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Friday, January 23, 2015

Recommended!: Nighthawks (1981)

As the blockbuster mentality began to dominate Hollywood studios in the 1980s, auteurs established in the New Hollywood of the 1970s often found their ambitions thwarted, and their artistic control challenged, if not overruled. Potentially gritty movies were saddled with improbable happy endings, powerful ambiguity would give way to unsatisfyingly solid conclusions. The input of other directors, hired to make problematic (read: potentially less-than-profitable) movies more friendly, plus the interference of studios now more mindful of blockbuster profits to be made, would neuter many an otherwise interesting and gutsy movie around this time.

1981's Nighthawks, starring Sylvester Stallone, Rutger Hauer (in his Hollywood debut), and Billy Dee Williams, and directed by Bruce Malmuth (with an uncredited assist by Stallone) is certainly one of these movies. It was wildly cut by Universal, who found the movie's notion of urban terrorism hitting New York City unrealistic. Many character-driven scenes were also cut in favor of a leaner, more action-oriented approach. To this day all involved seem to lament the loss of a novelistic, engrossing thriller that would anticipate the terrorist attacks of September 11.

And yet for all of this interference there's still quite enough to recommend Nighthawks as is. Stallone seems to have taken on the project as his own personal Serpico: his Detective Sergeant Deke DaSilva is a surprisingly liberal policeman, and between his politics and his first appearance in the movie in female drag is the complete opposite the stolid, right-wing muscleman that Stallone often projects today. There's some of Stallone's finest acting on display here too: DaSilva initially clashes with British counter-terror expert Peter Hartman (Nigel Davenport), and yet the moment when the two finally do find a common understanding forms a very strong bond between them, and the scene is beautifully played by streetwise Stallone & stage-trained Davenport both.

The action scenes Universal chose to emphasize over such moments do deliver, from a dizzying chase in the New York subway to a tense standoff on the Roosevelt Island tram. Hauer shows enormous presence as Wulfgar, the movie's main villain (a character modeled on Carlos the Jackal, still very much in public consciousness in 1981). Hauer turns 71 today, and revisiting his initial Hollywood bow in this compromised yet still engaging movie seems an ideal way to celebrate. The movie also remains a fascinating portrait of a city often shown as urban hell on earth, yet one that found the notion of terrorism within its limits merely a nightmare.

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