What, or who, is a nighthawk? Surprisingly, perhaps, you will not find out by watching Nighthawks (1981). You will, however, get to enjoy the longest opening credits ever set to the music of Keith Emerson and see Sylvester Stallone in drag. That’s kind of a spoiler, but then again Nighthawks is 30 years old. The ‘spoiler alert’ requirement has to expire at some point.
The film begins with a sweet little old lady, who appears to have some kind of facial deformity, walking down a scary, dark New York alley on what the screen title tells us is New Year’s Eve. As the story unfolds, it turns out that the date doesn’t matter at all so I’m not sure why we’re told what day it is. Though while we’re on the subject, where the hell is everyone? If it really is 31 December, where are the groups of rowdy revellers and bewildered tourists? The streets in Nighthawks, be they in New York, London or Paris, are as deserted as those of Pripyat. Before you can say “Worst New Year’s Eve party ever,” the sweet little old lady is being mugged by three guys. Which seems a little economically unviable. Think about – an old lady walking through a bad neighbourhood isn’t likely to have a lot of money in her purse, let alone enough to make a three-way split a rewarding night’s work. Tragically for our trio of thugs it turns out that they’re dumb and unlucky, because the sweet little old lady is Sgt Deke da Silva (Sylvester Stallone) in drag and a rubber mask and the bum in the doorway is his police partner, Sgt Matthew Fox (Billy Dee Williams).
There’s no chance to think about what great legs Stallone is displaying beneath the hem of his housecoat before he is pursuing the man he repeatedly calls a ‘bad ass’ onto a train platform. Stallone in a dress + phallic speeding train = reaffirmation of Stallone the Man. Got it.
Even despite this oddly comic opening scene it is apparent that Nighthawks is a damn fine looking film. This is the New York of graphic novels like Watchmen and The Sandman series: it’s dark and sleazy, with a lot of nooks and crannies and fire escapes seen from wonderful angles, and even in the middle of the day there’s no hint of natural light, let alone sunshine. The nightclubs are populated with pretty ladies and freaky-looking guys, and the dance floors have light-up squares. (One of the DJs is played by Howard Stein, a visual effects artist who worked on such little-known cult classics as E.T, Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Empire Strikes Back and many better-known movies besides. The lack of actual DJs in the nightclub scenes might explain why the extras are forced to boogie down to The Rolling Stones rather than, y’know, actual disco music.) It’s almost too cool to be real, but then again that’s often how the recent past looks through the filter of nostalgia and retro revivalism.
Stallone’s wardrobe merits special attention in this regard, because it wouldn’t look out of place on a Hackney hipster now. His huge sunglasses, luxuriant beard and leather coats look pretty awesome teamed with his chunky knit cardies, even though they prompt his fashion-designer ex-wife (a blink-and-you-miss-it appearance from Lindsay Wagner) to ask “What are you wearing?” in the same tone your Mum used for asking about the little bag of dried leaves she found in your sock drawer. But there’s no way you can make fun of Billy Dee Williams’ costume – he spends the whole film in a Superman T-shirt, and that’s a perennial classic. Also timeless: smoking, great hair, and brooding. Preferably all at once.
It’s difficult to believe now, but on its release Nighthawks was given an R rating. These days, it would probably be PG – there’s not a sex scene in sight, and the strength of the language never gets beyond “motherfucker”. Even when Rutger Hauer’s international terrorist, Wulfgar, blows up Wall Street, he does it at night to ensure there are few casualties.
In one of Nighthawks’ many charming quirks, Hauer’s character is also introduced in a form of disguise. After blowing up a London department store on behalf of the IRA, a brown-haired, brown-eyed Wulfgar decamps with his prosthetic nose and thick glasses to a student party where he sets about wooing a blonde lovely with folk music. An IRA courier then arrives and Wulfgar makes the first of several surprising blunders: after establishing that the courier has inadvertently lead the police straight to him, he heads out into the stairwell and, using his acoustic guitar to conceal his gun, shoots the Bobbies dead as they head up the stairs. Luckily the noise of the party drowns out the gunfire, but that’s not the mistake: Wulfgar shoots the courier for good measure and flees. Nighthawks is not the kind of movie to let the opportunity for cliché to pass it by: the lovely blonde comes to the stairwell, finds the courier’s bullet riddled body and duly clasps both fists to her temples as she screams the house down. Really – have you ever seen anyone scream like that?
Legging it to Paris, Wulfgar meets the beautiful and mysterious Shakka in a strangely tourist-free Sainte Chappelle (like I said, every location in this film is inexplicably unpopulated). Shakka is played by 1965’s Miss India, Persis Khambatta, who managed to notch up roles in Star Trek: The Motion Picture and the magnificently titled She Wolves of the Wasteland before her untimely death in 1998. But I digress.
Shakka informs Wulfgar that he should have riffled through the courier’s pockets, because he was carrying Wulfgar’s new fake passport – complete with photo – which the police now have. This necessitates a visit to a plastic surgeon, who is instructed to “Make me beautiful.” That Wulfgar snarls this at the good doctor whilst hanging onto the doctor’s lower lip with a hooked surgical instrument might be seen as poor judgment on Wulfgar’s part, but nevertheless the doctor makes the adjustments required to make Wulfgar look exactly like Rutger Hauer. It’s amazing.
Sadly for Wulfgar, his new face doesn’t stop him doing dumb stuff like leaving a map of New York with his next target circled in red pen on a coffee table in the apartment of the air hostess he’s just murdered. Or from leaving an unlocked suitcase full of guns and grenades in the air hostess’ wardrobe for her to be caught rummaging around in (hence her murder). As far as highly educated, multilingual stone cold killers for hire go, Wulfgar is charmingly sloppy. And he has an earring, which is fairly edgy for 1981.
Meanwhile, da Silva and Fox have been unwillingly dragged off decoy duty (no pun intended) to work counter-terrorism. Instead of seeing this as an exciting diversion from being beaten up by petty crims, they bitch about it like children on detention. This allows their superiors to spend a lot of time jabbing their fingers in the air and YELLING about how they’re SICK OF THEIR SHIT and spouting straight-to-the-gut lines like “Oh, for Christ’s sake, da Silva! Come off this cop on the beat mentality! Your wife left you for it! Wasn’t that enough?”
Da Silva’s problem is that he is morally opposed to killing people, even Wulfgar, despite the fact he killed more than 50 people in Vietnam (“That was war,” he grunts) and the great advice he receives from his trainer: “To combat violence, you need greater violence.”
There are other words to live by too, like Wulfgar’s advice to his hostages as Shakkar busily ties them up: “Do not underestimate her just because she’s a woman.”
Naturally, there is also advice unheeded because it comes from Stallone’s flat as a pancake delivery. If you imagine the talking clock saying “Oh goddamit man he killed her,” then you are close to catching the petrified woodenness of Stallone in this movie. This does nothing to lessen how cool Nighthawks is: if anything, his near-catatonic presence is more grist to the mill of gender studies students, who may wonder if he has picked up the transvestite ball and run with it to the extent that he’s channelling Norman Bates’ mother in Psycho.
I won’t give away any more of the plot, except to say that da Silva and Fox survive and da Silva kills Wulfgar and Shakka. However, da Silva only manages to summon up the courage to kill Wulfgar by putting on his ex-wife’s dressing gown and donning a long blonde wig. I’m sure there’s a lesson in there for all of us.