THE BOYS ARE BACK IN TOWN. NICK NOLTE IS A COP. EDDIE MURPHY IS A CONVICT. THEY COULDN’T HAVE LIKED EACH OTHER LESS. THEY COULDN’T HAVE NEEDED EACH OTHER MORE. AND THE LAST PLACE THEY EVER EXPECTED TO BE IS ON THE SAME SIDE. EVEN FOR 48 HRS.
When we think back to the 1980s and all the action-comedies of that decade, our thoughts probably go to Beverly Hills Cop (1984) and Lethal Weapon (1987) above all. But first we had 48HRS.. The names behind the movie are interesting, because they would all have hugely successful action careers. Producers Lawrence Gordon and Joel Silver would make Predator and Die Hard together, Roger Spottiswoode went from editor to writer to director, eventually making Shoot to Kill (1988) and the James Bond movie Tomorrow Never Dies (1997), and Steven E. de Souza would go on to either write or co-write Commando, Die Hard and The Running Man.
And, obviously, director Walter Hill already had a pretty good career going. He reportedly had a few clashes with the studio while making this movie, but it ended up a big hit.
San Francisco police inspector Jack Cates (Nick Nolte) tag along with two colleagues to a hotel where they are going to check up on a man who’s supposed to be staying there. The three cops underestimate the scene – Cates survives, but his two co-workers are shot dead. The men they walk in on are very dangerous criminals on the run; two of them helped Albert Ganz (James Remar), a convict, escape from a road gang in California, killing a couple of guards in the process. After learning who shot his colleagues, Cates is informed that Reggie Hammond (Eddie Murphy), one of Ganz’s former partners, is currently serving a three-year sentence for armed robbery. Reggie, who only has a few months left in prison, tells Cates that if he really wants his help to track down Ganz he has to take Reggie with him on a 48-hour leave.
Sensational screen debut
This was Eddie Murphy’s sensational screen debut after a rock-star career as a comedian, doing standup and then Saturday Night Live. Richard Pryor had proven that a black actor could be commercially viable, and Murphy came to show that there was no limit. And he isn’t even as funny here as he would be in his next movies, Trading Places and Beverly Hills Cop. The film’s most famous (and outrageous) scene is when Reggie and Cates go to a redneck bar where all the patrons are white men in cowboy boots and the Confederate flag hangs proudly on the wall. Reggie brazenly pretends to be a cop and takes complete charge, mocking a racist, potentially explosive scene. Very funny – but also bold and hilariously foul-mouthed.
Nothing else in the film quite matches that, but Hill creates a shabby, dirty look that fits its two leads well, men who are far from perfect. Nolte and Murphy are terrific as the alcoholic, offensive cop and the sassy, untrustworthy convict who are forced to collaborate. Naturally, they’ll come to like each other, but before that their relationship really is brutally antagonistic – one of the film’s uninhibited moments is a street brawl between Cates and Reggie that gets really ugly. That’s how much they hate each other, but that’s also one of the incidents that likely helps them form a bond.
The weakest ingredient is the story, which is essentially one big chase after the three criminals; none of the action set-pieces stands out as particularly intense either. But everything is competently made and the movie has a refreshing sense of impolite audacity. Hill paces it very well, lots of laughs, lots of shootouts, and James Horner’s music score is another fine asset.
48HRS. 1982-U.S. 97 min. Color. Produced by Lawrence Gordon, Joel Silver. Directed by Walter Hill. Screenplay: Roger Spottiswoode, Walter Hill, Larry Gross, Steven E. de Souza. Music: James Horner. Cast: Nick Nolte (Jack Cates), Eddie Murphy (Reggie Hammond), Annette O’Toole (Elaine Marshall), James Remar, Frank McRae, David Patrick Kelly… Jonathan Banks.
Trivia: Reportedly first conceived as a vehicle for Clint Eastwood and Richard Pryor; Gregory Hines was another choice for Reggie. Followed by Another 48HRS. (1990).
Quote: “You know what I am? I’m your worst fuckin’ nightmare, man. I’m a nigger with a badge which means I got permission to kick your fuckin’ ass whenever I feel like it!” (Murphy to a redneck)
Last word: “We had one tough break in that Eddie couldn’t shake out of his TV show early. We’d already been shooting for two weeks before he joined us, so he came in absolutely cold. It was his first film, and he was a seasoned performer, but not a trained film actor, and we really could have used a good week of rehearsal. It’s one of the few times I’ve been sorry I didn’t rehearse. One old-time director told me once, ‘Don’t ever fuckin’ rehearse. All that happens is the actors don’t like the script.’ And there is some merit in that.” (Hill, The Hollywood Interview)