Eddie Murphy was 21 and had just finished his second season on Saturday Night Live when he appeared in 48 Hrs., an action-comedy that went through about half a dozen iterations before it landed in his hands. Developed by Lawrence Gordon with Joel Silver, the script for 48 Hours passed through the typewriters of heavy hitters like Roger Spottiswoode and Steven E. de Souza, and was reportedly being revised by director Walter Hill right up to the moment he hollered “Action!” The project had a number of different actors attached, too (including Clint Eastwood and Richard Pryor), before the producers settled on Nick Nolte in the role of a drunken, lone-wolf San Francisco cop, and Murphy as the convict Nolte grants a two-day pass in exchange for help on a case. Yet with all the behind-the-scenes talent involved, and all the tweaks along the way, 48 Hours wound up being the first “Eddie Murphy movie.” That’s how much of an impact Murphy’s performance had back in 1982.
The movie itself can be divided into “before and after Murphy.” In its first 20 minutes, 48 Hours is a rough-hewn cop flick, full of sex, violence, and the kind of seamy detail about police-work that became the norm in the post-Dirty Harry/post-Hill Street Blues era. Then Nolte gets stuck trying to track down a violent escaped convict, and decides to question one of the crook’s old partners, who’s behind bars. Cue one of the most memorable intros in movie history: Murphy, sitting in a cell with his sunglasses and Walkman headphones on, singing The Police’s “Roxanne” off-key. Murphy isn’t doing shtick here. There are very few actual jokes in 48 Hours. While he’s funny throughout, the humor is primarily a natural offshoot of his character’s personality. Murphy’s career criminal has confidence and nuance; he’s sexually aggressive and aware of every angle. He has history beyond mere comic relief.
Because 48 Hours was directed by economical genre specialist Hill, it moves relentlessly, with scarcely a wasted scene or shot in its 96 minutes. And because it’s an early example of the buddy-cop movie, it features multiple scenes and elements that later became cliché, as when Nolte’s shouty African-American boss tells him he needs to be “more of a team player and less of a hot dog.” It would be a solid actioner even without Murphy, anchored by the almost-as-colorful Nolte, whose character is so disheveled and abrasive that he’s constantly threatened with arrest by cops who don’t realize he’s one of them. As Nolte baits Murphy with racially charged insults (some overt, some subtle), 48 Hours plays with the question of which of these two men has the power in their relationship: the washed-up authority figure, or the smooth-talking law-breaker? But as good as Nolte is in this movie, there’s really no contest. As soon as Murphy steps out of his cell, it’s clear he’s planning to stick around.
Key features: None, though the Blu-ray transfer looks good.