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Nice twists energize film that pits two tough cops against one ruthless terrorist

December 1, 2009

By Jimmy Gillman

Jimmy Gillman
Nighthawks
Universal; 1981; 105 minutes; R, for nudity, graphic violence, adult themes and language; Directed by Bruce Malmuth; Starring: Sylvester Stallone, Billy Dee Williams, Rutger Hauer, Nigel Davenport, Persis Khambatta, Lindsay Wagner and Joe Spinell; Screenwriter(s): David Shaber and Paul Sylbert

 

 

 

 

GRADE: B+

 

Produced before Sylvester Stallone became a bona fide superstar (deservingly or not), “Nighthawks is an exciting film about a pair of rough-and-tumble New York City cops who are assigned to an elite unit hell bent on finding and killing a vicious international terrorist (played to perfection by Danish actor Rutger Haur).

 

Most American films—especially action features—are positively rampant with over-the-top Hollywood convention. Things often tend to begin realistically enough until, bang, something wholly unbelievable happens, tearing viewers from the unique fantasy mindset films evoke by reminding them they’re simply watching a movie.

 

That dichotomy is the essential difference between an entertainment experience (as described above) and a cinematic one, where the emphasis is on maintaining a reality based on a certain degree of truth, albeit one romanticized and exaggerated.

 

Stallone is as good an example as any of someone who has primarily appeared in entertainment-based films (“Rambo,” “Cobra,” “Demolition Man,” and others). While each of these films has a certain degree of merit, none of them qualify as anything more than escapist Hollywood entertainments.

 

In “Nighthawks,” unlike the aforementioned action flicks, Stallone plays a character not so self-assured. His Deke DaSilva is reluctant to take on the assignment and resents the fact that the group’s leader—a British anti-terrorist expert (played with intense determination by Nigel Davenport)—wants to turn him into an assassin. In fact, it is only after his longtime partner (Billy Dee Williams in an excellent supporting role) convinces him innocent people have already been killed that he agrees to join the team.

 

Director Bruce Malmuth (“The Karate Kid,” “Lean on Me”) maintains his grip on reality by having Stallone’s character mess up, more than once as a matter of fact, with some of those screw-ups resulting in the deaths of innocent bystanders. By injecting such flaws into his leading character, and having those flaws translate into tangible miscalculations and misfortunes, Malmuth elevates “Nighthawks” from the level of mere entertainment to something much closer to a meaningful drama, without in any real way sacrificing or diluting the film’s action-oriented core.

 

It’s quite a feat; especially considering how much easier it is for directors to bestow action heroes with superhero-like qualities, which generally makes their jobs, and the role of the screenwriter, a whole lot easier. No such easy way out is present in “Nighthawks,” and the result is a thinking-person’s actioner that will allow fans of the genre to have their cake and eat it, too.

 

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Film Grading Key

A+ Can't get any better

A Outstanding

A- Superior effort

B+ Very good

B Good

B- Still worth watching

C+ Strictly iffy

C Waste of time

In Memory of Philip Seymour Hoffman 1967-2014

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