Updated: Nov 20, 2022
Opening Weekend USA: $2,525,360, 12 April 1981
Gross USA: $14,905,359
Cumulative Worldwide Gross: $19,905,359
Directors: Bruce Malmuth, Gary Nelson (uncredited)
Writers: David Shaber (screenplay by), David Shaber (story by)
Stars: Sylvester Stallone, Rutger Hauer, Billy Dee Williams
When you think of Sylvester Stallone, films like Rocky, Rambo, Cobra, Demolition Man and Tango& Cash come to mind. There is no doubt that these films solidified Sly Stallone's status as one of the greatest action heroes of all time. In spite of all this, there are a few films in Stallone’s repertoire that have unfortunately flown under the radar. Nighthawks is one of those underappreciated Stallone films that deserves a lot more appreciation.
Nighthawks is a 1981 action thriller feature film that was directed by Bruce Malmuth and starred Sylvester Stallone, Billy Dee Williams, Lindsay Wagner, Persis Khambatta, Nigel Davenport and Rutger Hauer.
The film is set up around the lives of two NYPD police detectives, Det. Sgt. Deke DaSilva (Sylvester Stallone) and Det. Sgt. Matthew Fox (Billy Dee Williams) who get transferred to an elite anti-terrorism squad. This anti-terrorism squad is set up and dedicated in tracking down an infamous international terrorist; Heymar Reinhardt (Rutger Hauer), who is holding New York in a grip of fear.
As I was preparing to write my review, I decided to read up on the history of the film.
To my surprise, the history behind Nighthawks is just as compelling as the film itself.
The story was originally planned as The French Connection III by screenwriter David Shaber , with Gene Hackman's iconic character Popeye Doyle teaming up with a wisecracking cop (possibly played by Richard Pryor). When Hackman was reluctant to make a third film as Doyle, the idea was scrapped; Universal acquired the rights to the storyline, which Shaber reworked into Nighthawks.
The films original director Gary Nelson was dismissed from the project after a week of production and was not credited. His replacement, Bruce Malmuth was unable to make it on the first day of shooting after Nelson's removal, resulting in Stallone sitting in the director’s chair for one day.
The film also marked the American debut of the late, great Dutch actor Rutger Hauer. Hauer was not only injured multiple times on set, but his mother and his best friend died during the film's production.
The film also suffered from studio interference, and Nighthawks was heavily edited before its release. Stallone mentions this in a post that he did for Ain't It Cool News website that Nighthawks "was a very difficult film to make namely because no one believed that urban terrorism would ever happen in New York, and thus felt that the story was far fetched. Nighthawks was an even better film before the studio lost faith in it and cut it to pieces. What was in the missing scenes was extraordinary acting by Rutger Hauer, Lindsay Wagner, and the finale was a blood fest that rivaled the finale of Taxi Driver. But it was a blood fest with a purpose".
In my opinion, despite problems in production, the final film is a great cat-and-mouse movie that was ahead of its time. The film dealt with issues (urban terrorism) that movie audiences couldn’t relate to at the time. If Nighthawks would have been released about a decade later, Stallone would have had another film franchise under his belt.
Nighthawks is held together by a solid script and an amazing performance by Rutger Hauer. Hauer literally steals the show and every scene that he is in. Arguably he is one of the best villains that Stallone has ever had to face on film. Stallone is no slouch either, Nighthawks offers one those rare occasions where Stallone is given an opportunity to act, and he is great here. Nighthawks was made right before Rocky III and Rambo, so at the time many saw him as a Brando-like method actor rather than an action hero. It was refreshing to see Stallone taking his art seriously and playing a character that is so far removed from the archetypal hard-ass action hero that he would become synonymous for.
Besides strong performances from the films leads. The film boasts two intense action sequences - one where a group of people are held hostage inside a cable car and an exciting foot chase inside the New York subway.
What really sets this film apart from your standard cop drama is that Nighthawks details the psychological aspect of police work by showing the many dead-ends that investigators must go through before they are finally able to catch a break. I thought that is it added a sense of urgency and realism to the film.
So, if you like 70’s-80’s gritty cop/ action thrillers like The French Connection or Dirty Harry then look no further then this lost gem of a film called Nighthawks.