48 Hrs.

Dir: Walter Hill, 1982. Starring: Nick Nolte, Eddie Murphy, Annette O'Toole, James Remar, David Patrick Kelly. Action.
48 Hrs.

Walter Hill’s long directing resume had a number of interesting genre movies early in his career (Southern Comfort, The Warriors, The Driver, The Long Riders) but 48 Hrs. stands out not only as a gritty piece of cop pulp, but as the slam bang debut of the then edgy 21-year old Eddie Murphy, transforming the usually dour Hill formula into a funny, action comedy and one of the best films of both Hill and Murphy’s career. And frankly neither has ever lived up to the promise 48 Hrs. showed for both of them. Murphy has enjoyed some massive mainstream success but for the most part, both he and Hill most have spent the last couple decades treading between mediocre, dull, and lame.

Writing the screenplay for tough guy director Sam Peckinpah’s The Getaway in the early '70s got Hill going in the business. He got his start directing soon after with the Bronson/Coburn fight fest Hard Times. He would carry on the Peckinpah legacy with films about badass guys who live in a hard-boiled world under a certain violent code (with underwhelming women’s roles, usually as hookers). With The Warriors Hill would score a bonafide hit, though it’s dark and ugly it would turn away from the Peckinpah realism into comic book territory, a style Hill would take to the max with his 48 Hrs. follow up, the action rock ‘n roll musical dud Streets Of Fire. With 48 Hrs. Hill would go back to gritty realism but find some humor, mostly because of his intensely funny actor discovery.

Nick Nolte plays Jack Cates, a drunken, cynical, grizzled cop on the trail of an escaped con cop killer. He springs the joint for one of the creep’s old associates to get some info. The guy, Reggie Hammond (Murphy), is a brash would-be ladies man and jokester, the two end up having to team up. It’s an old school white cop and a jive talking black crook. On paper it sounds like junk, but the two actors pull it off. This isn’t a Richard Pryor/Gene Wilder convoluted comedy. It’s still a tough cop flick. Nolte and Murphy are believable shooting guns, as is their evolving on-screen relationship. The bad guys are equally well played by James Remar and David Patrick Kelly (both played memorable creeps in The Warriors as well). Oh, and the lovely Annette O’Toole occasionally shows up as Cates' much abused girlfriend, thankfully she disappears so we can get back to Murphy. The scene where Murphy poses as a cop and takes over a country music bar, “I don’t like white people, I hate rednecks, you people are rednecks,” put Murphy on the map. It’s a great example of the dangerous line Murphy was able to walk in his comedy.

After single-handedly saving Saturday Night Live and bringing it back from the ashes, Murphy would eventually follow 48 Hrs. with an even more enormous hit, Beverly Hills Cop. That film, also an action comedy, would emphasize the comedy more and soften Murphy, making him even more loveable for mainstream audiences. Unfortunately mainstream appreciation is what Murphy seems to crave as his career has been mired in junk (anyone see Metro or The Hoiy Man?), sequels (Beverly Hills Cop had two and there was the utterly pointless Another 48 Hrs.), remakes (The Nutty Professor and Doctor Dolittle, each producing more sequels), and dull kiddie flicks (Imagine That and countless Shrek films). Though he was sensational in the otherwise disappointing musical Dreamgirls (scoring his one Oscar nomination which he then followed up with the horrid Norbit). Like Burt Reynolds in the '70s, Murphy has been a major star despite his horrible taste in scripts. No longer the edgy comedian, he’s created a major brand for himself as a kid friendly bore.

Walter Hill has had the opposite problem of Murphy. He’s had an equally disappointing career, but while Murphy seems to be giving the audience what they want, as a director Hill has not been able to connect with audiences (though as a producer he did oversee the best of the Alien franchise). Even Hill’s solid but forgettable genre picks like Trespass, Wild Bill, and Undisputed were never able to find the enthusiasm that The Warriors and 48 Hrs. had. He became a solid journeyman director, but it’s been a long time since he hit a homerun. And don’t even get me started on Nolte’s fascinating, but bumpy filmography.

48 Hrs. successfully works both as a comedy and a very violent cop thriller. Good or bad, it’s been credited with opening the floodgates of '80s cop-buddy flicks (Lethal Weapon, Hill’s own Red Heat, etc.). At a tight 96 minutes, 48 Hrs. is a very economical film, and once Murphy steps onto the screen singing “Roxanne” by The Police from his prison cell, it became a new kind of cop film and Murphy officially made the old school from Joseph Wambaugh to Dirty Harry obsolete.

Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Apr 7, 2011 12:00pm
Steve Earle and the Dukes
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