Welcome to a special Class of ’81 edition of Catalog From the Beyond, where I’m taking a little detour out of pure horror for a side quest into action thriller to celebrate the American film debut of the late, great Rutger Hauer. You may not associate Hauer with the horror genre specifically, but it’s hard to argue that he didn’t make quite the impression in genre films. Of course, most know him as Roy Batty in Blade Runner, and for me you’re not going to get a more memorable villain than his turn as John Ryder in The Hitcher. But it occurs to me that he also has something of a penchant for playing vampires with bloodsucker roles in Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1992), Salem’s Lot (2004), multiple Dracula movies, and even a stint on True Blood. But long before he started buying prosthetic fangs in bulk, Hauer broke out in a thriller that pitted him against none other than Sylvester Stallone in Bruce Malmuth’s Nighthawks.
Hauer comes out swinging in Nighthawks as he oozes the sinister charm that would become his trademark as Wulfgar, an infamous international terrorist based on real-life figure Carlos the Jackal. Wulfgar’s chilling, nothing-is-out-of-bounds approach hints at the characters that would soon make Hauer a star in genre cinema. Stallone’s Deke DaSilva, meanwhile, is essentially a surly Rocky Balboa in Serpico cosplay. DaSilva and partner Matthew Fox (the great Billy Dee Williams) are a couple of detectives on the street crimes unit of the NYPD, a job that seemingly entails disguising themselves as women, drug dealers, and other potential targets to entrap entice criminals to commit crimes and catch them red-handed.
When Wulfgar flees Europe after a botched bombing and arrives in the States, European Inspector Hartman (Nigel Davenport) assembles a group of cops in the area to form the Anti-Terrorist Action Command (aka ATAC, one of the early titles for the movie). While there’s potential for the clash in styles to make for some interesting conflict, in execution the story is a bit of a mess that doesn’t age very well, as the only real conflict among the ATAC team is between DaSilva and Hartman, and it pretty much boils down to “you American cops are too soft and not ruthless enough to take down a terrorist like Wulfgar.” Which, you know, is pretty ironic through a 21st century lens.
By all accounts, the production was just as much of a debacle as the story. The original choice for director, Gary Nelson, was fired within the first week of shooting. When Stallone recommended Bruce Malmuth (who at this point had precisely zero feature films to his credit) as a replacement, producers were worried about falling behind schedule and Stallone took over directing duties for the first day of shooting. This, however, put the production in hot water with the Director’s Guild of America, who had a rule at the time stating anyone involved with a production before a director was hired could not replace that director except in cases of an emergency.
Although both the production and Stallone wound up paying fines for the misstep, that didn’t stop Stallone from continuing to make his presence felt throughout a pretty fraught shoot. Hauer, in particular, had a pretty bad outing in making his first American production, recalling in an interview with Empire magazine that in “many ways it was a terrible disaster for me because of the way they worked, the politics, the way they fired people, the way they treated me.” Accounts of the production note that Stallone and Hauer didn’t get along well on set, although in future interviews both seem to have put those issues in the past and said they never took any of it personally beyond the fact that it was a difficult production for everyone.
The inability to find a rhythm during production is pretty evident on the screen. As much as I truly enjoy a lot of Stallone’s work, both as a walking ’80s action trope as well as his forays into subtler acting work, here he just seems uncomfortable and unable to grasp the tone he wants to convey. Williams is fine as Fox, but they really don’t give him much to do other than being On Edge™, and as DaSilva’s ex-wife, Linsday Wagner’s Irene is in the movie for all of one scene essentially to set up the film’s final sequence (more on that later).
So, the story isn’t really where the movie excels. Instead, it’s at its best when it drops the attempts at social commentary and ramps up the action in chase scenes that play out through the streets and subways of New York, and tense sequences like Wulfgar taking a group of UN ambassadors hostage on a Roosevelt Island Tramway car over the East River.
But the film’s standout moment comes at the very end in a sequence that comes closest to placing Nighthawks in the horror genre. Wulfgar, having been foiled in his attempt to make a statement with the UN hostages and kill DaSilva, decides to get his revenge by killing DaSilva’s ex-wife, Irene (who, if you’re anything like me, you’ll have forgotten all about by this point). If you haven’t seen Nighthawks but this scene sounds familiar, you may remember it being featured in one of Heather Wixson’s favorite documentaries, 1984’s Terror in the Aisles. As Wulfgar breaks into Irene’s house, the film squeezes every bit of suspense out of the scene as Hauer slithers through the house to sneak up behind Irene in the kitchen. The last second reveal that “Irene” is in fact DaSilva using one of his street unit tactics is such a brilliantly executed reveal that it makes me wonder where the hell that level of execution was to be found during the film’s previous 95 minutes.
In fact, one has to wonder if Nighthawks wouldn’t have been a better movie had they kept it smaller and leaned into the horror elements. Hauer was essentially playing a serial killer in the film anyway, and the movie would have benefited by a smaller scale that jettisoned all the international terrorism nonsense for something more intimate between Hauer and Stallone. Now I’m grieving for the taut cat-and-mouse thriller that we could have had. But I still appreciate the scattered and flawed yarn that we got. If nothing else, Nighthawks paved the way for a dashing Dutchman to terrorize our screens for years to come.
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