Last time, for San Francisco Crime Month, I looked at the 1971 classic Dirty Harry. Now let’s move on to the 1980s with the classic buddy cop flick that marked the breakout performance of Eddie Murphy, 48 Hrs. This 1982 film, directed by Walter Hill, successfully intertwines fast- paced police drama with excellent comic timing.
San Francisco cop, Jack Cates (Nick Nolte), hunts for a prison escapee (James Remar) and his Native American partner (Sonny Landham), who are hiding out in the city looking for some stashed cash. Cates seeks the aid of the criminals’ former associate, Reggie Hammond (Eddie Murphy). Cates and Hammond form an unlikely duo who have only forty eight hours to catch Remar and Landham. 48 Hrs. actually takes place over seventy two hours. The first day is all setup/exposition, while the other two days are spent following Nolte and Murphy on the case. The set time limit keeps the film tightly-knit and intense. The violence is very bloody, fast-paced and realistic. A lot of the film takes place during night stakeouts and gives the viewer a glimpse into the seedy underbelly of San Francisco.
The film gets slow towards the end. Hammond and Cates meet and nearly miss Remar and Landham multiple times, leading to all manner of shootouts, car chases, and close calls on the streets of San Francisco. The second near-miss during the bus showdown is where I feel the movie should have concluded, instead of the lackluster final showdown in the alleyway.
The two villains are great low-level dirtbags, who enjoy committing crimes, but still know how to keep a low profile (most of the time). They get into multiple gun fights throughout the movie, but usually they hide in the shadows and kill without mercy. Remar and Landham are both intimidating looking people and function as serious threats when on screen. They both deliver intense performances that still go along with the fast-paced fun the film is known for. Murphy and Nolte work well off each other, and most of the humor comes from their fast-paced dialogue. This movie is a masterclass on insulting people. Murphy and Nolte dish out twenty insults a minute. Their friction can come off as funny, or legitimately dramatic if the scene calls for it. Their relationship clearly changes as the film goes on, and they clearly gain a newfound respect for one another by the end. Nolte even lets Murphy get laid before taking him back to jail.
Murphy keeps the mood light with lots of jokes, but he still takes the story seriously. It isn’t a full-on comedic role, and he isn’t the comic relief; he’ll shoot to kill when he needs to. His best comedic moment is when he shows up at a cowboy bar in the Mission, posing as a cop. Murphy commands this scene and everyone around him. It’s a perfect example of what makes Murphy a great comedian. Many other great 80s actors pop up for bit parts. Frank McRae has a part playing the same angry police chief he always plays. David Patrick Kelly shows up as a sleazeball and a coward. If you’ve see Commando, then you know that David Patrick Kelly is a master at this type of performance. Last, but not least, is Jonathan Banks as a detective. Banks also shows up in another great Eddie Murphy crime comedy, Beverly Hills Cop. If you were to combine his characters from 48 Hrs. and Beverly Hills Cop then he would practically be Mike from Breaking Bad, a role he is famous for.
Walter Hill has always been a director who likes to build a stylized world around a simple story. He enjoys filming at night with lots of city lights illuminating the screen. The world he creates in 48 Hrs. is gritty, full of filthy streets, and smoke filled rooms. The light and colors remain vibrant and contrast perfectly with the grime and shadows. Hill created a very sensualized crime-ridden San Francisco. 48 Hrs. is only partially filmed in San Francisco, sometimes the streets look like SF, and other times it’s nighttime LA. When it is San Francisco, you can tell. The steep hilled streets are easily recognizable, and the trainstop shootout makes great use of an SF muni station. Of course the interior of many of the places are sets, like the wide tracking shot across the obviously staged smoky police station that has been seen in many police procedurals. I’ve never actually seen a police station big enough to have a room like that.
48 Hrs. is a fun film that still works as a solid crime flick. It’s got the blood and the sleaze, but it also knows when to throw in a healthy dose of humor. It slows down towards the end, but it’s still a great film, and a mandatory watch for any fan of Eddie Murphy, or Buddy Cop movies.
Favorite Scene: The scene in the cowboy bar with Eddie Murphy. The movie is worth it just for that.
Written by Tyler Ducheneaux
Images from 48 Hrs.