Before Riggs and Murtaugh, before Carter and Lee, before Lowery and Burnett, and before Tango and Cash, there was Cates and Hammond. Buddy movies have been a staple of cinema for decades, but Walter Hills gritty and violent action film 48 Hrs., filled with acerbic banter between two mismatched men who, despite despising each other, must work together to bring down the bad guys while trying not to kill each other in the process, inspired more than its fair share of imitations.
48 Hrs. became a blueprint for more than a few successful films from the 1980s and 90s. Later films may have come to theaters with more spit and polish, but there is something refreshing in the grit and grim of the action, language, and brute force on display.
The Production: 4/5
Reggie: This ain’t no ***damn way to start a partnership.
Jack: Now, get this! We ain’t partners. We ain’t brothers. And we ain’t friends. I’m puttin’ you down and keepin’ you down until Ganz is locked up or dead. And if Ganz gets away, you’re gonna be sorry you ever met me!
Reggie: I’m already sorry.
Eddie Murphy stars as convict Reggie Hammond, and Nick Nolte as Jack Cates, the police detective who secures his short-term so that they can track down Ganz (James Remar), a violent escaped criminal and former member of Hammond’s robbery crew. Hammond hid the loot from the turn that landed him in jail, and he and Cates have just 48 hours to track down the money, Ganz, Ganz’s trigger-happy partner Billy Bear (Sonny Landham), and the girl they’ve kidnapped as collateral to get their hands on the cash. Hammond’s wise-cracking ways quickly grate the nerves of Cates, a curmudgeonly, bad-habited veteran detective with questionable, offensive diversity standards and a truly short fuse. From this mix arises an action film that unfolds at break-neck speed.
Director Walter Hill’s distinct style for action is stamped all over the shoot-outs and car chases. His lively appreciation for the city in which his film is set, in this case San Francisco, and his penchant for the seedier underbelly of urban sprawl, is in full swing. His characters inhabit a tattered world, graveled with common vices, chauvinism, racial prejudice, and authority figures quick to anger.
Nick Nolte’s gruff and cavalier portrayal of Det. Cates is a template from which the unhinged, aggressive characters in subsequent films of the subgenre would morph. Though the subgenre would evolve to the more traditional two-character orbit of the rule-following, sensible foil to the comedic and unpredictable partner, 48 Hrs. is the original spark that gave rise to many seeking to model its success. Consider the rule following Det. Murtaugh portrayed by Danny Glover partnered with the unhinged (and suicidal) Det. Riggs in the first Lethal Weapon film, or Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Russian police Capt. Denko partnered with the slovenly and undisciplined Det. Art Ridzik played by James Belushi in Hill’s own 1998 Red Heat. These are the results of screenwriters and studios inspired in part by what 48 Hrs. sparked. It should be noted that James Belushi would later transmogrify the subgenre when partnered with a German shepherd in 1989’s K-9, and 48 Hrs. co-writer Roger Spottiswoode would tackle a similar man-dog buddy cop film that same year with Turner & Hooch.
Nick Nolte’s cantankerous Detective and Eddie Murphy’s clever convict are a classic misfit pairing, though Murphy’s character is somewhat understated during the first and some of the second act, he leaps into top-form during the red-neck bar sequence where his mockery and disdain of ‘backward white-folk’ plays like a reward for his more modest quips to that point (which he rides all the way to the film’s close). It’s easy to see how his Reggie Hammond character became so popular – and Murphy with it – helping launch a successful run of wise-cracking characters, including perhaps his most famous Det. Axel Foley in the Beverly Hills Cop films.
James Horner’s score is a delight. In the same year he was hired to score the second installment of the Star Trek feature films, and before his meteoric rise in Hollywood as a prolific and renowned composer, he composed a beat-rich, steel-drum infused soundtrack for this action film. It’s a rambunctious score of ambiguous ethnic influence, rich in low-end brass, woodwinds, and a cacophony of now staple instruments for which Horner would later be known.
48 Hrs. is bloody, bawdy, and brilliantly unpolished entertainment. In many ways it was a test run for Hill’s Red Heat several years later, complete with seedy motel shoot-outs and the bus barreling down the city streets (though in Red Heat it was bus vs. bus). The racism that comes out of Nolte’s Cates character has never been more unpleasant, but it’s a part of the character, or who the character was playing to cajole his unwilling cohort, and there’s a moment in the film where it’s directly addressed.
3D Rating: NA
Paramount’s improved Blu-ray of 48 Hrs., part of its Paramount Presents line, is the best I’ve ever seen this film. The colors are richer, detail is surprisingly good, the image is cleaner than you might expect. The grain is interesting. Darker scenes, particular stock presents the grain you might expect from this production, but daylight, well-lit sequences have a much finer level of grain. There’s probably some digital ‘toolery’ at play, but not at the expense of detail. All the dirt and debris that were apparent on previous releases are taken care of here. Black levels are also surprisingly deep, notably in the scene when Reggie and Cage head to the Country bar.
The audio is a repeat of the previously available English Dolby TrueHD 5.1 audio. It remains punchy and rowdy. The sounds of San Francisco and the rustle and bustle of the police headquarters (and the excellent unbroken single-shot sequence following Cates near the film’s opening) come alive and are active in the surrounds. James Horner’s score is a real pleasure. It dominates in many scenes – though isn’t intrusive, it simply provides a grungy, jazz infused rhythmic cadence to the action, almost playing counterpoint, such as the sequence where Cates is pursuing Ganz in the subway. The cat-and-mouse chase boils and simmers; Cates stalks the windows looking to see which subway car Ganz, Billy Bear, and their hostage have holed up. Most films today would ease back on the underscore to just tense violin, but 48 Hrs. plays this sequence at full boar, with the percussion and brass indulgences at full pace. It’s terrific.
Special Features: 2.5/5
Filmmaker Focus: Director Walter Hill on 48 Hrs.: A welcome new special feature with director Walter Hill sharing memories and stories from the movies production. I always wish these kinds of conversations were longer.
Theatrical Trailer (3:00)
Space Kid – Original 1966 animated short (seen in the film right before the hotel shootout)
Written by director Hill, Larry Gross (Streets of Fire), Steven E. de Souza (Die Hard), and Roger Spottiswoode (The 6th Day) 48 Hrs. is raw 80’s violence and excessiveness crafted by strong Hollywood pedigree. Insensitive racial remarks, nudity, and strong language occasion the film frequently. The language is rough and crude, the character arguments ruthless and politically incorrect even by early-80s standards. It’s a great ride that shows its age, but director Hill doesn’t hold back, and neither do Nick Nolte or Eddie Murphy in their now classic roles.
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