Tuesday, October 14, 2008
Taking The Shot
I was there at the New Beverly on Friday night for the continuation of the festival hosted by Patton Oswalt, but surprisingly Patton Oswalt was not. As a substitute, Edgar Wright had been enlisted. Why couldn’t Patton be there? Who knows. Does it matter? Not very much. Patton had programmed a Stallone-Schwarzenegger double bill, which he had dubbed "Titans Forever". I was really there to see NIGHTHAWKS, the Stallone half of the night which, for reasons I cannot explain, I had never seen. I was excited enough about it that whoever made the introductions wasn’t much of an issue.
The plot is fairly simple: Two New York undercover police detectives (Sylvester Stallone and Billy Dee Williams) are assigned to an anti-terrorism task force just as notorious terrorist Wulfgar (Rutger Hauer), who has just blown up a London department store, is making preparations to cross the pond to New York. Basically it’s a cross between a knockoff of THE FRENCH CONNECTION, with its two scrappy lead characters willing to work the worst parts of the city, and a knockoff of BLACK SUNDAY with the tracking of a terrorist as he plots out his activities (the Europe-to-Manhattan angle feels a little like MARATHON MAN as well). Looking at NIGHTHAWKS at this point in time its most interesting aspect, even more than the terrorists-in-Manhattan storyline, is how it’s a Sylvester Stallone film before he really burst out into the superstardom he would achieve within a few years. Released the year before the one-two punch of ROCKY III and FIRST BLOOD really sent his career in a different direction, this film has him playing more of a character, complete with a beard and glasses, than he would within a few years when every part he played would just be a different aspect of the Stallone persona. His banter with Billy Dee Williams (playing a character named Matthew Fox!) isn’t exactly what we got with Gene Hackman and Roy Scheider but they work pretty well together.
The film moves along at an exciting clip, making excellent use of its New York locations. Following the two lead cops on their undercover work early on makes it look like the production sought out the most dangerous parts of the city at that point and the film, shot in the dead of winter, has a cold and grimey feel to it overall. There’s a terrific chase through the subway and, what most people probably remember about the film, a long, very well-done hostage sequence filmed on the Roosevelt Island Tram, a location also used in SPIDER-MAN but since this is all actually filmed there (no blue screen work) it plays extremely perilous and suspenseful. The final sequence was ruined for me years ago in the compilation film TERROR IN THE AISLES but in context it plays pretty great. I still can’t fathom what scenes from this were doing in that movie anyway.
The script (Story by David Shaber and Paul Sylbert, Screenplay by Shaber) feels a little thin, as if it’s taking it’s inspiration from films that were established as novels but never is able to make it’s storytelling as rich and complex as they were. I also got the vague feeling throughout that the film would work even better if it had a stronger directorial hand—it was helmed by Bruce Malmuth who didn’t do much else outside of the Seagal vehicle HARD TO KILL—but to give the final product credit enough of the movie works that maybe it’s quibbling to make that point. Maybe it’s just a case of it being just good enough that I wish it were even better. NIGHTHAWKS does seem slightly unique in how it feels like it tonally falls between the grittier 70s and the glossier 80s that hadn’t quite taken hold but it feels strange why it isn’t better known. It seems like the sort of thing that TBS should have been playing hundreds of times through the years.
Rutger Hauer is excellent as the villain, doing more with it than what may be on the page. Lindsay Wagner plays Stallone’s ex-wife in what is pretty much a nothing role. STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE’s Persis Khambatta, with a full head of hair, plays Hauer’s terorist cohort in what, keeping BLACK SUNDAY and MARATHON MAN in mind, is pretty much the Marthe Keller role (there’s a phrase I don’t use very much). The great Joe Spinell, also in ROCKY, plays Stallone’s Lieutenant in what is probably the only time I’ve ever seen him without a mustache.
Edgar Wright had disappeared when it was time to see the second film of the night, the 1985 Schwarzenegger extravaganza COMMANDO. But we got a pleasant surprise when it turned out that the film’s screenwriter Steven E. de Souza, writer of some of the best action movies of that era, had turned up with his family, just to see the film. He gladly went up front and regaled us with the origins of the film, which came from Twentieth Century Fox wanting to put together a Schwawzenegger vehicle quickly as a writers strike loomed. The writer basically told the story to the star in his office one day and he became very excited about the project, saying, “I don’t have to play a robot from the future or a caveman from the past!” The film was given the green light almost immediately, with pre production beginning as the script was being written in order to beat the strike deadline, which he just barely did. It’s amazing to think that I saw COMMANDO when it first came out and was able to sit through more than a few seconds at a time with a straight face. It seems pretty absurd now and the climax is ridiculously, if enjoyably, violent. But, with those legendary de Souza one-liners, it’s still fun and a tight ninety minutes. You know the drill—“That’s why I’m going to kill you last.” “Don’t disturb my friend, he’s dead tired.” “I let him go.” “Let’s party.” “Let off some steam, Bennett.” That’s COMMANDO, much more of a goof than the first film of the night but it still helped make for an enjoyable evening. It was particularly good to finally see NIGHTHAWKS, a film which seems to have fallen through the cracks of the action genre and definitely deserves more of a reputation.