An old-school flatfoot Deke DaSilva (Sylvester Stallone) grudgingly accepts a mission to put an end to an emerging international terrorist, Wulfgar (Rutger Hauer), who’s wanted in Europe and believed to be headed to the center of the universe, New York City. Along with his acts of terror, Wulfgar is also a ladykiller who demands the notice of the press. Deke DaSilva and his partner Sergeant Matthew Fox (Billy Dee Williams) have become accustomed to street tactics as they operate undercover for decoy patrols within the police department. DaSilva and Fox climb up back alley stairways and enter buildings through rooftop doors in order to sneak their way into drug busts. The NYPD patrol units are unsatisfied with their street tactics and call them “glory boys.” DaSilva and Fox play on each other with pranks and gags, mostly DaSilva’s wisecracking partner, Fox, who likes using handshake zappers and witty one-liners. These two are the gung-ho lone rangers of the street crime unit in Nighthawks, a suspense/thriller directed by Bruce Malmuth (Hard to Kill).
While DaSilva and Fox fight crime in New York, Wulfgar plants bombs inside department stores and kills innocent civilians in Europe, while making calls to the media for attention, claiming “There is no security.” He claims to be the voice of the oppressed throughout his mission of instilling fear upon the world. DaSilva has been a decoy for 9 years and grudgingly accepts his transfer to a new assignment from the government in Washington sending an order to the Commissioner when a British counterterrorism specialist with Interpol requests for DaSilva and Fox to join the task force due to their background in the army with the war in Vietnam. Though he’s tough and street smart, DaSilva is often way in over his head, going hands-on with his superior at the precinct, only to be chewed out, and forced to comply. DaSilva’s methods are disregarded by his superiorsa, as he and Fox sit down in a class instructed by Peter Hartmann (Nigel Davenport) of the International Police Organization who has arrived from Britain to prepare DaSilva and Fox in concocting a strategy to prevent Wulfgar from committing another act of terror.
Wulfgar is a charmer with women. After arriving in New York City, he sparks up a conversation with an attractive flight attendant named Pam outside of ABC studios, in broad New York daylight. He is a lean, clean shaven, long haired man who has a deceptive expression with women that cannot read his inner truth, which is so absurd and outlandish when he puts it into words, matter-of-factly, after she asks him what he does for a living, “I’m an international terrorist wanted by half of Europe. And I’m a ladykiller.” She laughs, as if he’s teasing her.
There is an intense debate of educational dialogue written by David Shaber (The Warriors) when DaSilva constantly counters Hartmann with rebuttals during his lecture. Memorable lines such as “This is a terrorist. His method is to instill fear. He doesn’t think like a criminal.” These words are exchanged when DaSilva disagrees and requests to employ his conservative police tactics. To which Hartmann reacts, “You can only defeat violence with greater violence.” DaSilva backs out because he doesn’t want to commit an accidental homicide. Later, Hartmann confronts him with information about his background, in how he has 52 registered kills in combat. “That was war.” DaSilva explains, with a stone-cold demeanor. Out on the street, as a cop, it’s his duty to refrain from using his firearm.
After Wulfgar kills his next innocent female victim, DaSilva and Fox go around town flashing her photograph, being led to a nightclub jamming 80s electronic synth-disco pop. DaSilva, using his street wits and a police sketch of the suspect, identifies Wulfgar in the distance, dancing with another woman. Stallone has an penetrating glare as he and his partner weave steadily through the dancing crowd toward Wulfgar on the other end of the floor. Through pure instinct, boldness and his killer combat eyes, DaSilva stands still like a statue, staring down Wulfgar. This is probably the most iconic and memorable scene in the movie, as Wulfgar turns to throw a look over his shoulder and notices DaSilva. DaSilva stands still like a statue, gawking at him without a blink of an eye, looking like he wants to kill him right then and there. He’s sure it’s Wulgar. Who knows DaSilva stare is something else, he can feel its intensity. DaSilva doesn’t take his eyes off Wulfgar. The club music electronic disco synth-pop picks up and the camera does a slow zoom in DaSilva’s eyes, enhancing the intensity of his stare. Now Wulfgar is strong and staring with eye contact. Meeting DaSilva’s stare. Once Wulgar steps away, DaSilva hollers his name in a devious check for proof.
Let the gunfire, chase and thrills begin. DaSilva and Fox hunt Wulgar through an underground subway construction zone with a magnificent display of the tunnel lights in the background. They pursue Wulfgar by hopping onto a platform and into the subway. Followed by an aerial hostage situation where Wulgar takes the Roosevelt Island Tram car hostage holding United Nation diplomats captive while making demands for the press, in an impressive visual display by the director of photography, James Contner (Cruising), while DaSilva flies across the tram, tracking Wulfgar with the Anti-Terrorism Advisory Council helicopter. There is an epic scene where DaSilva is shooting a .44 magnum at a range in captured in wide-shot, zooming in on DaSilva’s intense gaze with his hat, glasses and beard.
It’s a rarity to see an American lead actor with a full-length beard in a feature film. In 1981, considering Rocky I and II had already been released, Deke DaSilva was for Sylvester Stallone what Frank Serpico was for Al Pacino. In Rocky IV, Stallone grew out his beard for ulterior motives; he was training in the alps of Russia for the biggest fight of his life. His beard in that fourth installment was immediately shaved after his training and it was paired with shorter hair. In Nighthawks, the long wavy hair and beard is a part of Deke DaSilva’s overall appearance, as a decoy street cop, in addition to his personality. Nighthawks is a gem from Sylvester Stallone’s filmography. Deke DaSilva is one of the most underrated characters Sly Stallone has ever portrayed. We never saw him sport the long hair and beard again. It brings out the Italian blood in him, at certain angles, he even looks Middle-Eastern in this movie.
By most accounts upon its release, the film was written off by critics based on the idea that terrorist attacks in New York City were implausible. Revisiting this film in 2020, it’s eye-opening to hear certain lines of dialogue expressed throughout the film that provide accurate insights, considering the state of current events around the globe. “We’re not heroes, we’re victims.” Says Wulfgar. DaSilva’s shows him who the real heroes are, by going back to his roots as an undercover street cop, in a brilliant ending that will drop your jaws in awe. Nighthawks was ahead of its time. It’s an underrated suspense/thriller from the early 1980s and a hidden gem from Sylvester Stallone’s filmography.