Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Recent Watches: 48 Hrs. (1982)

When I think of the “buddy cop” genre, my brain always immediately goes to “Lethal Weapon.” I grew up around the time when that series was still very popular. The first three films were frequently featured in my parents’ VCR. However, that film had a popular predecessor. In the canon of eighties action flicks, “48 Hrs.” is important for a couple of reasons. It was directed by Walter Hill, who wrote arguably the first buddy cop flick, “Hickey and Boggs,” a decade earlier. It launched Eddie Murphy’s film career, establishing the red hot stand-up as a leading man. It was also the first film for producer Joel Silver, who would go on to create many more iconic action flicks. For these reasons and more, I’m a bit sheepish to admit I’ve never seen it before.

Of course, “48 Hrs.” isn’t technically a buddy cop flick. One half of the duo, Nick Nolte’s Jack Cates, is a cop. The other half, Murphy’s Reggie Hammond, is a convict, on loan from jail for the titular two days in order to track down his former comrades. That being the psychotic Ganz and the Indian Billy Bear. The two escape a chain gang, kill some cops, and end up murdering Cates’ partner with his own gun. The cop and the convict have an argumentative relationship, impeding their journey to bring the crooks to justice. In-between fighting each other, they track down Ganz’ and Billy’s girlfriends, former associates, and the criminals themselves.

“48 Hrs.” is probably best remembered as an Eddie Murphy movie. This overlooks that Murphy doesn’t appear until a half-hour into the movie. Instead, Nick Nolte’s Jack Cates is the main character for most of the run time. The film focuses plenty on Cates’ tumultuous relationship with his girlfriend. As with any hard boiled cop, his job gets in the way of romance. A funny but pointed moment has him nearly missing a phone call from the woman due to getting a call from Hammond. As a cop, Cates is a rough fellow, barking orders and marching around with Frankenstein-stiff shoulders. Nick Nolte, who sounds like he’s been gargling gravel and whiskey all night and has a slate-stone face to match, is well suited to the role. The script was first offered to Clint Eastwood and it’s easy to imagine Cates as a slightly more obedient variation on Dirty Harry. (Though Cates still gets chewed out by his police chief, played by Frank McRae. McRae was so associated with the part that he would parody it twice, in “Last Action Hero” and “Loaded Weapon 1,” both released in 1993.)

The part of Cates plays to Nolte’s strengths but it’s not hard to see why Murphy would overshadow him. Reggie Hammond is introduced in his jail cell, tunelessly singing along to the Police’s “Roxanne.” This characterizes Murphy’s irrelevant comic persona, one he would wear throughout much of his early career. There’s no doubt that Murphy is funny, cracking numerous snippy asides and smart-ass comebacks. His constant preoccupation with getting laid is probably the movie’s best running gag. What’s also interesting is that Murphy doesn’t just coast on his gift for comedy. Hammond is a tough street hood and frequently stands up against both Cates and the movie’s other authority figures. The two elements come together nicely in a lengthy middle sequence where Hammond enters a redneck bar and systematically fucks with the patrons. Eddie flashing that shit-eating grin is funny but tossing badges into mirrors is pretty serious. Murphy’s status as a future superstar was already well secured. He’s fabulously entertaining.

The interaction between the two characters is truly where the meat of “48 Hrs.” is. The film laid down the story arc that countless imitators would follow. At first, the two hate each other. Cates shoots casually racist epithets in Hammond’s direction, who returns them in kind. Their sniping escalates until the two actually come to blows, beating the shit out of each in a back alley. But remember when I mentioned the buddy cop formula? In time, Cates and Hammond learn to respect each other. Hammond helps Cates get the bad guy, the two eventually developing into a good team. By the end, they not only respect each other… They like each other, both bidding a fond farewell in the final reel. The chemistry between Nolte and Murphy is very good and their evolution from hostile co-workers to good friends is natural.

While most of its imitators would focus on the comedy, “48 Hrs.” is darker and more violent then the buddy cop movies that would follow. Most of this is thanks to its villains. James Remar is a stone cold psychopath as Ganz. His facial expressions switches between emotionless disregard for others and sadistic glee. Remar is a fine bad guy, a believable threat to the heroes and the victims. The physically imposing Sonny Landham is even better as Ganz’ sidekick. Billy Bear is no less violent then his partner but Landham is more likely to strong-arm his enemies then taking pleasure in threatening them. The film also has no shortage of big, bloody squibs, with plenty of weeping gunshot wounds. Despite the yuks, the movie remains grounded in the crime genre.

“48 Hrs.” is pretty damn entertaining. It’s nicely balances both sides of the buddy cop formula, being successful as a comedy and a gritty crime film. In Reggie Hammond, you can see the prototype of Axel Foley and countless other Eddie Murphy smart-asses. Walter Hill would return to similar territory with “Red Heat” and "Bullet to the Head." And Nick Nolte played plenty more stiff-jawed hard-asses. I guess what I’m saying is: I probably should have seen it sooner. [7/10]

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