Nighthawks (film)

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Nighthawks movie.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed by Bruce Malmuth
Produced by Herb Nanas
Martin Poll
Written by David Shaber
Paul Sylbert
Starring Sylvester Stallone
Billy Dee Williams
Rutger Hauer
Lindsay Wagner
Persis Khambatta
Nigel Davenport
Music by Keith Emerson
Cinematography James A. Contner
Edited by Stanford C. Allen
Christopher Holmes
Distributed by Universal Pictures (U.S.)
CIC (Norway)
Release dates
  • April 4, 1981 (1981-04-04) (U.S.)
  • April 13, 1981 (1981-04-13) (Spain)
  • April 22, 1981 (1981-04-22) (France)
  • April 29, 1981 (1981-04-29) (Spain)
  • May 20, 1981 (1981-05-20) (Sweden)
Running time 99 min.
Country United States
United Kingdom
Language English
Budget $5,000,000
Box office $19,905,359[1]

Nighthawks is a 1981 American-British-French thriller film directed by Bruce Malmuth and starring Sylvester Stallone, Rutger Hauer, Billy Dee Williams, Lindsay Wagner, Persis Khambatta and Nigel Davenport.[2] The original music score was composed by Keith Emerson. Nighthawks is known for its many production problems,[3] constant re-editing of the movie by Universal studio and Stallone for different reasons, and the poor working relationship between Stallone and Hauer.


In the South Bronx during the late-night to early-morning hours on New Year's Eve 1980, three armed assailants attempt a mugging on a supposedly unsuspecting woman, who turns out to be NYPD police detectives, Det. Sgts. Deke DaSilva (Sylvester Stallone) in drag for a carefully planned sting operation. His partner Matthew Fox (Billy Dee Williams) immobilizes two of the suspects as Deke chases the third upstairs to the 174th Street (IRT White Plains Road Line) Subway Station platform and dares the man to cut him. Deke then incapacitates him with a scarf and places him under arrest.

On the same day in London, terrorist Heymar Reinhardt, alias Wulfgar (Rutger Hauer) bombs a department store. Meanwhile, back in New York City, DaSilva and Fox serve a high-risk warrant in the Bronx. They raid a known drug distribution spot, where they discover corrupt police officers amongst the dealers.

Still in London, Wulfgar converses with his contact, Kenneth, at a party. Kenneth tells him that Mercer, the financier of Wulfgar's operations, is withholding payment because several children were killed in Wulfgar's latest bombing. Wulfgar discovers Kenneth had been held at Heathrow Airport in police custody, and has inadvertently led police to Wulfgar's location. He proceeds to murder Kenneth and an arriving policemen.

The next day, Wulfgar flees to Paris, where he meets an associate, Shakka Holland (Persis Khambatta), at La Sainte-Chapelle. Shakka remarks that La Sainte-Chapelle is a bad meeting place because it is next to the Palais de Justice, a courthouse. She calls Kenneth's death a rash decision, for the police found a passport that he'd brought to Wulfgar on his person. Wulfgar also realizes he is now facing alienation from his allies, having killed one of their own. With his identity revealed to all European authorities, Wulfgar and Shakka visit a plastic surgeon, who changes Wulfgar's appearance. The surgeon becomes a liability and is murdered by Wulfgar, who leaves for New York.

In Central Park, after having their latest undercover detail compromised by two uniformed officers, DaSilva and Fox are informed that they have been transferred from the Street Crime Unit and into a special Federal-State Unit. After a touchy moment with their superior, Lieutenant Munafo (Joe Spinell), they discover that their transfer orders came from the commissioner, who had received the orders from Washington D.C.. The fact that the two detectives served in Vietnam makes them the highest recommended candidates for the special unit.

The Anti-Terrorist Action Command (A.T.A.C.) squad is assembled by INTERPOL British Counter-terrorist specialist Peter Hartman (Nigel Davenport). Hartman believes Wulfgar will come to the U.S. next, primarily for the press coverage. Hartman schools DaSilva, Fox and a specially selected team of New York police on Wulfgar, Shakka, and terrorism in general with his proactive approach to finding and taking out terrorists. The "shoot-to-kill" policy that Hartman encourages doesn't go down well with DeSilva, who says it sounds like an order to be an assassin intsead of a policeman. Hartman makes a personal comment regarding DaSilva's ex-wife Irene (Lindsay Wagner), which causes him to storm out; however, Fox talks him into reconsidering.

According to Hartman, Wulfgar wastes no time in becoming familiar with new surroundings. He believes Wulfgar, an aficionado for the nightclub scene, will try to find safe housing this way. Sure enough, Wulfgar meets Pam, a flight attendant, in a nightclub and moves in with her. Surprisingly, when she asks what he does for a living, he tells her the complete and total truth: "I'm an international terrorist wanted on three continents." She thinks he is merely joking.

Wulfgar announces his presence in New York by bombing several buildings on Wall Street. Alone in her apartment while Wulfgar (known to her as "Eric") is away, Pam discovers his arsenal. Wulfgar kills Pam, whose death is the first break Hartman, DaSilva and Fox get. Wulfgar has left behind a map of the Wall Street area. According to investigators, the location that had been bombed was marked.

DaSilva and Fox investigate Pam's favorite nightspots and hope to find Wulfgar at one of them. They do, but, unsure of what he looks like since the plastic surgery, they hesitate and after a long chase and nearly fatal hostage situation on the New York City Subway's IND 6th Avenue Line, Wulfgar gets away, slashing Fox's face in the process. An angry DaSilva vows to kill Wulfgar.

Wulfgar takes refuge in the basement of a little grocery store, where it is revealed that Shakka is now in the United States. She informs him that the NYPD and the United Nations delegation members now have a description of him. She adds that revolutionary communities back in Europe are paying attention to the Wall Street bombings, but have not yet decided to rehire him. In the meantime, the two do research on the UN personnel and the A.T.A.C team, planning their next move.

Members of A.T.A.C. are protecting a United Nations function at the Metropolitan Museum of Art that has the earmarks of a potential terrorist target. Shakka, infiltrating the party in disguise, corners Hartman on an escalator and murders him. Wulfgar and Shakka then hijack a Roosevelt Island Tram car carrying U.N. representatives. He executes the wife of the French ambassador while DaSilva is watching from a hovering police helicopter as payback for the nightclub and subway chase. Wulfgar decides to release an infant and demands that DaSilva personally board the tramway to receive it. DaSilva is winched up to the aerial tram and confronts Wulfgar face-to-face. DaSilva demands to know why Wulfgar killed the woman. “I wanted to,” he replies. However, he decides to spare his nemesis for the moment. DaSilva and the baby are lowered to a waiting barge.

The police agree to Wulfgar's demands for a MTA New York City Transit bus to escort him and the hostages to the airport, where a jet will be waiting for takeoff. Wulfgar and Shakka hide among the crowd of hostages from the tram. DaSilva waits until they try to board before making his move. He plays back a recording of Hartman's lecture in which the terrorist expert denounces Shakka. In a rage, Shakka breaks from the hostages and is gunned down by Fox. Wulfgar escapes by driving the bus off a ramp into the East River.

A search of the wreckage shows no sign of Wulfgar. The team unearths the store where Wulfgar has been staying and DaSilva finds that Wulfgar has gathered information on all participating members of A.T.A.C., including Fox, Hartman, and DaSilva: Irene's address is found on one of the printouts. Wulfgar watches Irene walk up to her house and go in. He breaks in, finds her washing dishes and sneaks up behind her brandishing a knife. But DaSilva has made it to Irene's first; he turns around, wearing his ex-wife's housecoat and a blonde wig, brandishing a gun. With nowhere to go, Wulfgar lunges at DaSilva who fires his revolver twice into the terrorist, sending his dead body crashing back into the street.



The story was originally planned as The French Connection III by screenwriter David Shaber at Twentieth Century Fox, and would have seen Gene Hackman's Popeye Doyle team up with a wisecracking cop, to be possibly played by Richard Pryor. The main plot was the same but when Hackman showed reluctance to do a third movie as Doyle the idea was scrapped and Universal acquired the rights to the storyline, which Shaber then reworked into Nighthawks.

The original director was Gary Nelson, who had directed the Disney movies Freaky Friday (1976) and The Black Hole (1979), but he left the project early into production and was not credited. His replacement, Bruce Malmuth, had only one previous film to his credit, a segment of the 1975 portmanteau comedy Fore Play. Malmuth was unable to make his first day of shooting, so Stallone stepped in to shoot the scene, the chase down the subway. Stallone had to get the approval of the Directors Guild of America (DGA), which has strict rules on actors directing their own movies, for this one day of filming. Principal photography began on January 1980 and lasted until March of that year.

The film's stunt coordinator was Dar Robinson.[citation needed]

The film marked the American debut of Dutch actor Rutger Hauer. According to an interview in Premiere, Hauer was told before filming that Stallone ran up building stairwells for exercise. However, during the subway chase, Hauer continually outran the American star, who is known for his competitive streak (see also Victory). Stallone also gave the producers headaches by insisting on doing his own stunts. According to actor Nigel Davenport in an interview for the BBC's Wogan show, Stallone performed the scene where he was winched up to the tram without a double. Stallone confirms this in a Q&A session on Ain't It Cool News' website:

Hanging from the cable car was probably one of the more dangerous stunts I was asked to perform because it was untested and I was asked to hold a folding Gerber knife in my left hand so if the cable were to snap, and I survived the 230 foot fall into the East River with its ice cold 8 mile an hour current, I could cut myself free from the harness because the cable when stretched out weighed more than 300 lbs. I tell you this because it's so stupid to believe that I would survive hitting the water so to go beyond that is absurd.[4]

In the same Q&A session, he said that Nighthawks "was an even better film before the studio lost faith in it and cut it to pieces. What was in the missing scenes was extraordinary acting by Rutger Hauer, Lindsey Wagner, and the finale was a blood fest that rivaled the finale of Taxi Driver. But it was a blood fest with a purpose".[4]

Prior to its theatrical release, Nighthawks was severely cut for violence by both Universal studio and the MPAA. Amongst the cut scenes were a longer disco shootout which had Wufgar shooting and killing more people, and Wufgar's death scene was almost completely omitted. In the uncut scene Wufgar was shot five times (instead of twice) in slow-motion by DaSilva, with the sixth and final shot hitting him in the head, blowing his brains out. An animatronic cast of Rutger Hauer's head was made by special makeup artist Dick Smith and used in this scene. Although no uncut version of the film exists, the soundtrack release for the movie included a track called "Face To Face" which was meant for this ending.

Reportedly, the original cut of the movie was just short of 2 1/2 hours long.[citation needed] Numerous scenes between Sylvester Stallone and Lindsey Wagner, as well as Rutger Hauer with Persis Khambatta, which fleshed out both character and plot were deleted because Universal wanted a fast-paced action movie. Stallone also had a hand in re-editing of the movie. He was jealous of Hauer, whose performance he felt dominated the film. Two versions of the movie were shown to test audiences, one with more emphasis on Stallone's character and the other on Hauer's. The version featuring more of Hauer's scenes was better received by audiences. Stallone then removed some of Hauer's scenes from what became the final version of the movie.

Many US and international lobby cards and stills show several deleted scenes. These include; DaSilva and Fox on another drug bust, Wulfgar and Shaka showing the plastic surgeon photos of Wulfgar's desired look, a couple of deleted scenes between Deke and Irene including a scene during a party at her house, Wulfgar picking up a MAC-10 submachine gun from his suitcase, Deke and Irene talking in her bedroom, a love scene between Wulfgar and Shaka, a longer version of the scene at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Deke talking with the French ambassador whose wife was killed by Wulfgar on the tram car, and an extended finale with Deke and Irene holding each other on the stairs inside her house.

Although the movie has a strong cult following, and several petitions for the release of an original cut were made and sent to Universal and companies like Shout! Factory and Criterion, an uncut version has yet to be released. There is a high probability that all missing and cut footage was destroyed in the Universal Studios fire.

Rutger Hauer was injured during the filming of his death scene. In one instance a squib meant to simulate a gunshot wound exploded on the wrong side and severely burned him. In other, a cable that would yank him to simulate the force of being shot was pulled too hard, straining his back. Afterward, Hauer discovered that the cable was pulled with such force on Stallone's orders. This was the last straw for Hauer, who then threatened Stallone; their working relationship afterward was marked by numerous arguments. According to Hauer, Stallone's considerable ego led to him constantly interfering with filming, even writing and adding some new scenes for his character because he was jealous that Hauer's character was given more screen time and doing things that would appear "cool" to audiences.[5]

The subway train used in the chase sequence consisted of retired IND equipment that had been preserved as a museum train. Of the cars whose numbers are visible, 800 is now at the Seashore Trolley Museum in Kennebunkport, Maine.[citation needed] 1802, the last prewar NYC subway car built, is owned by Railway Preservation Corporation and remains in New York, where it operates several times a year on museum fantrips along with other preserved cars. 1208 has since been scrapped. The IND Hoyt-Schermerhorn station in Brooklyn served as both the 57th and 42nd St. stations (a Hoyt-Schermerhorn sign is briefly visible when Stallone tries to pry the doors open as the train is pulling out). The train operated on the unused outer track that leads from the Court St. station, now the New York Transit Museum.

The London department store blown up at the beginning of the film was actually an Arding & Hobbs, located at Clapham Junction, SW11 - which at the time of filming belonged to the Allders group. The store still exists today, but is now owned by Debenhams. During the 2011 England Riots the shop again had its windows smashed.


Despite receiving good reviews, including one from Variety,[6] Nighthawks did not become a big commercial success, even though it did recover its $5 million budget in both US and foreign markets. It grossed USD $14.9 million in North America and $5 million in the rest of the world for a worldwide total of $19.9 million.[1] In her review for the New York Times, Janet Maslin praised Hauer's performance: "Mr. Hauer's terrorist, in particular, is a sharply drawn character who acts as a driving force within the movie's scheme. Sadism and bloodlessness are his only identifiable characteristics, and yet he behaves memorably wherever he goes".[7] Time magazine's Richard Schickel wrote, "Nighthawks is so moronically written and directed, so entirely without wit or novelty, that there is plenty of time to wonder about its many missing explanations".[8] In his review for the Globe and Mail, Jay Scott felt that the film, "has a dirty job to do and does it. That is not an endorsement. Thumbscrews and cattle prods are real good at what they do, too".[9] Newsweek magazine's Jack Kroll wrote, "This is one of those films that isn't a film but some repulsively complicated business deal".[10] In his review for the Washington Post, Gary Arnold described the film as "an aggressively shallow police thriller pitting New York undercover cops against international terrorists, suggests what The Day of the Jackal might have looked like if filmed by the producers of Baretta. In order to facilitate a grandstanding, harebrained heroic role assigned to Sylvester Stallone, the filmmakers brush off every opportunity for intelligent dramatization and authentic suspense that the plot would seem to possess".[11]

It currently has a rating of "73 Fresh" on the critics site Rotten Tomatoes.[12]

Stallone says of the film now, "At the time, people couldn't relate to it, and the studio (Universal) didn't believe in it".[13]


The widescreen DVD edition from Universal Pictures replaces two songs played during the disco shoot-out.[citation needed] The first song is "Brown Sugar" by the Rolling Stones and the second one is "I'm A Man" by Keith Emerson. Earlier VHS releases from Universal Home Video and some TV versions also featured the altered songs. The fullscreen DVD release by GoodTimes Entertainment contains the restored songs. Both versions contain the UK edit of the finale, which causes a continuity error (Stallone fires only two shots, but six bullet holes end up on Hauer by the time his body falls down the steps).


  1. ^ a b "Nighthawks". Box Office Mojo. Retrieved 2011-07-23. 
  2. ^ "Bruce Malmuth, 71; Directed Thrillers and Documentaries, Acted in 'The Karate Kid'". The Los Angeles Times. July 3, 2005. Retrieved 2010-11-25. 
  3. ^ "Top 10 Sylvester Stallone Movies". Retrieved 17 September 2014. "...Nighthawks went through a troubled production cycle filled with rewrites and reshoots." 
  4. ^ a b "Round One With Sylvester Stallone Q&A!!". Ain't It Cool News. December 1, 2006. Retrieved 2008-06-19. 
  5. ^ "Nighthawks (1981) Trivia". IMDb. Retrieved 17 September 2014. "Stallone also had a hand in re-editing of the movie. He was jealous on Hauer whose performance dominated the film so during filming he wrote and added more scenes for his character and later he also cut some Hauer's scenes from the movie." 
  6. ^ "Nighthawks". Variety. January 1, 1981. Retrieved 2008-06-19. 
  7. ^ Maslin, Janet (April 10, 1981). "Nighthawks". New York Times. Retrieved 2008-06-19. 
  8. ^ Schickel, Richard (May 11, 1981). "Chicken Feed". Time. Retrieved 2009-12-17. 
  9. ^ Scott, Jay (April 11, 1981). "The old it-takes-guts-to-kill story". Globe and Mail. 
  10. ^ Kroll, Jack (April 20, 1981). "Goose Chase". Newsweek. p. 93. 
  11. ^ Arnold, Gary (April 13, 1981). "Nighthawks Nosedives". Washington Post. pp. C3. 
  12. ^ "Nighthawks (1981)". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved 17 September 2014. 
  13. ^ Kilday, Gregg (June 4, 1993). "Regrets, He's Had a Slew". Entertainment Weekly. Retrieved 2008-06-19. 

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