Deke DaSilva (Sylvester Stallone) and Matthew Fox (Billy Dee Williams) are New York police officers specially assigned to a special multi-national team dedicated to tracking down terrorist Wulfgar (Rutger Hauer). Wulfgar planted a bomb in a London department store, killing several children and he is now an outcast, hunted by both the police and his fellow gang members. He has extensive plastic surgery and resumes his activities aided by Shakka (Persis Khambutta), a completely psychotic fellow outcast. Soon DaSilva and Wulfgar are engaged in a violent battle of wits as Wulfgar resumes his terrorist activities and threatens New York . This very effective thriller features a chilling performance by Rutger Hauer as the handsome, ruthless cold-blooded killer who charms women into helping him and then kills them. Sylvester Stallone gives an unusually understated emotionally vulnerable performance as a man trying to save lives while he saves his own marriage. The film makes excellent use of New York locales, particularly during a terrifying hijacking of a cable car where Wulfgar coolly decides which of the hostages will live or die. ~
Despite receiving good reviews, including one from Variety, Nighthawks did not become a big commercial success, even though it did recover its $5 million budget in both US and foreign markets. It grossed USD $14.9 million in North America and $5 million in the rest of the world for a worldwide total of $19.9 million. In her review for the New York Times, Janet Maslin praised Hauer's performance: "Mr. Hauer's terrorist, in particular, is a sharply drawn character who acts as a driving force within the movie's scheme. Sadism and bloodlessness are his only identifiable characteristics, and yet he behaves memorably wherever he goes". Time magazine's Richard Schickel wrote, "Nighthawks is so moronically written and directed, so entirely without wit or novelty, that there is plenty of time to wonder about its many missing explanations". In his review for the Globe and Mail, Jay Scott felt that the film, "has a dirty job to do and does it. That is not an endorsement. Thumbscrews and cattle prods are real good at what they do, too". Newsweek magazine's Jack Kroll wrote, "This is one of those films that isn't a film but some repulsively complicated business deal". In his review for the Washington Post, Gary Arnold described the film as "an aggressively shallow police thriller pitting New York undercover cops against international terrorists, suggests what The Day of the Jackal might have looked like if filmed by the producers of Baretta. In order to facilitate a grandstanding, harebrained heroic role assigned to Sylvester Stallone, the filmmakers brush off every opportunity for intelligent dramatization and authentic suspense that the plot would seem to possess".
Stallone says of the film now, "At the time, people couldn't relate to it, and the studio (Universal) didn't believe in it".
The story was originally planned as The French Connection III by screenwriter David Shaber at Twentieth Century Fox, and would have seen Gene Hackman's Popeye Doyle team up with a wisecracking cop, to be possibly played by Richard Pryor. The main plot was the same but when Hackman showed reluctance to do a third movie as Doyle the idea was scrapped and Universal acquired the rights to the storyline, which Shaber then reworked into Nighthawks.
The original director was Gary Nelson, who had directed the Disney movies Freaky Friday (1976) and The Black Hole (1979), but he left the project early into production and was not credited. His replacement, Bruce Malmuth, had only one previous film to his credit, a segment of the 1975 portmanteau comedy Foreplay. Malmuth was unable to make his first day of shooting, so Stallone stepped in to shoot the scene, the chase down the subway. Stallone had to get the approval of the Directors Guild of America (DGA), which has strict rules on actors directing their own movies, for this one day of filming. Principal photography began on January 1980 and lasted until March 1980.
The film marked the American debut of Dutch actor Rutger Hauer. According to a recent interview in Premiere, Hauer was told before filming that Stallone ran up building stairwells for exercise. However, during the subway chase, Hauer continually outran the American star, who is known for his competitive streak (see also Victory). Stallone also gave the producers headaches by insisting on doing his own stunts. According to actor Nigel Davenport in an interview for the BBC's Wogan show, Stallone performed the scene where he was winched up to the tram without a double. The film's stunt coordinator was Dar Robinson. Stallone confirms this in a Q&A session on Ain't It Cool News' website:
Hanging from the cable car was probably one of the more dangerous stunts I was asked to perform because it was untested and I was asked to hold a folding Gerber knife in my left hand so if the cable were to snap, and I survived the 230 foot fall into the East River with its ice cold 8 mile an hour current, I could cut myself free from the harness because the cable when stretched out weighed more than 300 lbs. I tell you this because it's so stupid to believe that I would survive hitting the water so to go beyond that is absurd.
In the same Q&A session, he said that Nighthawks "was even a better film before the studio lost faith in it and cut it to pieces. What was in the missing scenes was extraordinary acting by Rutger Hauer, Lindsey Wagner, and the finale was a blood fest that rivaled the finale of Taxi Driver. But it was a blood fest with a purpose".
The subway train used in the chase sequence consisted of retired IND equipment that had been preserved as a museum train. Of the cars whose numbers are visible, 800 is now at the Seashore Trolley Museum in Kennebunkport, Maine. 1802, the last prewar NYC subway car built, is owned by Railway Preservation Corporation and remains in New York, where it operates several times a year on museum fantrips along with other preserved cars. 1208 has since been scrapped. The IND Hoyt-Schermerhorn station in Brooklyn served as both the 57th and 42nd St. stations (a Hoyt-Schermerhorn sign is briefly visible when Stallone tries to pry the doors open as the train is pulling out). The train operated on the unused outer track that leads from the Court St. station, now the New York Transit Museum.
The London department store seen being blown up at the beginning of the film was actually Arding & Hobbs, located at Clapham Junction, SW11 - which at the time of filming belonged to the Allders group. The store still exists today, but is now owned by Debenhams. During the 2011 England Riots the shop again had its windows smashed.