Does the 1982 Eddie Murphy classic “48 Hrs.” hold up today?

One of the only podcasts I listen to is The Rewatchables. Many film podcasts usually contain hosts with an infuriating lack of film knowledge and haven’t done their research, but each episode of The Rewatchables that I’ve listened to checks its references. In discussing Walter Hill’s 1982-directed, Joel Silver-produced, Eddie Murphy starring debut 48 hrs., host Bill Simmons in discussing his favourite movie ever, pondered openly with Chris Ryan on what a young audience viewing it for the first time might think today: “I have no idea”, said Ryan, ‘I’d be really interested to see what people under 25 who’ve never seen it… think.’

Well fortunately for them I just so happened to listen to their podcast on 48 Hrs. before I even saw a reel of the film (odd I know, the episode was my dad’s suggestion) and then watched it last night for the first time on Blu-ray in my home theater, having rented it from my not-so-local video store. I was born 11 years after the film’s 1982 release, and for added background I have a Major in Communications, a Minor in Film Studies and to paraphrase Jack Cates ‘the same problem half the population has of not being able to get a job in the field they’re qualified in.’ A person like me, born in the 90’s, raised in the 2000’s, educated in PC-centric university culture might not be the perfect audience member to appreciate this film, which will forever belong to those who saw it during its initial release. However, because it was so highly influential in the creation of the buddy cop genre, the start of Joel Silver and star Eddie Murphy’s career, it deserves to be appreciated and discussed today in all its glory both former and present. Why former? Well to quote Ryan Gosling when asked if he’d seen the original Blade Runner [also released in 1982] “I think I’d seen everything that ripped it off first.”

48 Hours is listed as the first official movie that spawned the “Buddy Cop” genre or largely the action Buddy-Comedy that has since been replicated endlessly, most notably in the Rush Hour, Men in Black and Jump Street franchises, as well as the producer’s own Lethal Weapon series, [inevitably now a mediocre television police procedural as most shows have become.] The genre is established enough to have its own set of clichés that stem mostly from this film. You can bet when Nick Nolte’s hard-nosed cop Jack Cates tells Eddie Murphy’s Reggie Hammond to stay in the car & out of trouble he’ll be handcuffed to the steering wheel and trouble will find him when he thwarts an on the run suspect that’s slipped police custody. As well any mistakes along the way will be amplified by an exasperated police captain who is only there to shout empty threats. That’s not a knock against 48 hrs., if anything it is a reminder of how good and effective it was that it originated these clichés back in 1982, but scenes like that don’t have the same impact if you’ve seen half-decent rip-offs like Rush Hour, Fringe, & Castle borrow shamelessly from it first. A note to aspiring filmmakers; as derivative as your stuff may be, you can still bet at least one person will be seeing these plot points onscreen for the first time.

One of the benefits of viewing the film under today’s magnified lens is the high-resolution boost. As any movie that was shot on the film format, with a 24-bit color depth/ range, a transfer of up to at least 6K resolution is possible. It astounds me that watching a 35 year-old movie coming from a VHS-only era is able to be seen in full 1080p. Sure, the added detail is mostly meaningless, like the texture of Cates’ alarm clock night stand, but I appreciate watching a film that is older than I am meet the visual demands of today. It isn’t a transfer done say to the likes of the 50+ year-old 2001 (also thankfully not as boring), but like Detective Cates, despite major flaws it gets results!

The downside to a modern magnified viewing lens is looking at how racist the dialogue and characters are. The racism here is still less offensive than a modern movie like The Blind Side because it’s not as majorly woven into the storyline and for better or worse there are a few suggestions that the filmmakers actually knew how racist they were being, but without an abundance of examples from earlier films to demonstrate that they should have known better. The ‘N-word’, ‘watermelon’, and other slurs are used frequently and once even between the only two named African-American characters; Captain Haden who says it to Murphy’s Reggie Hammond. This is a transparent attempt by the all-white writing crew to try to take the heat off the strictly white usage of the term by having Captain Haden draw attention to its usage. It’s awful, like much of the racist dialogue, is excessive and narratively pointless, unless it somehow didn’t register to you that in addition to being a convict Hammond is also considered a low-life because he’s black. The writers even cop to their own lazy racism as Cates says to Hammond near the end of the film paying off an earlier line, that he was only saying those things, ‘doing his job’ to ‘keep [Hammond] down.’ Hammond, not completely letting Cates off the hook replies “Well your job doesn’t explain everything.” Followed by an immediate hand-waving and a shared awkward laugh. It is indicative how the filmmakers knew which way history was going yet still couldn’t bother to be progressive.

Maybe it is because the movie, despite the genre being a unique for a mode of comedy at the time still owed a lot to the past exploitation movies of the late sixties and seventies. The San Francisco locale is similar to the previous productions like Dirty Harry, Bullitt and Starsky and Hutch. The movie today still maintains the sharp edge it had coming off of those decades, but the most damage it has done to the film today is outweigh the comedic elements. It still considered a comedy and I don’t think comedic films should be held up too politically as most comedy flies in the face of good sense and tastes change. An alarming number of people for example thought the movie I Feel Pretty made offense to women despite being written, produced, directed , and starring from their point of view. It’s exhausting to try to get ahead of and more people should treat humor with humor.

I find it a testament to Murphy’s performance here, ranking as one the most effective star debuts ever, that he manages to absorb all that racism and make away with some good laughs. He accomplishes this with a lot less screen time than his co-star playing a deplorable character, a sleazy con-artist whose also trying to get laid. By all accounts he succeeds and we root for him all the way. If there was any doubt we are hooked from the moment he walks into Torchy’s. 

“Bullshit, attitude, and experience will get you far.”
“I’m puttin’ you down and keepin’ you down until Ganz is locked up or dead.” – Detective Jack Cates

Murphy’s co-star Nick Nolte hit an early peak $1 Million pay-day in a lastingly good film. I find it hard to believe simply because I find Nolte a better character actor than the film star he was back in the day. To me, his true to life iconic role isn’t Jack Cates, but the abusive alcoholic father in Ang Lee’s Hulk. To quote one YouTuber about the role “Nick Nolte isn’t acting they just woke him up from a nap and turned on the cameras.” If you look up Scenery Chewing on TV Tropes you will find a picture of him literally chewing the scenery. He would iterate on that kind of role to Academy Award nominating effect in his late peak Warrior. But as far as his character goes it has aged the worst out of anything in the film reeking of white male privilege.

Let me explain the charges, or better yet I’ll have Cates sum it up then I’ll explain it in detail. “This sucks! A maniac gets ahold of my gun and runs all over the streets killin’ people with it. So, instead of bein’ where I oughta be, home in bed with my gal givin’ her the high hard one, I’m out here doin’ THIS shit: roamin’ around the streets with an overdressed, charcoal-colored loser like you.” This tells you a lot about Cates. In a fair world would probably be off the force for the stuff he gets away with. Surrendering his drawn weapon to a violent cop killer causing the needless death of another officer and lazily not filing paper work after despite his weapon being loose on the streets, haggling another cop for a piece immediately after losing his and keeping it for the entire weekend, and never facing any career consequences [like Ryan Reynolds]. He pulls a convict out of prison on furlough he is unfamiliar with to verbally and physically abuse and only ends up solving the case based on very little detective work of his own; coincidence sheer luck, failing to apprehend the suspect, all the while doing the most damage possible. He routinely causes mischief and disturbances with frequent use of excessive force. This character would be villain if played today and is partly proven by Gerard Butler’s wonderful performance in the year’s surprising good Heat rip-off Den of Thieves. This character stinks so much I gather the impression in real life, Captain Haden as a black man on the police force in the early eighties probably wouldn’t able to fire him without the serious risk of losing his own job.

Fellow officers do not seem to respect him a whole lot, having to nag his desk partner Kehoe to deliver his messages. So what makes this character tolerable? Well, it is not so much him as the investment of others in him and vice-versa. Reggie Hammond, his girlfriend Elaine and Haden. He quips with conviction to the Captain that Hammond “has more integrity than any partner I’ve ever worked with!” Which given how loosely established their relationship is at that point does not make sense unless you realize that every partner Cates must have worked with in the S.F.P.D. had to have been an equal or greater scumbag than he is. It is typical of a Nolte figure that the only thing he has going for him is someone else. Detective Cates may not hold up as a badass cop, perhaps he’s not meant to but he seemingly at least knows it. Lacking the authority of Dirty Harry (he gets questioned about his badge at every turn) or the cool conviction/ unique skill-set of Bullitt (he crashes his car store front during a bus chase and like any dumb movie cop does not shoot out the tires as is standard procedure on a runaway vehicle) what saves him today by a feminist reading is that he reads as a pitiful figure with some charisma, and also probably loses his girlfriend by the end of the film.

Not that it matters in this movie what happens to women unless it affects men. I believe they are the only sex in this film that is used as a human shield. Apart from being literally treated as objects they are used as plot points and motivation for all of the men. Luther’s girlfriend is used as collateral, Elaine is supposed to give Cates some depth but isn’t utilized properly as her plot line just ends and the audience like Hammond are still left asking why she is with someone like him in the first place. “The generosity of women never ceases to amaze me.” It is questionable character work and direction. Add to that given the fact that Hammond who is more likable than Cates does not have a girl and spends the entire film struggling to get laid and then succeeds after meeting a woman for 10 minutes between seven hours, despite openly being unable to afford a room across the street to do the dirty in. Well that just happens to be lazy from writers who are male and white. Co-writer and director Walter Hill’s decision to keep stuff like this in if only to float the running time shows he knew what kind of film he was making and does give the material some sort of weight, if only it is mostly weighed down. And at twenty years old Murphy was charismatic enough to really work this material.

I keep coming back to Murphy because as it’s been stated by countless others who know this film better than me and got to see it in its prime, that he is THE reason this film works so well. To me, this is the best star debut ever, Murphy owns it. You wait for him to show up and when he does he is on. There isn’t a bad line he isn’t able to shrug off or throw away. “Jack… Tell me a story.” “Fuck you! “Oh, that’s one of my favorites.” He has great agency. Every decision he makes, what his character chooses to ignore or not ignore: the blatant racism and abuse, yet still have a believable affection for his partner, or how he particularly in the film’s most famous scene walks in and completely own the room with conviction and charisma and make the audience laugh while everyone else is taking him seriously. See any actor try to pull that off.

Reggie: You said bullshit and experience is all it takes, right?/ “Right.”/ Come on in and experience some of my bullshit.”

As Captain Haden said “Just because you say something with conviction, does not make it true.” With Murphy they at least had something else, they had real movie magic.

Originally received: back in 1982, I would probably have scored this in the 8-10 range.

Adjusted for today’s standards: I’d score it around the 7 range with a 7.5 rating. Respectfully, I am not the audience this movie was made for, who are all now mostly over thirty-five (at least as old as the movie). It has not aged well with only the Murphy part holding up, it is probably only as half as good as it should be.

If it were made today: Reggie Hammond would be the main focus, Nolte’s character would be an older supporting role, and have might have been more of a loose cannon (basically Nolte’s idea for 48 hrs. II). Henchman Billy Bear would be the main baddie with a more sympathetic cause and main bad guy Ganz would be the more psychotic henchman. The racial politics (not the racism) should stay as they are a valid and distinct part of the film’s identity that can be improved. The stereotypes would have to be played with, more funny not lazy, and not funny only to the characters saying them, but also provide insight that explores who these characters are by exploring what they are not. It’s a tall order currently on comedian Jerrod Carmichael’s plate (The Carmichael Show) which is encouraging, and the Safdie Brothers (the appropriately gritty but overrated throwback Good Time) which is not.

Modern Casting: Reprise their roles, Nolte, a detective on his last day, Murphy is a Detective Sergeant and Samuel L. Jackson the angry Lieutenant, and if we wanna go over the top with an Angry Captain too, Kevin Hart who we know will show up because money, could exhaustively be more over the top, unnecessarily bringing up his personal life which nobody wants to hear, sleeping his way to the top and playing and obviously politically corrupt character (always endorsing some shady candidate) who not unreasonably but often nonsensically tries to play the race card only to be frequently undermined by Jackson or Murphy. The whole thing could be a Departed riff with the force being investigated by Internal Affairs and given 48 Hours to find the mole having pissed away the rest of the week. Throw in Regina Hall as a shrink who interacts with the whole team, producer Will Packer on board with the Screen Gems label and Adam Mckay directing. Does it work as a S.F.P.D. based story? Probably not. What does it have to do with 48 hrs? Absolutely nothing. But Badda Bing call it “48 hrs.x 3”. It’s a terrible idea but that’s why I’m not in the movie industry.


2 Comments Add yours

  1. Roe Digi says:

    I like the part 3 idea.


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