Greene Screene: Nighthawks

Andrew Greene
3 min readApr 4, 2021
Now Showing on The Greene Screene: Nighthawks (1981)

Nighthawks feels like the fulcrum point in Sly Stallone’s career. The movie arrived after Rocky II, but a year before First Blood, when the landscape of Stallone’s future career was murky.

Here, Stallone does his best Serpico impression from a French Connection 3 script that Gene Hackman smartly passed on. Except, instead of mirroring those two cops, Stallone is a cop who actually wants to go by the book to take down an international terrorist. Then some old dude from Interpol yells at him repeatedly, imploring him and the NYPD that you need to combat violence with more violence, and that hesitation kills™.

Perhaps, given Wulfgar’s stated mission to punish the imperialists (it’s no accident he starts his mayhem in London), we’re to take this as a political statement. The tendrils of violence and exploitation, of imperialism, is in our blood. We never had a chance to be anything but monsters.

At around the midpoint, Stallone has an opportunity to take a shot at Wulfgar (Rutger Hauer)… when he’s holding a woman at gunpoint in a crowded subway. He wisely doesn’t take the shot, yet his partner, a foul-mouthed Billy Dee Williams (!), berates him for it the rest of the movie, including when he’s being wheeled into the hospital after getting his face sliced up by Wulfgar.

It’s as though the world is repeatedly convincing Stallone (and our police departments) that violence is the answer. Not only in cleaning up the streets, but to vanquish terrorists (cue uneasy shift in your couch), and perhaps least importantly, as the throughline for Stallone’s career. Once Stallone’s character snaps, unleashing a torrid of expletives that made me laugh (“You’re fucking dead!”), it’s as if Stallone has determined the path for the rest of his career: steroids, violence and even more action.

Which, you know, turned out alright, because Stallone can’t do Serpico, and the world needed Demolition Man.

Nighthawks is one of those movies where Sly’s ex-wife moans, “Why the hell can’t you change?” and then later in the movie asks him out for dinner despite Sly not changing in the slightest. It’s also somehow one of those movies where the main cop has “dress up as a woman” as a top move in his bad-guys-catching playbook. It’s Die Hard seven years before Die Hard, and would comfortably rank fourth in the Die Hard canon.

For a Stallone movie I’d never heard of, there are certainly things to hold onto. There’s Keith Emerson from Emerson, Lake and Palmer and Dario Argento’s Inferno doing the score. Dick Smith doing eerie good prosthetics for Rutger Hauer. There’s also the inability to escape reality, and perhaps a reminder that we shouldn’t, thanks to a small, small piece of the story of the militarization of America’s police that we’re paying so desperately for now.

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Andrew Greene

Writer, director. Creator of The Naked Man Podcast. Human sampler tray following breadcrumbs, forever hungry. @WanderingGreene on IG, Letterboxd & Twitter