Scott: When we decided on “buddy comedies” as the theme for March, I was eager to include 48 Hrs., because it has a genuine edge that other mismatched-cop movies don’t have—even the first Lethal Weapon, which cast Mel Gibson as the ultimate cop-on-the-edge type. The conflict between Nick Nolte and Eddie Murphy—as San Francisco detective Jack Cates and convicted robber Reggie Hammond, respectively—isn’t soft in the least, which is a credit to director Walter Hill, who always strived to make films as spare and hard-hitting as possible. It’s buddy formula to have a couple of guys from opposite sides of the law team up for a common cause and eventually learn to respect each other, but the gulf between Cates and Hammond is unusually large, and more than a little uncomfortable. Because Cates doesn’t just resent Hammond for being a crook—he’s also a straight-up racist. And it’s telling that Hammond doesn’t react to Cates’ racism with surprise and offense, but with the full expectation that a cop in his position would act that way.
Searching for contemporary reviews of the film, I came upon this from Pauline Kael: “…the racial infighting is what gives the film its charge. You’re probably meant to think that this paranoid fantasy of race relations is what the TV shows with black and white buddies don’t have the guts to let you see. It’s as false as they are, but in a hip way.” As a fan of 48 Hrs., I agree with Kael on the first statement, and think she’s too dismissive of the film’s overall audacity; she couldn’t have known at the time that movies would grow far more timid on race, including Another 48 Hrs. We can read Cates’ goading of Reggie—like replacing his name with “watermelon” or “convict”—as part of a strategy to intimidate him through verbal sadism, but the film’s openness about racism and its willingness to emphasize the role race plays in key scenes is one of its most enduring qualities. What about you, Nathan? Were you taken aback by the film’s racial politics? And what did you think of Nolte and Murphy’s buddy chemistry more generally?
Nathan: I agree that the film’s unusually frank treatment of race is one of its enduring qualities, and it’s right there from the start. It’s telling that the way Ganz gets to escape the road gang is by hurling racist epithets at Billy Bear, who turns out to be both his way out of captivity and his partner in crime. Yet it’s completely plausible to the guards that this confrontation between a dead-eyed redneck and a burly Native American would instantly escalate into racial animus, because as you said, 48 Hrs. is unusually blunt about the pervasiveness and ubiquity of racism.
Eddie Murphy’s character should be exceedingly vulnerable. He’s a convict metaphorically handcuffed to a racist cop, and let out of prison for two days solely to find and punish a former collaborator. But he almost invariably acts from a position of power. He behaves as if Jack Cates is there to help him rather than the other way around, and seems peeved that Cates is so much more focused on getting Gatz than on what’s important to Reggie: namely, getting laid, being around some nice people, and getting a good meal for a change.
This is played for comedy on some level; Reggie can ask for the moon, but Cates will give him only what he needs at any given moment. But I got sucked into the melancholy of Murphy’s performance. He really sells the idea that this man of unusually refined tastes who wants to be at the center of the action has been out of commission for two years, and no longer has the grip on the outside world he once did.
I agree that there’s something appealingly direct about putting Cates’ racism so out in the open. He never makes an attempt to hide it, so when these two very different men do come to an understanding about each other, it registers much more strongly. Cates is not a fake racist; he’s a real racist, so his eventual respect for Reggie feels earned in a way it wouldn’t in a softer film.
Though Murphy doesn’t show up for a significant chunk of the movie, 48 Hrs. is generally considered Murphy’s film, and it’s hard to overstate the impact of his performance. Though he generally delivers a dramatic performance that serves the narrative and has all sorts of neat details—like his weird little monologue about the changes on television—one scene demands attention, and got it. In the “Nigger with a badge” scene, Murphy uses a badge and a gun to terrorize an entire redneck bar. What did you make of this scene? Did it go too far? Did it clash with the minimalist tone of the rest of the film? Or did you just enjoy it on a performance level?
Scott: I love the redneck-bar scene, which is probably my favorite in the film, and it never occurred to me that it would be out of place. Hill is a master at no-frills, two-fisted action, but there’s a hyper-real, comic-book aspect of his work at times, too. The Warriors is the most prominent example of a graphic novel come to life—a fact that a controversial DVD cut made explicit by using comics panels as transitional elements—but you also see it in Streets Of Fire, the film he directed after 48 Hrs. The scene at Torchy’s, a bar that reappeared in various forms throughout Hill’s career, fits into the film’s strategy of starkly contrasting racial differences. Reggie busting up a redneck bar is mirrored by a scene later on when Cates has to go looking for him in an all-black nightclub; we can feel their discomfort in both scenes for standing out so conspicuously. As it happens, Reggie overcomes this disadvantage much more easily, despite a much greater threat of violence around him. This makes sense: Reggie is a minority, after all, so he’s more accustomed to situations where he’s the odd man out. Cates is in an essentially benign situation at the nightclub, but he’s much more a fish out of water.
Credit Hill and Murphy for this, too: Murphy has one hell of a great entrance in this movie. Having him sit in a recliner in his cell, belting out a tone-deaf rendition of The Police’s “Roxanne” (the perfect song choice), is the first impression that kickstarted a long career in screen comedy. It turns out to be the silliest moment Reggie gets in the whole movie, though Murphy is explosively funny throughout. The difference between Murphy’s work here and his later films may be that 48 Hrs. is a buddy-action movie, not an Eddie Murphy vehicle, which lets Murphy sink into the role without the expectation that he has to carry the film on his shoulders. If you think about his later work, perhaps that’s what makes him the standout in Dreamgirls, too: He has a part to play, but he’s not the main attraction. In both cases, it makes me appreciate what a strong, scene-stealing presence he can be in character roles; the comedy that he brings to 48 Hrs. arises naturally from Reggie Hammond the character being placed in certain situations. He doesn’t overplay his hand.
So let’s talk Walter Hill, Nathan. What does he bring to the table in this movie? And how do you see 48 Hrs. in the context of other mismatched-buddy pictures and the later work of Mssrs. Nolte and Murphy?
Nathan: It’s worth noting that Murphy was 21 years old when the movie was released, and probably 20 while it was being filmed. So I think some of what makes the film magical is that Murphy brings in the cockiness of youth. He’s oblivious to any sense that he can’t be a comedy genius while fitting so neatly, even humbly, into the film’s badass, tough-as-nails framework. So he just does it.
Over time, the confidence that is key to Murphy’s brilliance here—when combined with an underlying sense of vulnerability seen throughout—veered into a kind of arrogance that contributes to the overwhelming air of joylessness that characterizes his late-period work. But when he made 48 Hrs., that infectious cackle of glee, that roar of self-joy, was still fresh. It hadn’t worn out its welcome. I have come to loathe Eddie Murphy vehicles, but I love the Murphy of the 1980s, of 48 Hrs., Trading Places, Coming To America, and Beverly Hills Cop. And all of them, perhaps not coincidentally, are buddy comedies of a sort that give Murphy something strong to play off of.
Speaking of Hill, I just watched Southern Comfort, the film he made immediately before 48 Hrs. While they’re very different movies tonally, they have a fair amount in common as well. Both revolve around a core of cultural conflict. In 48 Hrs., it’s black and white (with Native Americans thrown in for good measure) and in Southern Comfort, it’s a group of citified national guardsmen who make a few mistakes and end up waging an accidental war with the indigenous Cajun swamp people, who don’t take too kindly to strangers messing with their business. In both films, tough men who have little reason to be in each other’s lives, let alone share a friendship, are forced to work together for the sake of surviving a brutal, short-term situation that could easily kill them. There are black soldiers in Southern Comfort as well—most notably one played by T.K. Carter—but their color ceases to matter once a clear line is drawn between soldiers and swamp people.
In keeping with the dictates of Robert McKee, action is character in Hill’s films. Remar is a terrifying villain in large part because we know so little about him. A monologue about how his dad hit his mom, and was never around, and how Remar ended up in juvenile hall at a young age wouldn’t just fail to add depth to the character. It would ruin his sinister mystique.
It’s remarkable to see so many screenwriters credited on 48 Hrs., including Steven E. De Souza and Jeb Stuart. (The latter helped create another oft-used template for the action movie with Die Hard, which wastes so little, and makes everything in the film feel necessary.) In another film, the stuff with Annette O’Toole would feel arbitrary, but here it says an awful lot about Cates, his priorities, and how he sees the world.
48 Hrs. was part of an incredible run for Hill. It included Hard Times, Alien (which he co-wrote and produced), Southern Comfort, and The Warriors. I know Streets Of Fire has its cultists, but it seems like he lost something essential in the mid-to-late 1980s. I have a lot of affection for Johnny Handsome and Extreme Prejudice, but I honestly don’t remember Red Heat or Another 48 Hrs. (a sequel whose title reeks of mercenary exhaustion) well enough to recall how they compare to 48 Hours. What do you think went wrong with Hill’s career? Do you think it was a matter of changing times and changing tastes? Do you think he lost faith in himself, his audiences, and the kinds of films he wanted to make?
Scott: Expecting anyone to work at as high a level as Hill did from 1975 to 1982 (Hard Times, The Driver, The Warriors, The Long Riders, Southern Comfort, and 48 Hrs.)—a run that, in my view, deserves mention alongside those put together by acknowledged American masters like Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, and Robert Altman—isn’t particularly fair. And while I’ll agree that Hill never quite hit those heights again, I’d argue strongly in favor of many of his later films, especially Extreme Prejudice, Trespass, Wild Bill, Undisputed, and the pilot for HBO’s Deadwood. Even his last film, the Sylvester Stallone bomb Bullet To The Head, had that satisfying simplicity of his, and a couple of payoffs, too, like Stallone’s axe fight with Jason Momoa. Often I feel like Hill is at the mercy of the material, because his minimalist philosophy hasn’t changed a whit over the years. I get the sense from his movies, even the ones that don’t work, that his primary job as a director is to to strip away all the extraneous elements, and fashion whatever remains with the starkness of a Western, whether or not he’s actually making a Western.
That aesthetic is at play in 48 Hrs. There’s black and white, and black hats and white hats. The confrontations in the film—between Cates and Reggie, and then between those two and the truly vicious Remar and his gang—are as cleanly motivated and muscular as they can be. The few stock elements of the film, like Cates’ disgruntled girlfriend (Annette O’Toole), are treated so perfunctorily that Hill seems eager to get away from them as fast as possible. Hill’s trick with 48 Hrs. is moving the story forward relentlessly with every scene while incorporating as many other evocative details as possible—whether tracking the evolving relationship between the leads, or soaking in some atmosphere, like Torchy’s hostile vibe, or the opening shots, which make Hill’s affinity with the Western apparent.
As for Murphy—and I’ll talk more about this on Thursday when I dig into what happened with Another 48 Hrs.—but I think you’re right to distinguish Murphy vehicles during the 1980s and those he’s made since. I’d go even further in distinguishing the work he does in 48 Hrs. with the ’80s films, in that he had an honest-to-goodness live-wire edge that made him unpredictable. And more crucially, he had a connection to character that was lost as he became a huge movie star. And while I’m here, Nolte also deserves credit for humanizing the gruff-detective archetype and having the willingness to push that character into aggressive racial language and epithets. He’s one of the “good guys” in 48 Hrs., but how many actors would put aside their vanity to play a good guy who throws around terms like “watermelon” and “convict” in reference to a black partner? And of those, how many would get away with it?
Nathan: In 2015, precious few. I definitely think of 48 Hrs. as a contemporary Western: Beyond the “Epithet with a badge” line in the redneck bar scene is Reggie telling the assembled that there’s a new sheriff in town.
I also think it’s worth noting how much of 48 Hrs. is devoted to Reggie trying to get laid. From a narrative standpoint, it makes all the sense in the world; this man has been without a woman’s touch for years, so sex is high on his agenda. That adolescent horniness is part of what makes Reggie such an oddly sympathetic, human character. In the years ahead, Murphy characters would have to plead for nookie; his characters were often sexless or acted like the world owed them sex. But here, he’s just another dude trying to get a little action before he has to go to jail, and that goes a long way toward humanizing him.
Don’t miss Keith’s Keynote, which digs further into how Murphy’s performance made 48 Hrs. what it is. Then come back on Thursday, when Scott will look at how changes in Murphy’s career and the action genre affected the film’s sequel, Another 48 Hrs.