnerable point in terms of support. He basically has to couch surf with women he seduces at night clubs. This all helps the movie make more sense as Deke and Fox find him almost as soon as they start looking. But Hauer is a squirrelly guy and keeps slipping away no matter how high the odds are stacked against him. It has the curious effect of making you root for him somewhat. His main downfall is trying to make things personal with Stallone by taking out his girlfriend. That’s not his girlfriend, you dummy, that’s Stallone in a wig. Hauer’s body barely hits the ground before the end credits roll. God, I miss when movies ended like this.
Beyond the Stallone of it all, there is so much to enjoy with NIGHTHAWKS. Billy Dee Williams is a delight. He never gets a chance to say “motherfucker” in STAR WARS, but he sure says the hell out of it here and sounds great. And really, any film that features Joe Spinell is a gift. We didn’t get that many. Here he’s cleaned up, giving us his take on the classic pissed off chief trope. The film also has some great understated violence. For the most part, Hauer puts little uzi bursts into people without any blood or fanfare. It’s not explosive but nevertheless seems super cold and mean. He executes a lady during his aerial tram siege just to anger Deke. When we watch her dead body fall into the river below there is something sickening about it.
I doubt Stallone would agree, but it’s a shame he didn’t make more movies like this before becoming a 1% body fat superman. On the rare occasion when he has to act, he is great at it. His sad eyes and strange voice give him a vulnerability he spent most of his career trying to overcome rather than embrace, and I think we lost a lot of good roles as a result. On the other hand, those classic Stallone films are also pretty great, and you can always rewatch ROCKY, NIGHTHAWKS, PARADISE ALLEY and his greatest role ever, Machine Gun Joe in DEATH RACE 2000.