Walter Hill’s 48 Hrs has a reputation as a comedy that isn’t really warranted.
Widely known as Eddie Murphy’s big break, 48 Hrs introduced the world to a comedian of a generation; an accomplishment that earned the film nominations for the American Film Institute’s lists of 100 best American comedies, and for Murphy’s rightfully famous, and definitely funny, line “I’m your worst nightmare, a nigger with a badge.”
Despite Murphy’s easy, street smart wit, and his breezy rapport with Nick Nolte, 48 Hrs isn’t the buddy cop film that aims primarily for entertainment and laughs—though it is both entertaining and funny. Its overall aesthetic leans less on Murphy and more on Hill, a director famous for his culty thrillers like The Driver and The Warriors and who went on to co-create the extremely gritty and beloved HBO series Deadwood.
Unlike its endless string of imitators—30 years’ worth of Beverly Hills Cops, Rush Hours, on up to 21 Jump Street—48 Hrs uses humor as window dressing rather than its primary draw. Hill plays the story of a San Francisco cop trying to collar an escaped cop-killer like a traditional crime drama, a tone that lasts all the way until Murphy’s famous introduction belting “Roxanne” in his jail cell.
Even Murphy’s performance as Reggie Hammond, an out-of-luck con man out to protect his previous “investments,” is less a comic role and more a showcase for Murphy’s untapped talent as a versatile actor.
Before 48 Hrs, 21-year-old Murphy had a proven knack for comedy, what with his time as a stand-up and his wild success on Saturday Night Live. What’s surprising about Murphy in this role is the amount of weight he brings to Hammond, going back and forth from likable con-man to bitter, bright kid who was caught on the wrong side of the law.
It’s not really clear whether Murphy’s fairly contained performance was a choice by the actor or was Hill keeping him on a leash, but it proved wise. Paramount execs, led (at the time) by cartoon super-villain Michael Eisner, pushed Hill to make the film funnier, an attempt to shoo him away from his violent inclinations, and judging by the five (!!!) credited screenwriters, Hill and first time producer Joel Silver, had to put up a mighty big fight to keep Eisner from tanking the movie.
At its heart, though, 48 Hrs is a rather dark film.
The San Francisco of 48 Hrs. is a forbidding town, one loaded with hookers and two-bit crooks. The kind of place where nearly every bar has somebody packing a piece. There’s also an ugly string of racism and homophobia throughout the movie, and it’s a credit to Nick Nolte that he manages to make his bigoted cop such a likable foil to Murphy.
Really, speaking of race, the story itself is a warts and all reflection of America’s continued struggle with race. Even though characters spit bile at one another, calling each other dyke or watermelon, the story comes from a culture that’s at least trying to get along. Hill takes two negative stereotypes—the racist, sexist, half-drunk white man, and the fast-talking, dishonest, sexually charged black man—and shows that even they can get past their differences, after a fist-fight or two, and learn to work together.
It’s a positive message, told through a subversive lens.
Aside from some winning direction and acting, 48 Hrs. suffers from some messy writing (which is what will happen when five people wrangle over the same screenplay) involving Nolte’s love life, Murphy’s past, and a couple of thin characters. But overall it’s a fun film that’s significantly darker than you probably remember.
ROXAAANN-PUT ON THE RED LIGHT……. ROXAAA-PUT ON THE RED LIGHT