****/**** Image B- Sound B
starring Nick Nolte, Eddie Murphy, Annette O'Toole, Frank McRae
screenplay by Roger Spottiswoode and Walter Hill & Larry Gross and Steven E. de Souza
directed by Walter Hill
by Walter Chaw A genuinely tetchy, risky race comedy, Walter Hill's finest box-office hour reveals itself to be his finest hour, period. There's a moment in 48Hrs. where dishevelled grizzly bear of a cop Jack (Nick Nolte, typecast) apologizes to the convict in his charge, Reggie (Eddie Murphy), for calling him a "nigger" and a "watermelon," to which a smiling Reggie responds that, you know, there's not always an explanation or an excuse for things sometimes. And it's that moment that defines the film--defines it as a prototype for the modern buddy comedy but, moreover, defines this picture and this man, Murphy (then finishing up his second year on SNL), as the most important African-American actor since Sidney Poitier, in a meatier, more meaningful role than Poitier ever had. He is unapologetically a criminal--not the Desperate Hours/Stanley Kramer-ized Christ-like criminal or the super-duper Green Mile magic Negro con, but a horny, profane, violent, venal criminal measuring the angles and deciding to help the fuzz because there's something attractive to him about becoming rich off the spoils of the heist that landed him in the pen in the first place. Reggie, in other words, is smart as hell, as well as the product of a certain reality that would drive Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn absolutely insane. Better still, Jack is smart as hell, too, and fifteen years after In the Heat of the Night here, finally, is a dynamic between a black guy and a white guy solving a case that rings with all the pain, injustice, and social weight necessary to tell the unsolvable calamity of race in our country.
48Hrs. is also a fantastic action movie packed to the gills with Hill's signature ultraviolence. Completely uncompromising, it opens with more race-baiting in the escape of chain gang member Ganz (James Remar, Ajax in Hill's The Warriors), who picks a staged fight with Injun-looking-for-water Billy Bear (Sonny Landham). Blood is spilled, lots of it, and the first order of business for Ganz is to arrange a couple of whores for him and his buddy Billy ("an Indian...no, like a squaw") so they can celebrate. Thirty minutes in, cops are dead, bad guys are getting laid, and the pantheon of '80s character actors (Brion James, Jonathan Banks, red-hot Annette O'Toole) has had opportunity to strut and fret on Hill's gritty stage. Jack loses his gun to Ganz, decides on the risky tactic of busting Ganz's former compatriot Reggie out of prison on some two-day pretense to help track him down, and discovers--though it will make no difference to the sloppy, self-destructive way he conducts his profession and his relationships--that he's maybe a complete asshole who'll never be more than a cog in a bigger machine. Not unlike Reggie. Thus, their bonhomie isn't born of the guy version of a romcom meet-cute; they don't fall in love because the conventions of this young sub-genre demand that they do, but rather because they're equally insignificant in the grand scheme of things. Their union as social--and eventually, financial--partners, then, makes total sense. No kidding: the closest analogue to the central relationship in 48Hrs. is the one at the heart of McCabe & Mrs. Miller.
The centrepiece of the film is the one that seems most engineered to capitalize on Murphy's rising superstardom, as Reggie re-enacts Popeye's French Connection shakedown in a honkytonk. But look to every other scene in 48Hrs. for something that takes pains to draw a world sharply divided along socioeconomic lines, sure, but more crucially examines the unbridgeable chasm between the races. Listen as Jack's abusive, African-American captain (Frank McRae) comments on that divide, calling Reggie "nigger" and, turning to Jack, offering the kind of semantic justification for it ("That's right, I called him a nigger") that will dominate the hip-hop era that's just about to pop. Murphy is so vital a performer in this period because he fulfills the dream Poitier once expressed that he be offered films that weren't about his "Negro-ness" (Murphy's signature hit, Beverly Hills Cop, was famously written for Sylvester Stallone)--and, freed from expectation, he delivers in 48Hrs. something that is specifically a Walter Hill trademark we would quickly discover was also an Eddie Murphy trademark. Both are invested in discussing race in ways that are frank, unadorned, profane, and profound. For Murphy, this, Trading Places, and Beverly Hills Cop were enough to cement him as an icon. Time and a string of Norbits (arguably, he never anchored another interesting film post-Cop) have diluted Murphy's importance to the hard conversations he forced in the early-'80s, and Spike Lee famously excoriated him for not using his influence to open more doors for black actors and filmmakers. What's on display in this, his big-screen debut, is that striking wisdom about the gulf separating who he is from what he must do to be accepted by a dominant culture that absolutely hates his guts. He's like Dave Chappelle, except he never stopped taking the money.
For all that, I shouldn't neglect to mention how exciting and vital 48Hrs. is even thirty-years on--the more so for its reminder of how much less squeamish about violence and nudity these movies used to be. Women are punched, Jack throws a naked girl (played by Denise Crosby (!)) across a room, innocents are gunned down and threatened with regularity, and the baddies feel truly dangerous. Credit Hill for consistently making this type of film: steeped in testosterone, cynical about the jungle, and philosophical about the role of sex and violence in the emotional and physical lives of men. He's a noir director, a guy born maybe twenty years too late (he would've been perfectly matched with Humphrey Bogart or Richard Widmark)--and, crucially, he's a director with ideas on the things that divide us, the possibility for common ground, and the absolute bullshit that there's a happy ending beyond a nod to playing nicey-nice before retiring to respective corners. Although Murphy stops having this conversation long around The Golden Child, Hill, with the seldom-seen likes of his Undisputed and Johnny Handsome, never does. They intersect in 48Hrs. to create a high-concept animal that, between Nolte's cop, who keeps getting arrested by other cops, and Murphy's con, jazzed up by a $500 suit and practiced patter, still stands as the best example at the dawn of the blockbuster '80s of the sort of smart, socially-relevant genre movie the decade could--and would (Die Hard, Predator)--occasionally produce.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
48Hrs. docks on Blu-ray from Paramount in a 1.78:1, 1080p presentation that suggests nobody really cared about some catalogue title rapidly reaching antique status. It galls that much more because Hill's career has been almost Wellesian to the extent that the studios have taken to pissing all over his films before dumping their corpses in the metaphorical woods. (What I wouldn't give for a director's cut of Supernova, for instance.) Black level is maddeningly inconsistent, the grain at times brings to mind a screen door, and fine detail is needlessly indistinct. A late sequence lit by neon in a dark alley isn't moody, just smooth and murky. Frankly, I prefer my VHS boot for the mystery of it to this antiseptic treatment. Overall, yeah, it's an upgrade, but that's a pretty low standard by which to judge. The 5.1 Dolby TrueHD audio relegates most of the sound to the forward stage. It's loud and clear, though there's a lack of attention to the subwoofer that would've made the numerous gun battles land with weight. And a car chase, that honkytonk scene, a later bit where Reggie tries to score some tail...each would seem a perfect opportunity to give the rear channels a workout, but instead highlight the hemispheric nature of a mix that, for better or worse, has had little done to it in the way of sweetening. Sadly, the disc's only special feature is a theatrical trailer in terrible condition. (Its upgrade to HD proves irrelevant.) Poor Hill. In a just world, he'd be the one adapting Pete Dexter's Train and not that hamster moron Barry Levinson. Here's hoping he's at least appreciated before he's dead. Originally published: April 6, 2011.