DaSilva (Sylvester Stallone) and Fox (Billy Dee Williams) are two tough New York cops who just want to be left alone so that they can arrest muggers and purse snatchers. However, because they both have a background in the military, they are assigned to work with an international anti-terrorism task force that is being headed up by Detective Inspector Peter Hartman (Nigel Davenport). Rumor has it that the notorious terrorist Wulfgar (Rutger Hauer) is coming to New York and Hartman tells DaSilva and Fox that they must be prepared to do whatever is necessary to take Wulgar down, even if it means taking a shot while he is hiding behind a hostage. DaSilva says he’s not sure that he could shoot an innocent person, even if it meant stopping Wulfgar from escaping.
Wulfgar has no such moral qualms. Wulfgar is a terrorist-for-hire who claims to be fighting for the people but whose main interest is remaining employable. Unfortunately, Wulfgar has become so ruthless and so cavalier about killing civilians (including children) that most terrorist groups have started to refuse to hire him. He brings too much bad publicity to his employers. Wulfgar has come to New York to lead a bombing campaign, with the hope of once again making himself employable. Wulfgar’s partner in all of this is the equally ruthless Shakka Kapoor (Persis Khambatta).
Nighthawks was one of the films that Stallone made after he found stardom as Rocky but before he redefined his career by playing John Rambo. Stallone actually gives a surprisingly good performance as DaSilva. DaSilva may be another tough cop who plays by his own rules but the script still gives the character some unexpected shadings and Stallone plays him as being more cerebral than you might expect. It’s interesting to see Stallone play a character who is worried about using excessive force to do his job and, to the film’s credit, it actually takes DaSilva’s conflicted feelings seriously. Billy Dee Williams, unfortunately, is not given as much to do as Stallone and his character is far more one-note than Stallone’s. He’s the loyal partner and, with his natural charisma, Williams deserved a role with more depth. Also appearing in small roles are Joe Spinell (as Stallone’s boss), Lindsay Wagner (as Stallone’s ex-wife), and the legendary pornographic actor Jamie Gillis (as Wagner’s boss).
Not surprisingly, the film is stolen by Rutger Hauer, who gives a performance that, in many ways, anticipates his more acclaimed work in Blade Runner. As played by Hauer, Wulfgar is a charismatic sociopath who knows exactly the right thing to say but who, because of his own arrogance, is still vulnerable to allowing his emotions to get the better of him. He and Stallone both play-off each other well and their face-to-face confrontations are intense. It probably helped that Hauer and Stallone did not personally get along during the filming. (Both, however, were very complimentary towards each other in the years that followed Nighthawks, with Hauer especially saying that there was nothing personal about their on-set arguments.)
Nighthawks is hardly an in-depth look at the realities of international terrorism but it has a handful of exciting action scenes and two excellent performances from Stallone and Hauer. It’s currently on Netflix and worth watching.