NIGHTHAWKS (1981) — Sly on the ATAC [Blu-ray Review]

Nighthawks was released on Blu-ray by Shout! Factory on October 18th, as the 6th title in their new Shout Select line.

The story goes that Sylvester Stallone went into a casting call and mentioned to producers that he also wrote a little. Irwin Winkler gave Sly a chance to pitch a police drama he was attached to, but wasn’t interested. Winkler asked what else he had, and the young man mentioned another idea he had about a small-time underdog boxer.

Rocky, of course, made Hollywood history and its writer-actor an instant superstar, but what about that other film?

Sly got his chance to make that film as well — it ended up becoming Nighthawks.

A year before his breakout performance in Blade Runner, striking Dutchman Rutger Hauer made his American film debut in Nighthawks as Wulfgar, a dapper international terrorist who announces himself by blowing up a landmark London department store, then hightails to New York City.

An anti-terror team led by expert Peter Hartman place Wulfgar in New York City (though how seems to be one of the film’s bigger plot holes). There’s a big curveball, though. The murder of a prominent plastic surgeon tips them off to what the audience has already seen — Wulfgar has had his face reconstructed, and nobody know exactly what he looks now.

Streetwise undercover cops Deke Da Silva (Stallone channeling Serpico) and Matthew Fox (Billy Dee Williams) are recruited to aid in the international Anti-Terror Action Command (ATAC) operation, though their police training and aversion to violence and collateral damage come into contrast with Hartman’s more ruthless “no hesitation” methodology in which ends justify means.

While more of a thriller than a straight action picture, Nighthawks resonates with some major action setpieces and huge stunts as Da Silva and Fox pursue their ruthless quarry, including a middle act footchase that finds them hitching a ride on the back of a moving subway train. Wulfgar’s big move, though, is to take a number of international delegates hostage in an aerial tram suspended high above the East River. He agrees to allow Da Silva to retrieve an infant while the police attend to his political demands, resulting in an authentic sequence in which Stallone — who performed all his own stunts — is winched up hundreds of feet to the car to meet the terrorist face to face.

The world has changed a lot since 1981, and in post-911 New York, Nighthawks‘ theme of international terrorism feels more relevant, and yet less novel. And while the film technically released in the 80s, its conception, creation, and straightforward, no-frills vibe are definitely rooted in the 70s.

This is a good film, but there are quite a few things that didn’t really add up for me. Hartman’s explanation for why he believes Wulfgar to be in New York are unconvincing, and certainly not much to develop and deploy a large-scale ATAC operation. Da Silva and Fox are vocally resistant to being assigned to the ATAC team, complaining to their hard-ass police Lieutenant (the always-fabulous Joe Spinell), but I can’t fathom why. The major international operation would seem a huge honor and impressive career move, not to mention far more important than busting a couple drug dealers.

We do get some insight into Da Silva’s character through references to his previous military career and a romantic subplot in which he tries to win back his estranged wife, but Fox’s character is left pretty developed. And Wulfgar, while continually fascinating to watch, is a pretty ineffectual terrorist. He makes several sloppy decisions throughout the film, not the least of which is developing a personal vendetta with Da Silva.

Nighthawks had a somewhat troubled production in which original director Gary Nelson’s poor communication and clashes with Stallone led to his dismissal, and the inexperienced Bruce Malmuth taking his place, and this might account for some of its weaknesses. Perhaps the bigger issue, though was that producers insisted on cutting scenes or subplots that could have given the story greater depth. But despite a few plot holes and non-sequiturs, he fabulous cast and 70s NYC grit go a long way into making this a mostly solid thriller.

The Package

Nighthawks arrives on Blu-ray as the 6th title in the new Shout Select line. Aside from the spine number, it’s a no-frills package with a standard Blu-ray case. But while the packaging isn’t remarkable, the wealth of features is.

Special Features and Extras

Shout developed a lot of great extras for this release, though it’s notably and unfortunately missing any input from top names like Stallone, Williams, Hauer, or either of its 2 directors. Still, this is interesting stuff and a huge improvement over previous releases.

· NEW Lights, Camera, Action! — An Interview With Producer Herb Nanas (16:10)
 Audio only but quite informative, touching on the production troubles with the original director, Stallone’s stunt work, and changes to the film made by the studio.

· NEW Nighthawks: The First Draft — An Interview With Writer Paul Sylbert (9:49)
 Sylbert mainly describes the differences in his original script (which caused producers to “shit their pants”) and the final film, providing a fascinating look at the story’s evolution.

· NEW We Gotta Shoot This! — An Interview With Director Of Photography James A. Contner (24:37)
 While Contner discusses various aspects of the film, I love that he gets a bit technical in discussing things he tried with lighting and locations. He also talks abut a terrifying stunt that almost went very wrong.

· NEW A Sign Of The Times — An Interview With Actress Lindsay Wagner (10:29)
 Wagner discusses her experience, but chiefly laments the film’s truncated romantic subplot that robbed their characters of their depth.

· NEW Not The Other Girls — An Interview With Actress Catherine Mary Stewart (4:24)
 Stewart has a very minor role in the film, but it’s fun to hear her discuss her experience.

· NEW It Was Hell — An Interview With Technical Adviser Randy Jurgensen (10:50)
 Jurgensen posits that a contentious production — from which he was fired — still led to a good film.

· Theatrical Trailer (1:43)

· Radio Spots (1:35)
 A trio of 30-second audio spots

· Still Gallery (6:42)
 A mix of set photographs and marketing materials (posters, lobby cards)

A/V Out.

Get it at Amazon:
 Nighthawks — [Blu-ray]

Originally published at on November 4, 2016.

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