Tuesday, August 10, 2010
San Francisco film programmer Jesse Hawthorne Ficks, in addition to being one of the good guys, has a cultural memory that intersects with that of your proprietor in many places. The films that I saw on Cinemax back when I was but an impressionable youngster were eagerly devoured by Ficks as well, and the man endeavors to bring many half-remembered gems back into the spotlight (and on the screen of the Castro Theatre).
When programming his massive, day-long series, his usual tactic (by his own admission) is to open with a lesser-known film. NIGHTHAWKS was the film that opened a quintuple-feature of manly-man films. (The others were BLOODSPORT; the John Carpenter two-fer of BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA and THEY LIVE; and a secret midnight screening of the late-80s Hulk Hogan vehicle NO HOLDS BARRED.) At a glance NIGHTHAWKS looked like the most nuanced film on the bill, and I was pleased to find that it was, in fact, a quieter, beautifully-observed action film, with a novelistic scope, three-dimensional performances, and a faint but present distrust of authority that make it a film more of the 70s than the 80s.
The tale of New York plainclothes cops (Sylvester Stallone, Billy Dee Williams) taken off decoy duty to track a vicious freelance terrorist (Rutger Hauer) has plenty of scope and grit, and could easily have filled a three-hour film with suspenseful stand-offs and character development. This may well have been the plan, but by all accounts the movie was butchered by a studio that didn't appreciate what it had. The patchy, under-two-hours film that's left drew positive notices, but lukewarm box office, and the movie it could have been is lost to time.
But despite Jesse's warnings that we'd have to fill in some gaps on this one, there's still plenty that stands tall. The effective and well-depicted procedures of both New York law enforcement and European underground. The lovely sequence in which DaSilva (Stallone) and Fox (Williams) initially resist their counter-terrorist training, but become noticeably less rowdy and more absorbed as it continues. The INTERPOL terror specialist Peter Hartman (a completely believable Nigel Davenport) driven by duty, but noticeably human. A spiffy chase scene through New York's subway system (apparently directed, at least in part, by Stallone himself). Economical but effective performances by all involved, including Hauer's assured Hollywood debut as the supermonster Wulfgar and Williams' sedate but earthy cool...
...but it's Stallone's name atop the bill, and DaSilva's a character unlike any I've seen him play. We first see DaSilva in old lady drag, on decoy duty to catch a trio of muggers. It's as clear a signal as one can get that Stallone's playing against type, and the character doesn't disappoint. DaSilva wears his Vietnam service proudly (he's a ringer for SERPICO-era Pacino, really), but is fundamentally a man of peace - the film's most interesting conflict is between him and Davenport, who impatiently waits for DaSilva to accept that civilian casualties are inevitable in the quest for a psychotic terrorist. Stallone balances DaSilva's man-of-action qualities with his nuanced morality deftly - when the time comes for his final showdown with Wulfgar, we wonder how he'll proceed and we fear for his safety.
I'd never completely written Stallone off - my usual line was that he was a committed artist, but not a good one. NIGHTHAWKS has me seriously rethinking this stance (which many would believe is already generous), and though I strongly doubt such nuance will be in evidence in THE EXPENDABLES, I was delighted to see it on such confident display here. And happy that Jesse gave a damn enough to give the movie another chance. Here's to you, gentlemen.