Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Tuesday, August 4, 2015


There was a time when Sylvester Stallone’s name was not synonymous with giant explosion and hundreds of Vietnamese soldiers being gunned down. After the underdog success of “Rocky,” he made a period drama and more sports movies. And though the “Rocky” films could arguably be called action movies, the earliest entries in that series really weren’t. As far as I can tell, the first true action film Stallone lent his star power to is “Nighthawks.” Though better known at the time of its release for its troubled production than its box office performance, the film would stick Stallone in a role he would play many times later on: The renegade cop hunting a dangerous killer across a big city.

Deke DaSilva is a New York cop who believes in arresting crooks on the streets and not being stuck in a classroom, being taught new methods. His equally rough, and even more unstable, partner Fox feels much the same. Meanwhile, an international terrorist for hire blows up a shop in London, killing over 20 people. Known as “Wulfgar,” the killer flees to New York. DaSilva and his partner are tasked with hunting the terrorist, cop and criminal quickly developing a burning hatred for one another.

“Nighthawks” was released in 1981 and presumably shot the year before. This was long before the clichés and tropes of eighties action cinema, many of which Stallone would help codify, were established. There’s no patriotic undertones, oiled biceps, and the body count is relatively low. Instead, “Nighthawks” feels more like a product of the seventies. The gritty, down-to-Earth tone is comparable to “Serpico” or “The French Connection.” (“Nighthawks” beginning life as “The French Connection III” probably had something to do with that.) The disco bars, apartments, and crowded police stations the film is set in feel distinctly seventies. So does the facial hair and the fashion. Finally, the movie is far more interested in battle-of-wills thrills then explosive action. There’s only three shoot-outs in the movie and they’re all mostly one-sided.

As a Stallone movie, “Nighthawks” is awkwardly positioned between Sly’s more character-orientated early years and the chaos of his later days. The movie tries to slip in a Rocky/Adrian style love story between Deke and his estranged wife Irene. However, most of these scenes got cut out before the movie’s release, leaving the subplot anemic. It leaves us with a few odd scenes of Stallone angsting over his relationship woes or having strained conversations with the woman. As a renegade cop, DaSilva butts heads with the authorities. He even gets chewed out by da chief, played by a typically greasy Joe Spinall. There’s one unexpected difference, though. Deke is instructed by the terrorism expert to shoot first and asks questions later. He’s reluctant to turn his gun on anyone, even a criminal. That’s right, Stallone’s bad ass cop doesn’t want to kill anyone. That’s a far cry from Marion Cobretti. Naturally, Deke embraces the way of killing later on. It’s still an unexpected character arc.

Since “Nighthawks” is not as focused on the action as you’d expect, how does the movie function as a thriller? An early scene, of Stallone undercover in drag, builds some decent suspense. The confrontation in a disco between Deke and Wulfgar is constructed nicely, the two trading long glances before shots are fired. A chase onto a subway train has the nice gag of Stallone doing a leaping-kick through a window. The proper climax of the film comes when Hauer and his associate take an entire cable car captive. It’s a long scene, escalating in tension, as the villain takes out a random bystander, tosses the body into the river, and Stallone has to lower himself out of the car with a rope. Other scenes are less successful, such an early moment of Hauer planting a bomb in a shop, which is weirdly devoid of tension.

As a performance, Sly is most entertaining when freaking out. After the villain slashes his partner’s face, he goes on an epic freak-out in the subway. The film was Rutger Hauer’s breakout role in America and the first of many psychotic villains he’d play in U.S. action flicks. Hauer’s blue steel eyes have an icy quality, making him well-suited for villains that easily dispatch innocent victims. Playing Deke’s partner, and technically pushing the movie into the category of buddy cop movies, is Billy Dee Williams. When we’re so used to seeing Williams play hyper-cool characters, there’s a certain novelty to seeing him play a hot-head cop who comes close to snapping several times. I like how Nigel Davenport, as the stuck-up police instructor, warms up to Sly later in the film. It would’ve been nice to see Persis Khambatta, as Wulfgar’s partner-in-crime, and Lindsay Wagner, as the imperiled wife, given more to do though.

Reading about “Nighthawks’” production gives you an idea of how troubled the movie was. The film switched directors halfway through production, Bruce Malmuth heading the movie over to Gary Nelson. The film was heavily re-edited by the studio, in hopes of making the movie more commercial and cutting down on the violence. (The gore was apparently outrageous enough to earn the movie an “X” rating. Where the scissors came in are very noticeable.) Even Keith Emerson’s score was taken apart and tinkered with. Considering all of this, “Nighthawks” remains decently entertaining. The film doesn’t stick in the memory the best but, as an early peak at the leading man’s rise to action star status, it proves amusing enough. [7/10]

[] Frank Stallone or Frank Stallone-esque Inspirational Music
[X] Incapacitates or Kills Someone With His Body
[] Shows Off Buffness
[X] Social Outcast [Divorced Cop]
[X] Sweaty, Veiny Yelling

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