As big screen debuts go, Eddie Murphy’s must be the one to beat. He arrives as a fully-formed star, and his performance as Reggie Hammond is deceptively confident. As the passing decades have proved, success on SNL is no guarantee of a sure-thing acting career. Murphy’s an instant natural, though. Yet he adopts a less out-and-out comic persona than in Beverly Hills Cop a couple of years later. He’s able to fit seamlessly into Walter Hill’s supercharged cop action and isn’t at all out of place trading insults with “proper” actor Nick Nolte. Could you imagine Chevy Chase doing the same? It’s the banter, and unlikely chemistry, between Murphy and Nolte that ensure 48 Hrs. is still worth a look, but there's not much else to it.
Credit where it’s due, though. This film launched the whole buddy cop movie cycle and established any number of careers, not just Murphy’s. Walter Hill’s career was beginning to take off, but 48 Hrs. gave it a huge shot in the arm. Known for his eclectic explorations of masculinity, his ‘70s filmography saw him working with Charles Bronson before helming the little-seen existential crime thriller The Driver. Then he scored a minor hit with The Warriors, a movie that would quickly achieve enormous cult status. His follow-ups, western The Long Riders and the Deliverance-esque Southern Comfort, also did reasonable business. Post-48 Hrs. he attempted his boldest experiment, the rather flaccid mythic rock action flick Streets of Fire, before losing his way completely with a remake of the comedy Brewster’s Millions (a big hit, however). Mostly he stuck to his male-centric action oeuvre, but his only really big subsequent hit was the weak cash grab of Another 48 Hrs. in 1990.
Just a glance at the main production credits is a who’s who of some of the main players of the next decade. Joel Silver’s first big film as producer, he (and sometime co-producer Lawrence Gordon; 48 Hrs. was his idea) would quickly vault to the throne as reigning monarch of Hollywood action movies (Simpson and Bruckheimer would ultimately contest this claim). Co-writer Roger Spottiswoode was developing a hit-and-miss directorial career (it would continue in this vein). Steven E. De Souza had slogged it out in TV for the best part of the ‘70s; this was his big movie break and he’d become a regular on Silver productions (most notably Die Hard). Composer James Horner was beginning to make his mark also (this came out the same year as Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan).
But, for all the four screenplay credits (also Hill and Larry Gross), the plot is paper-thin. Crazy James Remar breaks out of a chain gang and, as any unfiltered psychopath does, gleefully blows away anyone who hinders his quest for the loot from a drug deal gone wrong. Nolte’s cop Jack Cates reluctantly releases Murphy’s con Reggie from prison for 48 hours, on the understanding that the latter will help him find Remar.
The project had been around for several years, with Clint Eastwood and Richard Pryor mooted. Other names included Mickey Rourke, Kris Kristofferson, Jeff Bridges and Gregory Hines. When Murphy got the part he pressed for a change of his character name “Willie Biggs” to something that was less of a “Hollywood, made-up, black guy’s name”; he said the charge could still be levelled at first name of the compromise, Reggie Hammond. Even when 48 Hrs. finally got off the ground, the problems weren’t over. Paramount got very antsy that the film was too violent, that Murphy wasn’t funny enough, etc.
Everything rests on the love-hate relationship between Nolte and Murphy, and it more than scores in that department. There's an abundance of eyebrow-raising casual racism from Cates, and bruisingly casual macho sexism from everyone. The signature scene of Murphy in a redneck bar is still a lot of fun (“I’m your worst fuckin’ nightmare, man. I’m a nigger with a badge…”), but the script falls short as far as the cop stuff goes. There's certainly no detective work, and if a cop movie is only as good as its villain then this definitely isn't one of the all times greats. Remar’s (Dexter's dad, and in some circles still best known as the guy who played Hicks for about a week in Aliens - what a claim to fame) only motivation is to act mental.
In spite of the winning banter between the leads, perhaps the most fun is to be had in playing "spot the supporting actor and the things they’ve gone on to do"; Breaking Bad's Jonathan Banks is in there, who I suddenly retrospectively recognise with hair – he also appears in Gremlins. Favourite rent-a-thug Brion James plays a cop. Predator's Sonny Landham breaks out Remar. Twin Peaks actors David Patrick Kelly and Chris Mulkey play a lowlife and a patrolman respectively. Denise Crosby wields a baseball bat at Murphy in a pre-Star Trek: The Next Generation part. Best of all is Frank McRae, who delivers more laughs than Murphy and Nolte combined, as the latter’s splenetic captain. He would memorably riff on it in Schwarzenegger’s meta-action vehicle Last Action Hero.
Walter Hill ensures the action scenes are a big and sinewy, but in a very mannered post-Peckinpah style. You could drive a fleet of trucks through the spaces between the explosive gunfire, and Nolte's final takedown is a pure Royale with Cheese moment.
The end result is equal cop movie cliché and witty banter; Murphy and Nolte propel the piece now as surely as they did when it was first released, but the steroidal bombast of the action has become rather quaint and dated.