Nighthawks (film)

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For 1978 British film, see Nighthawks (1978 film).
Nighthawks movie.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed by Bruce Malmuth
Produced by Martin Poll
Screenplay by David Shaber
Story by
Music by Keith Emerson
Cinematography James A. Contner
Edited by
  • Christopher Holmes
  • Stanford C. Allen
  • Martin Poll Productions
  • The Production Company
Distributed by Universal Pictures
Release dates
  • April 10, 1981 (1981-04-10)[1]
Running time
99 minutes
Country United States[1][2]
Language English
Budget $5 million[citation needed]
Box office $19.9 million[3]

Nighthawks is a 1981 American action-thriller film directed by Bruce Malmuth and starring Sylvester Stallone, Rutger Hauer, Billy Dee Williams, Lindsay Wagner, Persis Khambatta and Nigel Davenport. The original music score was composed by Keith Emerson.

Nighthawks is known for its production problems, re-editing of the film by Universal Studios and Stallone for different reasons,[4] and the poor working relationship between Stallone and Hauer.


Three armed assailants mug a woman who turns out to be NYPD Detective Sergeant Deke DaSilva in drag. His partner, Detective Sergeant Matthew Fox, immobilizes two of the suspects as Deke chases the third upstairs to the subway station platform, taunts him, and incapacitates him with a scarf. On the same day in London, terrorist Heymar Reinhardt, alias Wulfgar 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 among the dealers. After the arrest, DaSilva meets his estranged wife, Irene, and professes his love for her. Irene initially rebuffs DaSilva's advances but eventually renews their relationship.

Wulfgar meets a member of his network at a party to deliver travel documents and money. Suspicious of the delivery man, Wulfgar kills him and three officers from the London Metropolitan Police Department, who had been sent to arrest him. Wulfgar escapes while the head of the Police Department berates Inspector Hartman, the lead investigator. In Paris, Wulfgar meets his partner, Shakka, and learns his handlers have ostracized him because of the violent bombing, which killed a number of children. Wulfgar moves his terrorist campaign to New York City.

Lt. Munafo moves DaSilva and Fox to an A.T.A.C (Anti Terrorist Action Command) squad, and they are introduced to Hartman. Hartman and DaSilva clash, as Hartman believes American police officers are not ruthless enough to deal with a terrorist like Wulfgar. While hesitant to condone killing Wulfgar, DaSilva absorbs his new training and begins to understand Wulfgar and how he thinks. Wulfgar, having traveled to New York, moves in with a flight attendant. When she locates his arsenal of weapons, Wulfgar kills her. Munafo receives a tip about her death and orders DaSilva and Fox to search every night club she visited. DaSilva and Fox locate Wulfgar in a nightclub, and, after a shootout and a long foot chase through subway tunnels, Wulfgar takes a woman hostage. DaSilva declines a shot because because of the close proximity of Wulfgar's hostage. Wulfgar eludes capture by cutting Fox on the face with a knife. At the hospital, Fox berates DaSilva for not taking the shot.

Angry, Dasilva vows to kill Wulfgar. Members of A.T.A.C. protect a United Nations function at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Shakka, infiltrating the party in disguise, corners Hartman on an escalator and murders him. After hijacking a tram car, Wulfgar executes the wife of the French ambassador while DaSilva watches from a hovering police helicopter. Wulfgar demands that DaSilva personally board the tramway to receive a released infant. DaSilva is winched up to the aerial tram and confronts Wulfgar face-to-face. DaSilva demands to know why Wulfgar killed the woman. Wulfgar tells DaSilva he killed her because he wanted to. Wulfgar calls himself a speaker for people who can not speak for themselves and says all people are victims.

The police agree to Wulfgar's demands for a 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. As they board, DaSilva plays back a recording of Hartman's lecture in which he denounces Shakka. In a rage, Shakka breaks from the hostages, and Fox shoots her with a sniper rifle. Wulfgar escapes by driving the bus off a ramp into the East River. The police find no sign of Wulfgar.

At Wulfgar's residence, the team finds detailed information on themselves and Irene. Wulfgar stalks Irene at her house and breaks in. As he is about to kill her, DaSilva reveals himself as "Irene" in disguise. As DaSilva aims his revolver at Wulfgar, Wulfgar lunges at him; DaSilva fires his revolver twice into the terrorist, sending his dead body crashing back into the street. Dasilva walks out of the house and sits beside Wulfgar on the front steps of Irene's house, stunned at what he did and that he made no attempt to take Wulfgar into custody.



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 film as Doyle the idea was scrapped and Universal acquired the rights to the storyline, which Shaber then reworked into Nighthawks.

Originally the script was based on a real character – the international terrorist Carlos the Jackal, which is why there are some similarities between the things that main villain from the film terrorist Wulfgar does and real life events connected to Carlos.

The film had two working titles: Attack and Hawks. Pre-production began in 1979. Principal photography took place from January 1980 when the final draft of the script was completed and production ended in April 1980. Because of the numerous problems with first Stallone's and later studio's interference in post production, film was heavily re-edited many times, losing lot of the scenes and plot in process, and was eventually released a year after it was finished.

The original director was Gary Nelson, who had directed the Disney films Freaky Friday (1976) and The Black Hole (1979), but he was dismissed from the project after a week of production and was not credited. His replacement, Bruce Malmuth,[5] had only one previous film to his credit, a segment of the 1975 portmanteau comedy Fore Play. Malmuth, on a plane from Los Angeles to NY, was unable to make the first day of shooting after Nelson was removed, so Stallone stepped in to shoot a scene for one day, the chase down the subway. The Directors Guild of America (DGA) has the rule "anyone signed to work on a movie before the director was engaged cannot replace a fired director, except in an emergency", so this was taken to arbitration which resulted in a fine.[1]

In preparation for their roles as New York street cops, actors Billy Dee Williams and Sylvester Stallone spent a number of weeks working at night with the New York Street Crime Unit. Stallone reportedly turned down several other big roles to do Nighthawks because he said the material resonated with him.

Nighthawks marked the American debut of Dutch actor Rutger Hauer. Before accepting to play Wulfgar's character, Hauer found himself faced with a choice. He had been offered to act in The Sphinx, which was – contrary to Nighthawks – a big production, made by a major studio, and they were also offering him twice the salary he got for Nighthawks, in addition to a well-known director to work with. But he chose Wulfgar's role.[6]

Hauer lost both his mother and his best friend during the production of the film. He returned to his native Netherlands for both their respective funerals, but returned to the production each time within a few days. Despite all the personal drama and all the difficulties on the set, Hauer stated in his autobiography that he was happy he stayed aboard, as this film caused him to be noticed in Hollywood, and started an impressive international career.

First scene that Hauer had to film was his death scene that happens in ending of the film. While filming the scene, Hauer was injured twice. In one instance a squib meant to simulate a gunshot wound exploded on the wrong side and severely burned him. In the 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 that he's gonna "Break his balls" if he ever does something like that again; their working relationship afterward was marked by numerous arguments.

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).

Although stories about their on-set fights are still talked about among fans of the film and both actors, Hauer has said in recent interviews that he actually didn't take their arguments personally and the biggest problem during filming was that it was very difficult film to make.[7]

In another, more recent interview, Hauer said that he and Stallone actually met somewhere after a long time and had a conversation. Hauer said that if Stallone called him for some Expendables sequel he would probably refuse but not because of their past but just because he is not interested in doing something like that.[8]

In later interview, Stallone himself has praised Hauer's performance. In a 1993 interview, he said about Nighthawks:

"It was a little bit ahead of its time in that I was dealing with urban terrorism. Now, with the World Trade Center, it's happening. At the time, people couldn't relate to it, and the studio [Universal] didn't believe in it. Rutger Hauer's performance held it together — he was an excellent villain."[9]

Hauer also always thought that with Nighthawks they missed a good opportunity. According to him, the issue of international terrorism could have been handled more accurately. Instead, "We had only to play tags – the written story was much more dangerous".[6]

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 Arding and Hobbs, located at Clapham Junction, SW11 - which at the time of filming belonged to the Allders group. The store is now owned by Debenhams. During the 2011 England Riots the shop again had its windows smashed.


The film's stunt coordinator was Dar Robinson.[1]

Stallone 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 Roosevelt Island Tram without a double. In a Q&A session on Ain't It Cool News' website Stallone said about the stunts in the film:

The stunts in the film were pretty extraordinary because they were invented along the way. Running through the tunnels of an un-built subway station was very dangerous, but exciting and we were only given one hour to do it. So that made for an interesting evening. 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. So I actually thought the smart move would be to commit hari-kari on the way down and let the cards fold as they may. P.S. Several years later this cable did snap while testing it on a 100lb bag of sand.[10]

In interview with Roger Ebert in 1980, Stallone mentioned problems with stunts he wanted to perform himself in Nighthawks. For the scene where his character jumps onto a moving subway train and kicks out the window the glass was wire-reinforced and would take a good kick. Stallone insisted on using the real glass all the same. But when he braced and kicked the glass, it fell out at a touch, throwing him off balance and almost off the train. Due to a lifelong fear of heights, Stallone said of the helicopter stunt, "I've never been so scared in my life". In same interview, Stallone also said that he spent 15 weeks in almost total seclusion in his hotel room between scenes and that those were the most stressful moments of his life.[11]

Studio interference, censorship, original version and deleted scenes[edit]

Prior to its theatrical release, Nighthawks was severely cut for violence by both Universal studios and the MPAA. Among the cut scenes was a longer disco shootout in which Wulfgar shot and killed more people, and Wulfgar's death scene was almost completely omitted. In the uncut scene, Wulfgar was shot five times (instead of twice) in slow-motion by DaSilva, and the sixth and final shot hit 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 film included a track called "Face To Face" which was meant for this ending.

In the same year, some other films also suffered heavy cuts on graphic and gory scenes because of the backlash on film violence at that time. Infamously, two cult horror films My Bloody Valentine and Friday the 13th Part 2 were severely cut down after numerous submissions to the MPAA which kept giving the films an X rating.

Reportedly, the original cut of the film was just short of 2 1/2 hours long.[citation needed] Numerous scenes between Stallone and Wagner, as well as Rutger Hauer and Persis Khambatta, which fleshed out both characters and plot were deleted because Universal wanted a fast-paced action film. Stallone also had a hand in re-editing the film. Stallone felt that Hauer's performance dominated the film. Two versions of the film 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 film. This has also been confirmed in Frank Sanello's book "Stallone: A Rocky Life".

Many US and international lobby cards and stills show several deleted scenes. These include:

  • Aftermath of London bombing scene with victims lying on ground (this was one of the scenes which were cut because of the violence and gore)
  • DaSilva and Fox on another drug bust
  • Wulfgar and Shakka 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 (possibly part of a love scene between them which was cut out)
  • a love scene between Wulfgar and Shakka
  • 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
  • extended finale with Deke and Irene holding each other on the stairs inside her house after he killed Wulfgar.

Theatrical trailer shows three extended scenes; Wulfgar looking at city map in subway while being observed by street cop, Wulfgar slowly moving towards the building which he is about to blow up, and Deke and Matt walking across the street while searching for Wulfgar in disco bars.

Some of the Keith Emerson's score for the film was also cut down due to the many re-editing problems the film had. Most of the tracks from the soundtrack are longer than their film versions, and there are some which were intended for some longer scenes, many of which were deleted. The best example of this is the "Face To Face" track, which is the music that Emerson composed for the infamous original ending where Wulfgar is torn to pieces in slow-mo with his flesh and blood flying around the room while Deke shoots at him.

Emerson did say some interesting things in soundtrack notes about composing the music for deleted scenes between Deke and Irene (in notes he refers to character DaSilva as De Soto):

"That bit when De Soto tries to get back with his ex-wife (Lindsay Wagner) we need some love interest there" said Harry. I made notes (Humm, love interest). Sly, whom I felt comfortable addressing as such, felt uncomfortable watching the rushes. His comments upon viewing the love scenes between Lindsay and himself led him to say, "That's the last time i go in Billy Dee's trailer". Most of it was cut along with the love interest music."

Emerson also said some things about his music being edited for the theatrical version of the film:

"Universal got some old dyke as music editor that had worked on Jaws. She was a minimalist in maximalist clothing and immediately set about stripping everything down apart from my underwear in order for my entire score to reach the big screen as half the man I might have been. Sly, upset about Raging Bull, was already working on another Rocky sequel, and couldn't be bothered."

The song "I'm a Man" by Chicago was one of Stallone's favourites and he used that song as a temp track in famous disco scene where Deke recognizes Wulfgar. Keith Emerson recorded his version of the song which was used in final cut of the film. Unfortunately, most of the DVD versions have different music in disco scene instead of Emerson's "I'm a Man" song.

In the Ain't It Cool News Q&A session, Stallone said that Nighthawks "was a very difficult film to make namely because no one believed that urban terrorism would ever happen in New York thus felt the story was far fetched. 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, Lindsay Wagner, and the finale was a blood fest that rivaled the finale of Taxi Driver. But it was a blood fest with a purpose".[10]

While he was disappointed with the way Universal studio re-edited the film (despite the fact that he did his share of re-editing on the film prior to studio's interference), Stallone was really upset because of the removal of his dramatic scenes with Lindsay Wagner, including an emotional scene between him and Wagner in a restaurant (only mentioned in the final version of the film) where his character breaks down and cries after his wife refuses to remarry him.

Lindsay Wagner said in an interview that because of problems during production Stallone took over the film. Wagner was quoted about Nighthawks and working with Stallone:

"He was really incredible. That film – I mean, history has shown that he's so talented in so many different ways. He had made "Rocky" obviously before that. But, it was just incredible. They had some difficulties. Whatever they were, I wasn't privy to the inside information about it. We started with one director, and all of the sudden there was some problems, and Sylvester ended up having to take over the film and he ended up directing it. So just spontaneously, he just jumped into that role, and after [that] directed [it]. And, it was incredible watching him and his multi-talented self whip that film into shape. It was quite educational in some ways. But, just kind of awe inspiring watching him work on so many levels at one time. That's not easy. Not many actors can do that."[12]


Despite receiving positive reviews, including one from Variety,[13] Nighthawks was a financial disappointment, 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.[3] 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".[14] 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".[15] 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".[16] Newsweek magazine's Jack Kroll wrote, "This is one of those films that isn't a film but some repulsively complicated business deal".[17] 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".[18]

It currently has a rating of 69% approval rating on the critical aggregation site Rotten Tomatoes.[19] It has often been highlighted as an example of how Sylvester Stallone has done excellent acting work in dramatic films, and many critics have also noted the prescience of a film dealing with potential for terrorist attacks in New York City.


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.

Some DVD and Blu-ray versions of the film have two different versions of ending credits. While in some versions film ends with freeze frame of DaSilva sitting on steps and looking at Wulfgar's dead body after he killed him, in some other versions scene continues with DaSilva moving his hands and head (probably in guilt because of the brutal way he killed Wulfgar) while end credits roll. It is not known why there are two different versions of end credits.


  1. ^ a b c d
  2. ^
  3. ^ a b "Nighthawks". Box Office Mojo. Retrieved 2011-07-23. 
  4. ^ "Top 10 Sylvester Stallone Movies". Retrieved 17 September 2014. ...Nighthawks went through a troubled production cycle filled with rewrites and reshoots. 
  5. ^ "Bruce Malmuth, 71; Directed Thrillers and Documentaries, Acted in 'The Karate Kid'". The Los Angeles Times. July 3, 2005. Retrieved 2010-11-25. 
  6. ^ a b
  7. ^
  8. ^
  9. ^ Kilday, Gregg (June 4, 1993). "Regrets, He's Had a Slew". Entertainment Weekly. Retrieved 2008-06-19. 
  10. ^ a b "Round One With Sylvester Stallone Q&A!!". Ain't It Cool News. December 1, 2006. Retrieved 2008-06-19. 
  11. ^
  12. ^
  13. ^ "Nighthawks". Variety. January 1, 1981. Retrieved 2008-06-19. 
  14. ^ Maslin, Janet (April 10, 1981). "Nighthawks". New York Times. Retrieved 2008-06-19. 
  15. ^ Schickel, Richard (May 11, 1981). "Chicken Feed". Time. Retrieved 2009-12-17. 
  16. ^ Scott, Jay (April 11, 1981). "The old it-takes-guts-to-kill story". Globe and Mail. 
  17. ^ Kroll, Jack (April 20, 1981). "Goose Chase". Newsweek. p. 93. 
  18. ^ Arnold, Gary (April 13, 1981). "Nighthawks Nosedives". Washington Post. pp. C3. 
  19. ^ "Nighthawks (1981)". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved 17 September 2014. 

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