High above the East River in a cable tram, an international terrorist has taken several U.N. delegates hostage and has declared war on New York City. Only one cop stands in the way of this madman’s insidious plot. This is the premise behind the action thriller Nighthawks (1981), which stars Sylvester Stallone, Billy Dee Williams, and in his American film debut Rutger Hauer as Wulfgar.
Sylvester Stallone stars as Detective Sergeant Deke DaSilva, a tough NY street cop who is about to be pitted against one of the world’s most deadly terrorists. The film opens up in NYC on New Years Eve as both DaSilva and his partner Sgt. Matt Fox (Williams), members of a street crime unit that targets scumbags and pickpockets, ring in the New Year after they arrest three men in a sting operation. DaSilva chases one of the muggers onto the platform of the 174th street station in the Bronx, where he apprehends the man after he resists arrest.
On the very same day across the Atlantic Ocean in London, England, Heymar Wulfgar (Hauer) targets a department store in another terrorist bombing which is a statement against British Imperialism. He warns the press that he will strike again and that there is nothing anyone can do to stop him. Being so well known in Europe, and after the killing of a terrorist contact, Wulgar undergoes plastic surgery in order to clandestinely sneak across international borders and to continue his terrorist plots.
Back in NYC, both DaSilva and Fox are transferred from their street crime unit to a newly formed Federal-State organization known as The Anti-Terrorist Action Command (A.T.A.C.) and are placed under the supervision of British Counter-terrorist specialist Peter Hartman (Nigel Davenport) who is a long time adversary of Wulfgar.
DaSilva and Fox begin to wonder why they have been chosen as Hartman begins to school the squad on Wulfgar and in fighting terrorism with brutal violence, to replace their police training by turning them into assassins with badges. It is later revealed that both DaSilva and Fox are Vietnam vets and that their expertise is needed for this new police counter-terrorist organization.
Using police investigative techniques after so many years on the force, DaSilva asks the question of why would Wulfgar risk being caught by coming to the U.S.? Hartman explains that Wulfgar sees himself as a freedom fighter, a man who fights oppression and wants to be revered as a hero within the circles of those who finance his operations. Worldwide press coverage of this magnitude could only be achieved nowhere else but New York City.
Wasting no time with fresh plastic surgery and a new identity, Wulfgar sets out to establish a series of safe houses throughout New York City for his terrorist arsenal. Hartman explains that Wulfgar does this by a fondness for fancy foods, the nightlife, and finding impressionable young women. Wulfgar finds a young woman and moves in with her for that purpose. She later discovers who he really is and she is killed. Her death is the first big break that DaSilva, Fox and Hartman need in order to catch Wulfgar.
One of the best scenes in the film is when DaSilva and Fox investigate a series of the nightclubs the young woman frequented in order to find Wulfgar. After several attempts w/o any leads, they happen upon one club where DaSilva notices a man talking to a woman. About to give up and move on to another club, DaSilva who pulls out a sketch and begins to alter it to the identity of the man in question stops Fox. DaSilva and Fox close in on the man who begins to notice their presence and becomes apprehensive. As he turns and begins to walk away, Wulfgar pulls a pistol from his coat as DaSilva yells out his name. DaSilva and Fox chase Wulfgar from the club, to a construction site, which leads underground to the subway.
Wulfgar runs out of ammo as DaSilva and Fox close in. Wulfgar emerges at a subway station where he takes an old woman hostage and uses her as a human shield. Fox urges DaSilva to take a shot but DaSilva can’t in fear of killing the hostage (an act of conscious Hartman wants them to lose if they are to become counter-terrorists). Wulfgar escapes on the subway, while the two cops continue their pursuit.
At the next stop Wulfgar quickly flees and DaSilva and Fox split up their pursuit. Wulfgar who was hiding around a corner cuts Fox across his jaw. Fox succumbs to his wounds as DaSilva arrives to assist his wounded partner. Wulfgar escapes again as DaSilva vows that he will kill Wulfgar. Fearing he may be caught because the authorities now know he is in the U.S. due to Hartman’s involvement, Wulfgar steps up his terror campaign by compiling all the data he can find about Hartman’s people and stepping up his plans which involve capturing members of the U.N. and holding them hostage.
My favorite part of the film is the scene aboard the Roosevelt Island tramcar where Wulfgar and his accomplice Shakka (Persis Khambatta) hold the U.N. delegates hostage. DaSilva, Fox, and the A.T.A.C. squad secure the area and try to negotiate with Wulfgar whose demands include the release of several political prisoners held in the UN delegate’s countries and that DaSilva be brought onboard to remove an infant, and that Wulfgar can better know his newest adversary face-to-face. Wulfgar lowers the cable tram to the station where he requests a bus to be driven by DaSilva to the airport where Wulfgar plans to make his getaway. DaSilva waits by the city bus as Wulfgar and Shakka use the hostages as shields in fear of being killed by the A.T.A.C. sharp shooters who are in position waiting for that perfect shot.
The film was originally planned as a third installment of the popular French Connection series but 20th Century Fox and Gene Hackman were not interested in a third film. The rights of the film were later transferred to Universal Studios where David Shaber and Paul Sylbert developed the screenplay. The film underwent several cuts and several directors were considered before Bruce Malmuth was brought on board. According to Stallone in an interview, Malmuth was unable to arrive for the first day of shooting, so Stallone stepped in to direct the chase scene between DaSilva, Fox and Wulfgar. Stallone had to get special permission from The Directors Guild of America that had strict guidelines concerning actors directing themselves in their own films. Stallone even performed several of his own stunts, including the scene where he was attached to the winch and brought up to the tram.
The film favored fairly well in U.S. markets, but several critics bashed the film saying that it was too formulaic and that it lacked a significant storyline. Stallone believed that the film was too severely edited and that there were too many great scenes cut involving Rutger Hauer’s character that made him more of a fascinating villain. I have always liked the film and its portrayal of late 1970s New York and how much of an urban jungle it was due to the high crime rates which plagued the city through several lousy administrations. Nighthawks is a classic police thriller and continues to improve with age after thirty years.
Nighthawks is available on DVD thru Universal Home Video and can be rented via Netflix.