There are few scenes where you can tell an actor has launched themselves into stardom. Granted, from the perspective of history, it’s hard not to look at the first moments of James Dean on screen in East of Eden and not be wowed, but those moments could have been the same as Jeffery Hunter, or any number of would-be’s launched with the aspiration of instant success. But the moment that Eddie Murphy became both a film and a mega-star comes about forty minutes into 48 HRS. Murphy’s Reggie Hammond begs Jack Cates (Nick Notle) to give him his badge to go into the bar Torchy’s. As it’s a redneck bar, Cates is sure that Hammond will get stomped. The next five minutes transform Murphy into the comic icon he remains today. The film has Murphy playing a convict, and Notle a cop, both chasing a cop-killer who’s after stolen loot. Hammond is given a two day pass from jail to stop the bad guys, because he has information about what the killer’s after. My review of the Blu-ray of 48 HRS. follows after the jump.
With a recent double appearance at the New Beverly for the Edgar Wright led retro-showing of his films The Warriors and The Driver, I’ve been on a Hill bender of late, and was more than happy to throw on this Hill film again. Though I’ve undoubtedly watched Trading Places more times, there’s no denying this movie. And what’s great about it is that it’s not really a comedy in the classical sense. It’s an action movie with a comic lead. And I think there’s a difference. The film opens with Albert Ganz (James Remar) breaking out of prison with the help of Billy Bear (Sonny Latham), the two then go looking for Luther (David Patrick Kelly), and kidnap his girlfriend. Then Jack Cates enters the picture, fighting with his girlfriend Elaine (Annette O’Toole), which is modestly humorous, but not super funny, or whatever. He then goes to follow up with two cops checking in on some stolen credit cards, which leads to a hallway shootout that’s as intense and exciting as any action scene Hill has stage. We’re ten minutes in, and it’s not a comedy in the slightest Then Hill gives one of the best hidden “long takes” in the history of cinema (as Jeremy “Mr. Beaks” Smith likes to point out) when Hill goes for three minutes without cutting.
Desperate for clues, he tracks down Reggie Hammond (Murphy), who is introduced singing along to a walkman playing Roxanne. Already Murphy has you in his grasp, and he’s great at deflecting the murderous certainty of Nolte. Nolte was never a small man, could play football, and was a towering on screen presence. At no point does Murphy back down in any way, and it shows. He’s in it to win it. Of course they start out hating each other, and Cates is about two words away from calling Hammond the most offensive racial epithets he can think of, but then they deal with Luther, and Hammond proves useful.
If the film has a fault, it’s that Hill’s script (credited to Roger Spottiswoode, Hill, Larry Gross and Steven E. de Souza) is very formulaic in terms of how the two become partners, and it’s almost arbitrary that the two become so close as there’s still tension between them. Hill seems at odds, because he can’t give the guys any easy bonding moments – that seems against his ethos – and so the turn in their relationship may come across as a little forced – especially to an audience who will have no sympathies for a main character who comes across as racist (he seems to be baiting Reggie more than actually hating him), and it’s fair to say there are a number of moments in the film that feel more a part of genre than an organic extension of the story (it’s The Defiant Ones, etc. done as a buddy cop film).
But the film works because Walter Hill understands stars and star power, and he lets Murphy become a movie star, and Nolte never seems to get in his way. Murphy gets to run over the film, and Nolte may be using his contempt in a way to control the outcome, but that may have played better for white audiences in the early 80’s than it does now. Then again, Nolte looks to have a bit of a shit-kicker in him (and he jokes that he does in the film), so arguably he’s giving more of a performance, and perhaps one aware that the movie isn’t his. Then again, watching Murphy in this film, he’s giving a performance and a character we haven’t seen from him in over two decades. We’ve seen Murphy do lazy and uninspired for so many years now that the rough edges to the character (he – as a man who’s been in prison for two and a half years – is desperate to get laid), and his R-rated comedy (which was his stock in trade) has become refreshing.
The action is great and the comedy is hilarious – I’ve seen this film a number of times, and the bar room set piece still gets me. But it’s such a great moment for the character, as someone who is an underdog, the moment he says ‘I’m your worst nightmare: a nigger with a badge” Murphy has won the movie. But – as if to appease his lead – Nolte does get a heroic action sequence at the end of the film, where he comes across as a real cowboy. Hill gave Nolte one of his best roles in Extreme Prejudice, and only worked with Murphy when everyone was cashing in their sequel chips (Another 48 HRS. is nearly terrible). But Murphy moved to another level. That said, it’s weird that San Francisco has no signs of homosexuals and that Torchy’s is a Tex-Mex bar. Whatever. Also of note, the music seems to have directly inspired the John Woo film Hard Boiled, while Hill was attached for a while to a remake of Woo’s The Killer. Woo and Hill both – obviously – appreciate Jean-Pierre Melville, so I wonder if Woo was inspired by Hill, or if that’s leftover fingerprints from Melville. Dunno.
Paramount’s Blu-ray presents the film in widescreen (1.85:1) and in Dolby Digital 5.1 True-HD. The picture and sound quality is fine, though the surrounds are – as to be expected – limited for a film of this age. Extras are relegated to a trailer. Still essential.