Nighthawks (1981)

*. About fifteen minutes into watching Nighthawks, a movie I hadn’t seen before, I made a note of how it seemed to be trying to recapture some of the look of The French Connection. I later read that the script had actually been written for The French Connection III, but that Gene Hackman didn’t want to do another sequel.
*. I’m not patting myself on the back here because in fact the script wasn’t what had me thinking of The French Connection. It was more the gritty texture. But then I thought of how this is the same way a lot of movies presented New York City in the ’80s. Los Angeles was bright and shiny in the movies, but the Big Apple was a dirty place. And then I thought of how this is what New York City was really like around this time.
*. Nighthawks is a movie that’s interesting in a lot of ways, but is also a mess. It was a notoriously troubled production, with the initial director being replaced in the early going and a long original cut being heavily re-edited by both Stallone and the studio for reasons having to do with ego (Stallone apparently was concerned that Hauer was upstaging him, a problem he’d go on to have with James Woods in The Specialist) and ratings (it was originally a much more violent movie, especially at the end). As a result it was only released a year after it was finished shooting. So if the movie doesn’t flow as smoothly as it should, and seems unfocused at times, you can understand why.
*. But there’s still a lot that’s noteworthy and fun. There’s Sylvester Stallone playing Deke DaSilva all dressed up as Frank Serpico, at least when he isn’t donning drag. (And speaking of wardrobe, I do love the men’s jackets of this period. I hope they come back. It’s the sweaters I’m less stuck on.)

*. Then there’s Rutger Hauer in his first American feature film, before he became Roy Batty forever. You can tell he was going to be a star. And Persis Khambatta (a.k.a. “the bald chick from Star Trek: The Motion Picture“) as a sort of ethnic Patty Hearst. I miss not having more of her playing with Hauer. Perhaps that is some of what was cut.
*. Also present are Billy Dee Williams as Deke’s bad-ass partner, Joe Spinell as their lieutenant (taking a break from killing women in these same streets just a year earlier), and Nigel Davenport as a British counterterrorist expert sent to NYC to train the local cops on how to catch Wulfgar (Hauer).
*. The terrorism part of the plot is very silly, as apparently Interpol has absolutely no evidence Wulfgar is coming to America aside from the fact that he may be drawn to New York as a large media market. I guess that seemed a good enough hunch to follow up on.
*. This should have been a better movie. They had some good ideas, and a budget. But the big production numbers (the cable car hijacking and the bus flying into the river) both feel forced. As I’ve said, there is little explanation of how Interpol has traced Wulfgar to New York. Once he gets to New York, I had to laugh at the way he keeps all his terrorist gear in an unlocked trunk for the stewardess he shacks up with to find. The story arc is very simple, with Deke questioning whether he’ll be able to “take the shot” until the very end, when he takes the shot. Was this the backbone of the original treatment? I don’t see Popeye having any trouble whatsoever in taking the shot. It’s weird enough that Deke has such qualms.
*. All that said, this is still a fun movie despite being so clunky and predictable. I think it’s the way elements that would later be so polished in later versions of the exact same story are seen here through a layer of grime. We weren’t going to be seeing a lot more of that grime in American movies, and there are times when I really miss it.

6 thoughts on “Nighthawks (1981)

  1. tensecondsfromnow

    Like you, I get the faults here, but Nighthawks seemed pretty good to me at the time, and it’s something of a revelation to discover that this was originally French Connection 3…

    1. Alex Good Post author

      Yeah it’s not bad. I missed it when it came out so this was an initial viewing for me (at least as far as I can remember) and I still thought it played well.

  2. Tom Moody

    All the late 70s/early 80s NYC grime you could ever want — and more — was in Joker (2019). Having lived in NYC in both the grimy and clean eras, I was actually fairly impressed at the level of retroactive filth in Joker’s art direction. They must have been rewatching Nighthawks and Wolfen quite a bit.

    1. Alex Good Post author

      Oh Tom, you’re not going to let me go for not liking Joker are you?

      If you watch this movie alongside Joker though don’t you feel a difference in the texture and tonal qualities of the films? Joker is grimy, but still a very slick production. Whereas in movies like The French Connection you have those raw, documentary-style, on-location production values and a kind of visual flatness or directness that I hardly see anywhere in mainstream Hollywood productions today. Just the differences in lighting between then and now is almost like the difference between black-and-white and colour. It’s a look, almost an anti-style, that has really gone out of fashion.

  3. Tom Moody

    Yes, good point — one reason Joker’s Gotham looked so dirty is the sharp camera work. (I guess what impressed me was the time it took to grunge up all those locations — possibly some of that was digital.) Joker is definitely not documentary style a la early Friedkin, Friends of Eddie Coyle, Taking of Pelham, Laughing Policeman, etc. I guess what changed was the camera — nowadays “documentary style” means handheld video, not grainy as in 16mm film grain.

    1. Alex Good Post author

      Totally agree with the difference the camera makes and the graininess of the earlier films you mention. It gives them a roughness and realism that disguises the amount of work, and art, that went into them.


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