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Schultz reviews: 'Night Hawks'

Schultz reviews: 'Night Hawks'

Carl Schultz

Daily American correspondent


“Night Hawks”   Distributed by Universal Pictures, 99 Minutes, Rated R, Released April 10, 1981:

If you look closely over actor/writer/director/producer Sylvester Stallone’s filmography, especially since his signature movie “Rocky” in 1976, you’ll find something that might surprise you. 

Despite Stallone’s reputation as an megalomaniac, an egotistical pretender who aspires to rarefied artistic distinction but mainly turns out series of lurid or sentimental but often enormously popular pulp fiction time-wasters, he’s actually participated over the years in the occasional legitimate gem of a movie...although it might not have seemed that way at the time.

Since his breakthrough as a motion picture superstar in 1976’s “Rocky,” Stallone has attempted whenever possible to gain as much control as possible over each of his motion picture appearances...probably a logical pursuit after toiling for years as a bit player scrambling for work as an extra or small parts in the films of other artists--playing a thug in Woody Allen’s “Bananas,”  a suspected mugger in Neil Simon’s “The Prisoner of Second Avenue,” a flashy Mafioso in Paul Bartel’s action comedy “Cannonball” in 1976, or even gratefully accepting $200 to appear in the infamous softcore pornographic film “The Party at Kitty and Stud’s” in 1970  

When Stallone in 1976 actually decided to write himself a plum role in the Capra-esque boxing drama “Rocky,” the major studios dangled lucrative offers to the unemployed Stallone in an effort to purchase his script with other major performers in mind for the role.  But the unemployed actor was adamant: No Stallone, no “Rocky.”  

Still, after”Rocky” a few of Stallone’s best roles have occurred when he’s worked for other filmmakers as an actor only, with no participation as a writer or director--in John Huston’s “Victory” in 1981, for example, or “Cop Land” in 1997, in which Stallone starred with Robert DeNiro and Harvey Keitel, one of the first big screen efforts for acclaimed writer/director James Mangold, decades later the filmmaker behind the enormously successful “The Wolverine,” “Logan,” and “Ford v Ferrari.”

Sandwiched in between the megahits “Rocky II” in 1979 and “Rocky III” in 1982 and before the money-machines “First Blood” in 1982 and “Rambo: First Blood Part II in 1985, Sylvester Stallone acted in a small and modestly budgeted little action thriller entitled “Night Hawks.”  Written by David Shaber and called “Nighthawks” virtually everywhere except the movie’s opening credits, “Night Hawks” was originally intended to be a project for Gene Hackman, a followup to his Academy Award-winning turn as tough New York City cop Popeye Doyle in 1971’s “The French Connection” and its 1975 sequel.

When Hackman developed cold feet at the thought of one too many trips to the well--as well as a certain hesitation over studio 20th Century-Fox’s plans to include in the picture a co-starring role for the popular young comic Richard Pryor, then a mostly-unknown entity as a dramatic actor--plans for “The French Connection III” were scrapped.  The script was rewritten and tweaked over time by Shaber, made the rounds of the Hollywood studios, and eventually landed at Universal Pictures, where it attracted Stallone’s interest.

In “Night Hawks,” the ruthless and cruel international terrorist Heymar Reinhardt, known as “Wulfgar” (Dutch actor Rutger Hauer), holds Europe in a grip of fear.  Responsible for a series of murders, kidnappings, and bombings throughout the continent, the emotionless Wulfgar loses his network of protection when his bombing of a London department store results in the deaths of a number of children.  To regain his reputation for merciless efficiency, the demented terrorist decides to pioneer new territory: New York City, the headquarters of the international news media...and the location of the United Nations.

Simultaneously in New York City, dedicated NYPD Detective Sergeant Deke DaSilva (Sylvester Stallone) and his resourceful partner Detective Sergeant Matthew Fox (Billy Dee Williams) are investigating a local narcotics network with ties to the police department.  Unhappily estranged from his fashion designer wife (Lindsay Wagner), DaSilva is incensed to learn that he and Fox have been reassigned at the request of Interpol’s Inspector Peter Hartman (Nigel Davenport) to his new Anti-Terrorist Action Command, in anticipation of New York-based activity by the disappeared Wulfgar.

Initially wary of the reassignment and skeptical of Hartman’s radical instruction tactics (“You’re training us to be nothing but assassins,” the detective grouses, “The only difference between him and us is the badge”), the troubled DaSilva finds himself adapting to Wulfgar’s thinking...and with Fox in tow quickly picking up the terrorist’s New York City trail.

“Night Hawks” is a movie filled with subtlety and spectacle, nuanced performances and heart-stopping set pieces.  But at the heart of the picture is the deadly game of cat and mouse between its opposing characters--Sylvester Stallone’s New York cop Deke DaSilva and Rutger Hauer’s vicious European terrorist Wulfgar.

The actors themselves are a study in contrasts.  Stallone’s Detective DaSilva is a sort of kinder, gentler, somewhat dandified precursor to Rambo, a Vietnam combat veteran with 52 registered combat kills, yet bearded and pensive behind owlish aviator spectacles--an undercover cop with eight years service, but as meek and mild and tongue-tied as a schoolboy in the presence of his estranged wife.

Rutger Hauer in his first American film, almost two years before his rise to fame as the escaped replicant Roy Batty in filmmaker Ridley Scott’s fabled cult classic “Blade Runner,” is arrogant and cocky, vain and boastful, alternately gentle when cooing over a newborn baby and homicidally cold when murdering a hostage in an elevated tram car.  Between his characterizations as Wulfar in “Night Hawks” and Batty in “Blade Runner,” Hauer effectively typecast himself as a coldblooded coldly efficient human robot, an image which followed the actor for the remainder of his career.

“Night Hawks” was noted for its troubled production history.  After original director (and Disney Studios veteran) Gary Nelson was fired from the production after only a week of filming for reasons which remain unclear, aspiring filmmaker Bruce Malmuth, with only one previous directing credit, was hired in his place.  Delayed on his way from his Los Angeles home to the New York City location, Malmuth missed his first day of shooting...and was replaced in the director’s chair, at least temporarily, by star Sylvester Stallone.

Reports differ on precisely how much of “Night Hawks” was directed by Stallone.  Most sources indicate the actor was responsible for filming only one segment of the film--a lengthy chase sequence set in the New York City subway.  But co-star Lindsey Wagner, playing the role of DaSilva’s estranged wife Irene, recalled during an interview that Stallone actually remained on both sides of the camera for remainder of the picture:  “We started with one director,” Wagner said, “and there was some problem, and Sylvester ended up having to take over the film.”

But a timely and compelling story, a fast-moving narrative, and realistic and evocative performances make up for a multitude of shortcomings.  The picture’s vibrant electronic-tinged score by musician Keith Emerson--then known primarily as the founder and front man of the progressive rock supergroup Emerson, Lake, and Palmer--also adds to the picture’s sense of urgency.

At a sleek 99 minutes, “Night Hawks” seems much shorter, partly because of the frequent action sequences and set pieces, but also because of the maturity of the picture’s characterizations.  Billy Dee Williams, then at the apogee of his international movie stardom as a result of acclaimed performances in the 1971 TV movie “Brian’s Song” and the hit films “Lady Sings the Blues” in 1972, “Mahogany” in 1975,” and the second Star Wars film “The Empire Strikes Back” in 1980, is particularly effective as DaSilva’s volatile but resourceful partner.

“Night Hawks” also shows signs of extensive pre-release tampering and tightening--Stallone inexplicably changes his wardrobe with distracting frequency, scenes occasionally fail to match precisely, and during one crucial shootout a single gunshot plainly results in multiple wounds to the target.  Reportedly, two versions of the picture were prepared--one emphasizing Stallone’s DaSilva and the other emphasizing Hauer’s Wulfgar--and shown to test audiences. Although the version highlighting Hauer was better received, some of the actor’s better scenes were removed from the film prior to its release.

But viewed as a whole, flaws and all, “Night Hawks” is not only one of Sylvester Stallone’s best performances, but also one of the very best action thrillers of the 1980s...a decade which also included such classics of the genre as “48 Hours,” “Die Hard,” and  “Lethal Weapon.”  

“Night Hawks” is rated R for violence, some sexualtiy, and language concerns.  The picture is currently streaming on Netflix.

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