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.


Unknown said...

"...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."

I really dig this film, which is somewhat underrated, esp. among Stallone's work, and I can remember watching it when it first surfaced on home video and have seen it countless times since.

There is something about the film that gets every time, which I think you touch on when you talk about the cold, wintery look and the grimy, dangerous sections of the city that the film is shot in. As you point out, it really is a mash-up of THE FRENCH CONNECTION and BLACK SUNDAY... but in a good way!

And isn't Rutger Hauer so good in this film? I believe this was his first American film and his character was inspired somewhat by famous int'l terrorist Carlos the Jackal. He is deliciously evil in this film and there are a few scenes where he really shows off his ruthless nature well... there is no attempt to water him down.

You make a really good observation about where this film fits in Stallone's career. It really does feel like he's playing a character and not playing up his movie star persona. It's a shame that the film wasn't more successful and he might have tried more roles like this. Sadly, we'd have to wait until COPLAND to see how truly good he could be and disappear into a role.

Recently, he also did a film called SHADE about poker, which I thought was pretty good and he played a veteran card shark and was quite good in it. Sadly, no one saw that film either.

As for COMMANDO, I can remember going to see that film when it came out in theaters with my dad and enjoying it... of course, I was a kid at the time. Ahhh, I still think that PREDATOR is my fave Ah-Nuld film.

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...

Oh, I didn't mean the CONNECTION/SUNDAY observation as a bad thing, the similarities just stuck out to me. I really liked the movie, particularly some of the amazing NY location shooting and the few issues I had didn't sour me on it. It's too bad there doesn't seem to be a decent DVD out there, that would really help its rep. And yeah, Hauer is pretty damn good in it.

Unknown said...

Yeah, you basically need to get the film twice on DVD -- one for the uncut musical cues and the other to see in its original aspect ratio. How odd is that? If I had my druthers, I think I would go with aspect ratio - depending on how it was shot. Or, just tape it off cable next times its on TV. I guess that works too. ; )

Anonymous said...

Really enjoyed the review.

Nighthawks has always been a personal favourite of mine ever since I first saw it back in 1980 or whatever it was. I kept telling friends at the time to go see it & when one of them finally did he pronounced himself completely unimpressed by it (mind you he always did have terrible taste) ...

I think this is one of Stallone's most personable performances but he is very much overshadowed by Hauer's frightening terrorist. What's that saying about the devil having all the best tunes? Definitely the case here. Whether it's Wulfgar (such a great name!) twisting a scalpel into the mouth of a plastic surgeon & demanding 'I want to be beautiful!', flirting with a pretty shop assistant in a store he's about to blow up, or giving Stallone the most bone chillingly cold stare imaginable when the former tags him in a NY disco, Hauer compels attention in a way Stallone can never quite match.

Stallone reportedly felt the same way, complaining that for him the film never achieved the right balance between the two principals. Hauer has said that he physically threatened Stallone on the set when the actor persisted in trying to rewrite scenes to favour his own character. The curious thing is that Stallone does get the most screen time in Nighthawks but if you were to ask which of the characters makes the most forceful impression I can't imagine anybody not going with Hauer. This must have caused the notoriously egotistical Stallone some problems.

As for the film in general I think one of the reasons Nighthawks has stood up (at least for me) is that it doesn't overreach itself. It's competently directed & competently crafted & in age where bloat & bombast seem the rule for action movies, Nighthawks' modest virtues seem even more impressive by comparison. Curious about director Bruce Malmuth though & why he never seemed to go on to do more work ...

Anyway I love the film for all sorts of arcane film geeky reasons. As a Brit the sight of Nigel Davenport as Stallone's mentor, in a Hollywood movie like this, is a delight. Ditto for the London scene where Wulfgar guns down a squad of detectives whilst posing as a student & Davenport wearily comments that 'One of these days it would be nice if someone actually listened to me!'.

Or there's the way the different international locations are introduced with title cards & dates - the very essence of 'ripped from the headlines' globe trotting thrillers of the 70's.

And then there's this: http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=QVhdVw8URNo&feature=related
As geeky as it sounds I am an automatic sucker for any movie which puts up red credits on a black background (the titles for Carpenter's Assault on Precinct 13 had exactly the same effect on me). I don't care how the good the rest of the movie is, there's something about that combination that is intrinsically thrilling & when the score is a blast it's just heaven.

Mention of the score also means a round of applause for Keith Emmerson's pulse-pounding title theme. It's an excellent score - punchy, abrasive (& a distant cousin of Shire's marvellous Pelham 1-2-3 score) yet glossier, smoother, & definitely best played as loudly as possible.

One other point while I'm rambling .. the climax, whilst a nifty bit of suspense & very satisfying clearly shows some re-editing. I can't remember how many shots Deke fires but Wulfgar ends up a lot bloodier given the number of shots & his position from the kitchen to falling through the glass of the hallway door also seems unusually jumpy. I'm betting that there were censorship issues with a pre MPAA cut that was lengthier & more graphic & which they had to trim when the board came back to them with a rating. Not that I'm angling for a bloodier cut or anything. Just an observation. :-)

Selfish request time; as a big Maclean/Burton/Eastwood/Ure fan, how about a piece on Where Eagles Dare? And on the subject of early 80's overlooked gems, Lewis Teague's terrific Death Vengeance (aka Fighting back), with Tom Skerrit as a tough nut Philly store owner turned vigilante, & Frankenheimer's East/West samurai thriller The Challenge, with Scott Glen & Toshiro Mifune, are seriously deserving of some love.

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...


Many thanks for the lengthy comment and you pinpointed some very cool elements of the film. I can see why it would be such a favorite. Unless I'm mistaken, I think I've read that the alternate DVD versions that affect the music may also mess with the editing in the climax as well. Of course I wouldn't be the one to know about this but the Wikipedia page does mention using a shorter edit of the scene--maybe somewhere else on the net has even more details.

As for your very kind request, I've only seen two of the three--WHERE EAGLES DARE and THE CHALLENGE--and it's been quite a few years since I've seen either of them. I do remember liking THE CHALLENGE quite a bit though and I really should look for it again. It's the sort of film that would probably have a small cult following, but I just don't think that enough people are aware of it. I'll keep these titles in mind for the future. There are always more movies to see.

Again, my thanks for all you had to say.

Nostalgia Kinky said...

I love NIGHTHAWKS...just love it and think that it is one of Sly's best films. I also must admit that I liked your post on it better than mine!
Haven't seen COMMANDO in years but have been itching to revisit it lately.

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...

Glad to hear you're a fan as well, Jeremy. It probably is one of his best and certainly one of his most unsung. Thanks for what you said about what I wrote, I'll have to take a look at your post on it now!