A Look Back At The Underrated 1981 Thriller ‘Nighthawks’ Starring Rutger Hauer & Sylvester Stallone

In the wake of the passing last week of famed actor Rutger Hauer, there’s been a consciousness for one to revisit his work again, or at best discuss his long and expansive career. While most people would be wont to mention the arguable apex of his career with the apocalyptic classic Blade Runner, the film that he did right before it, Nighthawks, is another standout, albeit extremely underrated and one that introduced him to American audiences.

Nighthawks, originally released in mid 1981, is a crime thriller starring Sylvester Stallone and Billy Dee Williams as two NYC cops on a hunt for a global terrorist (chillingly played by Hauer), who has already made his explosive mark in his native town of London and is now firmly entrenched in the teeming metropolis that is New York City. The movie took its cues from the classic gritty inner city cop films of the previous decade, like The French Connection, Dirty Harry, Serpico and others, still holds up today, and in a way, is even more harrowing, mirror image of today’s society than ever.

Plagued with problems in pre-production, Nighthawks nonetheless remains a film a little below the ilk of some of the aforementioned films, and has much in common with them. The film was actually supposed to be the third installment in The French Connection series, but got retooled as a vehicle for Stallone after the second film, released in 1975, didn’t have the kind of spot-on vinegar and rough polish that made the original multiple Academy Award-winning 1971 film such an iconic and influential mark in cinema history.

Sporting a look like Al Pacino’s characterization of Serpico, replete with long hair and beard, Stallone blazes his way through Nighthawks, his first R-rated production after his dazzling success with the first two Rocky films. It’s interesting right off the bat to hear him use profanity, especially after most viewers were accustomed to his nice guy stances as Rocky Balboa. Here, he’s the kind of cop that pulls no punches and gives plenty of them. Again, since the role was supposed to be another film for The French Connection’s Popeye Doyle, a character who is an unapologetic, tough detective, there’s slight touches of Doyle that remain in Stallone’s performance, and he retooled the script once he was involved with the project to tailor it to his own acting skills. Williams plays Stallone’s partner with that earnestness and zeal which is his stock and trade in many of the memorable performances he’s done in well known films like Lady Sings the Blues, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi. He is also balls to the wall with the R-rated material, which most viewers also weren’t accustomed to seeing him in (like Stallone). Williams handles the action deftly and in the background, allowing Stallone to take center stage often, rising just a hair above being an ancillary character.

But of course, it’s Hauer who steals the show and every scene he’s in, hands down, in his first American film. His sinister portrayal is at first unassuming as he hides behind a beard and glasses as he makes his first terrorist acts in London, creating instant terror and chaos. His coming to New York after undergoing plastic surgery to make his appearance different as he’s on the lam globally from authorities looking to snare him, is not only the film’s highlight, but solidifies Hauer even in those early years of his American success, as a top shelf villain right alongside filmdom’s all time best. He’s unsettling throughout the picture, and whenever he is on screen, no matter what he’s doing. Whether he’s chatting up women when he arrives in New York, to unpacking weaponry in his flats to the steely-eyed gaze he gives Stallone and Williams when he’s been spotted by them in a packed nightclub to the booming strains of The Rolling Stones’ “Brown Sugar” (one of the film’s highlights), Hauer gives the picture 50,000 jolts when he’s on screen, and thus, the viewers get that electricity. Right away with his performance in Nighthawks, Hauer’s image and cinema attitude is set, and it would become a template the actor would use in almost every project in his career post-Nighthawks, a template that never became boring or predictable, even when Hauer would use it in lower projects of quality. If anything, it became expected for the viewer.

With its musical score by the late Keith Emerson and visually sporting a dark, semi-cynical New York backdrop, Nighthawks certainly feels like one of the last of the gritty films of the 1970s, a decade which saw movie endings that weren’t always satisfactory, in which violence and jarring tropes of narrative were essential to the overall picture, and in which peril and people in terror or trauma was the order of the day, but the heroes were sometimes even more flawed than the victims they were saving. It’s all of those things that make up this film, and although panned and dismissed by most critics upon its original release in 1981, Nighthawks still remains an intense police pot boiler with enough yarn to knit a sweater. Sometimes it’s films like that that are sorely needed in today’s world, mindless popcorn films that don’t ask you to think much, but to simply watch it and have a good time, with edge of your seat action and a contrived yet satisfactory plot. Nighthawks delivers all that and more, with an unexpected but crudely violent yet satisfying ending that makes it memorable and lifts it just above the B-movie/direct to video raised to a higher league of art that it is in many ways.

If anything, it remains in the cinematic consciousness because of Rutger Hauer, because of the performance that in many ways seemed to be too good for the picture, and what that showed was the man’s dedication and craft, to give 110 percent to a project, no matter what the outcome could be. Without question, the most memorable thing about Nighthawks is Hauer, and it’s what makes viewing of the picture essential and strangely timeless. To sum up, Rutger Hauer made the most of what he had in front of him, as he always seemed to, which pays off in spades for him, the film, and most of all the viewer.


Nighthawks (1981) Trailer

Nighthawks (1981) – Clip: Hostage

Nighthawks (1981) Clip: Sylvester Stallone Billy Dee Williams Terrorist Expert

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