Eddie Murphy was one of the Saturday Night Live stars whose films my dad introduced to me when I was a kid. I can’t tell you how many times we watched Trading Places or the Beverly Hills Cop movies when they’d come on TV. But, 48 Hours is something of a blind spot for me. I know I’ve seen the movie (or at least parts of it) a few times, but it hasn’t taken up much real estate in my head.
I knew the basics, of course, cop (Nick Nolte) springs con (Eddie Murphy) from jail to help him with an investigation, but somehow it escaped my knowledge that the movie was directed by The Warriors helmer Walter Hill and even stars a few of that movie’s leads, James Remar as killer Albert Ganz and David Patrick Kelly as a street hood coincidentally named Luther.
To get into a bit more detail, Murphy’s character used to run with Remar’s gang. Another criminal helped spring Ganz from prison and the two went on a crime spree that happened to garner attention from the cops. In the process of escaping, two of the cops get killed and Nolte wants revenge. He teams up with Murphy to try and figure out what’s going on and where they can find Remar.
48 Hours is notable because it gave Murphy his first big screen role and success. From there he’d go on to become one of the biggest comedy stars of the 80s. In the film he nails the role of angry convict with a cool head and a smart mouth. I’m a big fan of the scene where he goes in to the country bar acting like a cop and gets to get a lot of his anger out. It’s cathartic.
This movie is also an interesting milestone in movies of this kind. Apparently Hill thought that Murphy’s character here was taken, slightly changed and then used again in the Beverly Hills Cop series. I think there’s an argument that could be made to that point, but how much of that was in the script and how much was just Murphy’s performance is probably impossible to tell at this point. Some of my favorite movies from this era have a similar vibe to this one, mixing some legitimate action or drama elements with some truly great comedic acting (I’m thinking of you Fletch and Fletch Lives). There’s also an interesting transition in scores that you can hear in this film. Anyone who knows BHC, remembers the electronic theme song written by Harold Faltermeyer. 48 Hours has a pretty solid soundtrack of more traditional music, but there is a little bit of the electronic, new wave influence in there that would soon take over.
Now that I think about it, the movie also represents a passing of the torch between two versions of this kind of movie. Nolte’s character is a lot more in line with the vigilante cop films of the 70s like Dirty Harry and Death Wish, while, as I already mentioned, Murphy is the smart-talking, wise cracking cop who can take care of himself. This also allowed for the bigger action guys like Stallone and Schwarzenegger to come in and fill some of those gaps with their far more over-the-top films.
I’m still not sure why 48 Hours wasn’t in heavy rotation either in my house or later on during my heavy rental period during high school, but I’m glad I came around to it so many years later. Experiencing a movie that combines one of my favorite stars from this era with a director I really adore is a nice treat. My only complaint about the movie is that Annette O’Toole is awesome and just doesn’t get enough to do in the film.