30 Years ago, Eddie Murphy got himself a movie career.
San Francisco movie cops like to do things their way, stirring things up in the precinct and on those sloping streets by breaking the rules (“Dirty Harry”), shooting innocents (“Basic Instinct”) or being an all-around hard ass. That last one would be Jack Cates (Nick Nolte), a disgruntled bulldog of a cop who wears his attitude on both sleeves. He copes with life as a public servant by throwing short fits of anger, neglecting his girlfriend (Annette O’Toole) and tipping a flask to mouth at all times of the day. Eighty-proof motivation. Even his sky blue Cadillac bears a likeness to the man – ragged and unadorned but it gets the job done. So does the movie.
It opens in rural California under that pulsing James Horner score. When Billy Bear (Sonny Landham of “Predator”) helps spring compadre Ganz (James Remar) from a prison work detail, we meet our cold-blooded villains, the kind who’re able to do bad things in public places and then vanish without a trace. Loose in the city, they set off on the trail of a half-million dollar cash horde, the proceeds of some past criminal act we’re not privileged to until the sequel. Their offenses mount as they kill a former crew member and abduct the girlfriend of another (David Patrick “Warriors, come out to play-yay” Kelly) in a ploy to have the cash hand delivered to them as ransom. Jack makes it his mission to catch them after Ganz kills two cops in a brazen motel firefight. Until this point the movie is remarkably, and intentionally I’m guessing, void of humor. Then bulldog Jack finds a smart-talking chihuahua in the form of Reggie Hammond (Eddie Murphy).
Murphy won acclaim and a Golden Globe nomination for the role of Hammond, the street-wise convict liberated by Jack for 48 hours to help him catch Ganz. The role was originally meant for Murphy’s own comic idol, Richard Pryor, with Clint Eastwood as tough guy Cates. That could have worked. As a good part of the world now knows, the film was a commercial and a critical success, the first of three back-to-back box office hits (“Trading Places,” “Beverly Hills Cop” being the others) both for the actor and Paramount Pictures, the studio he was under contract with. Up to that time, Murphy was best known for his bold lampooning and highly quotable characters on TV’s Saturday Night Live. The same sharpness is on the screen. The now iconic “hillbilly bar” scene plays like a lost skit from Murphy’s Best of SNL collection.
As much as no one group can be blamed for the popularity of boy-band doo-wop, “48 Hrs.” didn’t give birth to its blended genre. Action and comedy are a pairing as old as the art form itself, from the self-abusive antics of Buster Keaton and Stooge slapstick thru to that bottomless series of pre-80s vehicle-films (“Smokey and the Bandit,” “The Italian Job,” etc.). But it’s hard to deny “48 Hrs.”‘ role in giving the mean streets of the cop thriller a sense of humor. Had “The French Connection” and “Klute” finally learned to laugh? The story is riddled with what we now consider action-cop-comedy must-haves: squabbling partners, a hypertensive police captain (Frank McRae) and multiple villains. And of course, a strained love life for at least one of the leads. Nolte’s scenes with O’Toole help to humanize his character but, no question, the film rolls best when Cates and Hammond are swapping insults and personal philosophies, one with bitterness and a badge, the other with a kind of stylish street panache.
The film was produced in part by Joel Silver and Lawrence Gordon, who either together or apart would assemble a string of commercially-minded star-powered action movies in the years following. Many, like “The Last Boy Scout” and the “Lethal Weapon” series, arguably used comedy to a fuller extent than previously seen in most American action films. Next to most of the films it’s influenced though, director Walter Hill’s “48 Hrs.” is aging slightly better. As an R-rated action-comedy expect a little flesh, a bit of bloodshed and a lot of cussing. It’s a world of brawn where problems begin and end with violence, no big surprise really, nor that it does no great service to its female characters; most are abused or forgotten by their men, and rented or propositioned for a certain obvious reason. I’m not congratulating this in the least. The movie is pure escapist entertainment and comes at the beginning of a decade that will specialize in it. But flaws aside, Hill still manages a well-staggered package of suspense and laughs with all the intensity that is Nick Nolte. And that Murphy guy too…no slouch himself in his film debut.
The film was followed by a dire sequel in 1990.