Through much of "Nighthawks," a policeman, played by Sylvester Stallone wearing his droopy-eyed sensitive look, resists the idea of being programmed to kill on sight.

The role is that of a policeman who is satisfied to work decoy -- disguising himself to invite secret crime and then arresting those who accept the invitation -- and who's unhappy about being assigned to an anti-terrorist squad. The problem is that he's told he'll have to learn to think like the terrorist, which will require him to still his qualms about risking the lives of innocent people, such as crowds who could be caught in crossfire, or hostages.

"I didn't join the police force to kill people," he argues. As this is a character who has, from the film's clever opening, proved his courage, ingenuity and dedication to a dangerous and thankless job, it would seem that such morality is to be respected.

But no -- this is a film about the development of a hero. As is, he is incomplete. Everything in the film testifies to this: his wife, played by Lindsay Wagner as an earnest young woman, has left him, reluctantly, because she despairs of his changing. His stouthearted partner, played by Billy Dee Williams, blames him, in an emotion-laden whisper from a hospital stretcher, for staying his pistol because of the high risk of hitting a spectator. An avuncular British crime specialist, played by Nigel Davenport with tremendous role-model charisma, assures him, in professional tones, that "if you don't think you have the killer instinct, you are wrong."

And indeed, he does conquer his problem, learns to think like the terrorist, and thus regains the respect of his partner, the love of his wife and a place of honor in society. When you see him at last, with the smoking pistol in his hand, you know that his manhood has been proven.

So a film that seemed to question the current movie morality, or lack of it, has again endorsed ruthlessness and killing as the only appropriate heroic stance. The convention that killing is a necessary skill in today's tough world is as universal in the movies as the one that reckless driving -- the ubiquitous car chase, preferably involving the destruction of a furious ethnic person's fruit stand -- is hilarious.

It's a long way from the good guy-bad guy clarity of traditional Hollywood. Audiences are now routinely expected not to give any weight to whether a man steals or kills for a living, but to agree to identify with anyone from whose point of view the film is made.

In "Thief," for example, acceptance of the premise means sympathizing with the amount of hard work, risk-taking and disruptiveness to pleasant family life to which a man is subjected in the profession of safecracker. This is a kind of Bernard Welch sense of justice, in which the viewer is supposed to suspend any indignation he may feel for the victim and consider that a cruel world acts to ruin the life of the poor criminal. Anything else seems ridiculously prudish.

In this sense, "Nighhawks" can be counted as thoughtful for even raising a question. The villian is clearly a bad guy -- a blue-eyed German who smiles when he murders. The hero, having started from a quixotic stand of fighting bad with good, has learned that only bad can fight bad and win.

Nighthawks -- At Allen, AMC Academy, AMC Skyline, Jerry Lewis Cinema, Landover Mall, Roth's Americana, Roth's Randolph and Roth's Tysons Corner.