Director Walter Hill had a terrific run of films in the late 1970s and into the early 1980s with the likes of The Driver (1978), The Warriors (1979) and Southern Comfort (1981). He acquired a reputation for making visceral, no-nonsense action movies populated by tough-talking cops and criminals. Hill continued this trend with 48 Hrs. (1982), a gritty buddy cop action comedy that provided a breakout role for comedian Eddie Murphy and launched a very successful series of movies for him during the ‘80s. Amazingly, the project survived movie studio moves and a rocky production that saw Murphy’s role re-written extensively and executives butting heads with Hill over his depiction of on-screen violence. His instincts were validated with the film’s critical and commercial success that helped kickstart a resurgence in the buddy cop genre and led to a rather lackluster sequel in 1990.
Hill starts things off in dramatic fashion with a daring road gang escape as Albert Ganz (James Remar) is freed by his partner in crime Billy Bear (Sonny Landham) and, in the process, kills two prison guards. This sequence is depicted in Hill’s trademark efficient fashion complete with crisp editing and meat and potatoes camerawork that always tell us where everyone is and what’s going on. He has always had a knack for conveying kinetic action and it is certainly on display in 48 Hrs. with some nicely staged sequences that aren’t showy, but aren’t supposed to be – that’s not Hill’s style. He definitely harkens back to classic journeymen directors like Don Siegel or contemporaries like John Flynn (Best Seller).
He then cuts to a familiar scene for any Nick Nolte fan – a tired, grumpy burn-out of a man (also see North Dallas Forty, Teachers, etc.) who embodies that famous line from Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981): “It’s not the years, honey, it’s the mileage.” Nolte is Jack Cates, a police detective who wakes up with a coffee mug full of booze and an argument with his long-suffering girlfriend (a lovely Annette O’Toole). “That’s a fairly crummy way to start a morning,” she tells him, to which he replies, “Maybe I got a fairly crummy day ahead.” Through their behavior and actions, Nolte and Annette O’Toole tell us more than a few things about Cates and his attitude towards life. Visually, Hill informs us of the man’s profession without explicitly spelling it out. Also, Cates drives a beat-up old convertible that mirrors his rumpled appearance. It’s refreshing to see a filmmaker that assumes the audience has a modicum of intelligence.
While providing back-up for two fellow police detectives (one of whom played by reliable character actor Jonathan Banks) on a routine call (aren’t they always?), Cates runs afoul of Ganz and Billy in a violent hotel lobby showdown that leaves his co-workers dead and his gun in the crooks’ possession. Wracked with guilt over one of them being killed with his gun, Cates makes it his personal mission to find Ganz and Billy and take them down. It turns out that they had been tracking down other members of a gang that pulled off an armed robbery a few years ago and Ganz wants to collect the loot. One of them – Reggie Hammond (Eddie Murphy) – is still in prison and makes a deal with Cates: if he can be temporarily released from prison he’ll help the lawman catch Ganz, but they only have 48 hours to do it.
Right from the get-go Cates makes it clear that he doesn’t like Reggie and lays out how it’s going to be: “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 going to be sorry you ever met me.” And so begins a contentious partnership that sees the two men bicker, trade insults and, at one point, even come to blows until they develop a grudging respect for one another.
Nick Nolte brings his customary intensity to the role. For example, there’s a scene where Cates “questions” one of Ganz’s gang (the always reliable David Patrick Kelly) by repeatedly slamming him into a car door in a way that looks really painful and done with what looks like genuine ferocity while a bemused Reggie cracks jokes. Nolte plays well off of Murphy with his surly cop routine bouncing off of the comedian’s wisecracking convict. They have an antagonistic relationship complete with plenty of cussing each other out and racial slurs that are particularly jarring in this day and age of political correctness. It’s not that Cates is racist per se, but that he is saying those things to be mean and keep Reggie under control as he states early on.
From his first appearance in prison singing “Roxanne” by the Police in a hilarious falsetto to how he takes control of a redneck bar, Eddie Murphy is a revelation in 48 Hrs. and it is easy to see why this film made him a star. Watch how he works the room in the aforementioned bar sequence, putting everyone in their place through sheer force of will, swagger and tons of charisma to burn as he tells one upstart patron, “I’m your worst fuckin’ nightmare. I’m a nigger with a badge and that means I got permission to kick your fuckin’ ass whenever I feel like it.” It is a testimony to Murphy’s skills as a performer that he is able to pull that scene off so convincingly. Reggie also gives as good as he gets, standing up to Cates’ bullying tactics and racial slurs, which culminates in a drop down, drag out fist fight between the two men. In a nice bit of role reversal, Reggie turns the tables on Cates late on in the film when they meet at an African American nightclub, which Hill makes a point of showing the contrast in music and atmosphere to the redneck bar earlier on. It is now Cates’ turn to feel out of place. They also get to share a moment shortly afterwards and put their differences aside for a few minutes.
James Remar is good (maybe a little too good) as the nasty Ganz, a man not above kidnapping the girlfriend of one of his ex-partners and threatening to “put holes in her you never even thought of” if he doesn’t get his money. The actor is scarily convincing and conveys a ruthless intensity that makes Ganz a legitimate threat to our heroes. Looking lean and mean, the appropriately wild-eyed Remar seems to relish his role of a sociopath that enjoys killing cops. He has a pretty simple outlook on life: if he wants something, he takes it. Someone gets in his way, he kills them. It’s a testimony to Remar’s skills as an actor that the final showdown, as cliché as it is, is such a tense affair, which Hill milks for all its worth. Throughout the film, Remar continually demonstrates what a potent threat Ganz is to our heroes in the way he carries himself and the complete disregard he has for those around him.
Producer Lawrence Gordon had an idea for crime movie set in Louisiana that involved the kidnapping of the governor’s daughter. She had dynamite strapped to her head and if the ransom wasn’t delivered in 48 hours, the bad guys planned to kill her. So, her family gets the meanest cop to rescue her and he recruits one of the most vicious criminals, who also happens to be the kidnapper’s cellmate, out of worst prison to help him.
Editor Roger Spottiswoode wanted to direct and Hill, whom he had worked with in the past, suggested he rewrite the story. Spottiswoode changed the location, removed the dynamite and made it more realistic. At the time, the project was at Columbia Pictures, but Gordon had a deal with Paramount Pictures and it moved over to them. After several more drafts, the studio asked Hill to rewrite it for Clint Eastwood. The actor wasn’t interested in playing the cop and wanted to be the criminal instead. However, he decided to make Escape from Alcatraz (1979) and lost interest in 48 Hrs.
Hill suggested Richard Pryor play the criminal. The studio didn’t agree and so Hill went off to make The Long Riders (1980) and Southern Comfort. Meanwhile, the script for 48 Hrs. languished at Paramount for years. The problem wasn’t with it, but the casting of the two lead characters. Hill got a call from Gordon and was told that Nick Nolte wanted to make the film and was he interested in directing? He agreed and tried again to cast Pryor, but was unable to. Hill then tried Gregory Hines but he wasn’t available either. The president of production Don Simpson saw Eddie Murphy on Saturday Night Live and studio head Michael Eisner agreed that he would be perfect to play the convict opposite Nolte.
Once they got the greenlight, Hill brought in Larry Gross to tweak the script to the personalities of Nolte and Murphy, rewriting the latter’s character up to the very last day of shooting. Murphy couldn’t get out of his commitment to Saturday Night Live and joined the production two weeks after principal photography had begun. During filming, studio executives didn’t think Murphy’s scenes were funny enough. Eisner wanted to meet with Hill about it, but Gordon refused and this prompted Eisner to threaten shutting the production down. Gordon backed down and Hill told Eisner that he was getting good stuff from the comedian. Hill butted heads with the studio again when they suggested that the first cut of the film be shown to a preview audience. Hill refused and the studio insisted until the director backed down. In addition, Hill hated the marketing campaign the studio created for the film.
48 Hrs. enjoyed mostly positive reviews from critics at the time. Roger Ebert gave it three-and-a-half out of four stars and wrote, “The movie’s story is nothing to write home about. It’s pretty routine. What makes the movie special is how it’s made. Nolte and Murphy are good, and their dialogue is good, too – quirky and funny.” In her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote, “Mr. Nolte, as the grouch of the pair, handles the less showy role expertly, while Mr. Murphy runs away with every comic situation that comes his way.” The Chicago Reader’s Dave Kehr wrote, “Hill excels as usual with his chugging, stylized action scenes, and his use of San Francisco achieves something I’d thought impossible—it gives this most clichéd of movie locations a fresh, highly charged new look.”
The mismatched buddy cop formula has been done to death by now and so one has to remember how fresh 48 Hrs. was back in 1982. There had been all kinds of buddy cop movies in the ‘70s, but in keeping with the tone of the decade, many ended ambiguously or on a down note. Hill’s film has one foot in that decade, with its gritty violence and salty dialogue, while also anticipating the blockbuster mentality of the ‘80s with its comedic set pieces and happy ending. It is also amazing to see how much anger is directed at various characters and the intensity of it, which certainly earned the film its R rating. In our current climate a lot of the film’s edges would’ve been softened by studio notes, test screenings and the ratings board, which makes one appreciate how much Hill got away with in the final cut. After 48 Hrs. it seemed like Hollywood was practically handing out buddy cop movies to every comedian/dramatic actor combination they could dream up. Most of them pale in comparison including Another 48 Hrs. (1990), which Hill returned to direct and came across as simply a rehash of the first film.
McGilligan, Patrick. “Walter Hill: Last Man Standing.” Film International. June 2004.
Schwartz, Tony. “Hollywood’s Hottest Stars.” New York Magazine. July 30, 1984.
Zelazny, Jon. “Kicking Ass with Walter Hill.” The Hollywood Interview. December 8, 2012.
Further reading: check out Sean Gill's awesome review over at his blog.
Further reading: check out Sean Gill's awesome review over at his blog.