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48 Hrs. Review

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by Chris McEneany Feb 21, 2011

    48 Hrs. Review

    “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 gonna be sorry you ever met me!”

    “I'm already sorry.”

    It is somewhat fitting that Walter Hill's classic 1982 thriller 48 HRS makes its Blu-ray debut with such woeful package artwork. Cast your minds back – those that can, obviously – to when the influential Nick Nolte/Eddie Murphy team-up first hit cinema screens with that extremely provocative original poster, Murphy's grinning con, Reggie Hammond, happily flipping us the bird through his handcuffs. That poster caused a lot of problems for distributors way before the film's enormous amount of foul language became the bane of its first few TV airings. The era of “melon-farmers” and “mutha-funsters” was about to be born, and this state of affairs was almost down to Murphy, alone. But that finger, and who it belonged to, was already enough to incite moral temperaments to go all Mount Vesuvius. And now, even today, the taste guardians have elected to play it safe and remove all reference to … the dreaded finger. And look at the lousy image that we have instead! Jeez, what idiot knocked that one up, eh?

    Ahhh, but so what. It's the film, itself, that counts, isn't it?

    And in Hill's more than capable hands, this uber-macho actioner still packs a mighty punch and, more importantly, acts as a historical foundation stone that began the whole trend for buddy-buddy capers in practically every genre, though, rather more essentially, the cop thriller in particular.

    When borderline psycho Albert Ganz (James Remar) is sprung from a prison chain-gang by his loyal compadre, he hits the streets of San Francisco looking for a fortune in stolen loot, leaving a trail of corpses in his wake ... and most of them cops. Caught up in the horrific double-murder of two of his colleagues - Ganz even uses his gun to commit the deed - beat-up, washed-out cop Jack Cates (Nick Nolte) swears that he will get even. So, shanghaiing one of Ganz's old crew, Eddie Murphy's cocky, over-confident convict, Reggie Hammond, on a bogus 48-hour parole, Jack sets about hunting down the cop-killer and, in so doing, breaking every rule in the book in that time-honoured fashion of many a maverick hero. With Hammond dead-set on retaining the stash that he'd hidden away before Ganz gets his bloodstained mitts on it, as well as purloining himself some horizontal R & R, and the obsessed Cates' love-life put through the wringer, the two hunters are going to have to get along and work together if they have a hope in hell of catching up with their quarry and putting and end to his reign of terror. A lot can happen in 48 hours ... as Hill's tough but highly entertaining romp sets out to prove.

    Eddie Murphy was already well-known for his Saturday Night Live performances, and his leap to the big screen was a logical step forward. His trademark grin, unstoppable patois and back-of-the-throat guffaw had already garnered a legion of fans, but his wildly improvised antics were about to set him on the road to super-stardom. At what precise point Reggie Hammond left off and Eddie Murphy began is up for conjecture, but the character, as synonymous with its performer as it has become, has since gone down as a genre catalyst. We'd already had Richard Pryor, another highly adored black stand-up comedian who made it out of the clubs and into the realms of mass-appeal, and now Eddie Murphy was set to take the baton and run with it for an entirely new generation. But, the truth is that he couldn't have done it alone. And the most unlikely of screen partners would be found in the cliff-visaged, boulder-voiced star of hit TV miniseries, Rich Man, Poor Man.

    Nick Nolte, who must have been one incredibly ugly baby, has always looked grizzled and old. His best-ever expression was the single one that he wore throughout the entirety of Hill's later Extreme Prejudice (and I cannot wait for that to arrive on Blu-ray!) - one of utter granite-hewn, emotionless stoicism – but his woe-is-me face, here, is equally as stubborn in its refusal to ever crack a smile. I've commented many times about Jeff Bridges being Hollywood's greatest ever hippy, but you would also have to credit Nolte with being its greatest ever down-and-out. He even made a film in which that was exactly what he was – Down And Out In Beverly Hills – but it doesn't seem to matter what role he is playing (treasure-seeker in The Deep, quasi-native ruler in Farewell To The King, evidence-suppressing lawyer in Cape Fear) he never looks like anything other than a vagrant. With too much hair, eyes like chipped onyx and a face that can probably be seen frowning from Mars, he eats up the screen with a Gruffalo-like charisma.

    You can't have two such engaging and uncouthly charismatic good guys without supplying something powerful in the opposite corner. And our two twisted villains are certainly up to the task, even if, all these years down the line, it does seem that they are a little short-changed by the screenplay. James Remar is always great value, though. Hill had discovered his wrong-side-of-the-tracks persona already and used it to great effect in The Warriors, in which he played the awesome, war-hungry gang-member, Ajax, and also in The Long Riders, where he proved to be a dab-hand with a very big knife. Famously, Remar, was ousted from the set of Aliens, and his character of heroic Colonial Marine Hicks then handed-over to Michael Biehn. But the intense actor then maintained a steady profile in the action and thriller genre with his distinctive dark looks, penetrating eyes and unmistakable swagger in films such as Rent-a-Cop and others, in which he usually got to play some sort of psycho. As Ganz, he spends a lot of his time mooching about in flea-bitten hideouts and apartments. He has a tendency to club the girls he has just slept with, and to blast off bullets in a ballistic ballet of fury. His standout scene has him approaching Cates with the cop's own gun, revelling in his power over the defenceless man, and then callously shooting the already wounded Jonathan Banks just for the sake of it. If you look, however, it is clear that Remar, the actor, is expecting Nolte to make that sudden attack from the doorway just a couple of minutes earlier … as he is already bracing himself for the impact. A nice touch in this scene is Hill's in-joke use of the same gabby and sarcastic hotel clerk that he had in 1978's The Driver, played by Tara King. Remar's smouldering, gypsy-like venom as Ganz is like Jack's own cynical bitterness, just taken to its sinister extreme.

    Maybe you should have stolen a better car, Tonto!”

    As Ganz's partner-in-crime, the muscular Billy-Bear is an implacable wall of intimidation. Playing him, ex-porn star and real-life Cherokee Indian, Sonny Landham was just about to climb to the mantel of subversive cult figure. With a career that would swiftly take off with him playing a variety of extremely tough bad-ass thugs – in Predator, Action Jackson, Lock-Up, Best Of The Best 2 etc – the possessor of one of the most bellicose and bowel-loosening voices this side of Hell's barber-shop quartet, he looks and sounds highly threatening, and his aura of pure menace here is a terrific ingredient to add to Ganz's already psychotic demeanour. A danger both on and off camera, Landham is a force of nature, and you get the impression that filmmakers are usually relieved when the day's shoot doesn't involve him.

    Class isn't something you buy. Look at you, you've got on a five-hundred dollar suit and you're still a low-life.”

    Yeah, but I look good.”

    The action may be fast and furious, but it is the chemistry between the leads that makes 48 HRS so memorable. Sarcastic, racist, sexist, macho, bully-boy banter is fired in all directions, but mainly in the never-ending verbal sparring that goes on between Cates' hangdog detective and Hammond's irascible, wisecracking convict as bumble their way from lead to lead, losing their prey several times over as they do so. In most movies, Murphy has the definite edge over everybody else when it comes to the tongue-wagging. But, Mike Myers' trumpet-eared Shrek aside, Nolte is the one co-star who is able to hold his ground and even get the better of him at times. The two work marvellously well together, Murphy's “tail-hunting” smart-ass gibber-jabbering like a mile-a-minute verbal express is often foiled by Nolte's dry growl of often very witty blue-collar put-downs. I like to pepper my reviews with some choice dialogue lifted from the movie in question – sadly, in the case of 48 HRS, common decency prohibits me from using any of the best stuff. But, take my word for it, the screenplay from Hill, Roger (Deadly Pursuit) Spottiswoode, Larry Gross and the ubiquitous 80's action-scribe Steven E. de Souza, is a marathon of classic exchanges … even if we have Murphy and Nolte to thank for a fair amount of ad libbing.

    Until John Carpenter took the mickey out of such things with his overly elaborate smackdown between Keith David and Roddy Piper in They Live, the most outrageously bone-buckling and utterly ridiculous brawl just had to be the one that occurs between a right-royally hacked-off Cates and his nimble-fisted, dapper-suited cohort in a back-alley. Trading enormously swung “hoolie-doolies” which are all accompanied by profoundly deep cracks and savage bass crunches, there is simply no way that either man would be able to breathe, let alone stand and swap smarmy banter with the two beat-cops who come to arrest them. And judging by the delicate little scratches and pencil-line cuts that the pair incur in the process, these two are so weak they couldn't fight their way out of a paper-bag. But asides from the likeably goofy violence on show in this scene, it is also apparent that Eddie Murphy, as excellent as he is elsewhere, is not a good action star. Nor would he ever be. A fair chunk of his movies attempted to cram some athletic incidents his way but, really, folks, this was rarely a side of things that he ever looked comfortable with. As fresh to the game as was, and all allowances aside, this scene can still look a little awkward because of his attempts at playing the hard man.

    Hill does garner some excitement from his bruising encounters with Ganz. He goes a little over the top with the amount of bullets that a wheel-gun can hold, but there is a deliciously cathartic release to be gained from the set-decimating way in which he orchestrates the violence. Never audition to be a door or a window in a Walter Hill picture!

    Fans of the genre can surely get off spotting all the familiar faces peppering the film like the wild and indiscriminate shots from the delinquent Ganz. Jack's long-suffering girlfriend is none other than Superman III's ditzy Annette O' Toole, rather cruelly sidelined here, of course, by a screenplay that regards women simply as whores, obstructions and pistol-whipping prey. David Patrick Kelly, who plays the crucial linchpin of Reggie's ex-partner, Luther, was, of course, the deranged catalyst who set The Warriors up for a night of gang-warfare, and would crop up in Commando as the “funny guy” that Arnie drops over the side of a cliff. It is also quite remarkable just how consistently dumb he is throughout this and Mark L. Lester's Commando – in both films he gets pursued during a lengthy sequence that covers quite some ground both in vehicles and on foot, by the most obvious tail-gaters in the world … the colossally large Arnie in the later film, and the arguing, squawking and highly overt duo of Cates and Hammond in this. Honestly, going by these two examples, you would swear that Kelly had a preference for playing blind men. Jonathan Banks was excellent as the slime-ball hit-man in Beverly Hills Cop opposite Murphy again, yet the troll-faced supporting star of Gremlins is the unlucky recipient of Ganz's hail of lead in the film's most disturbing scene. The late great Brion James, cult figure from Southern Comfort (for Hill), Blade Runner and Tango & Cash, here sports an utterly ridiculous hairdo as Cates' desk-bound buddy, Keyhoe. The exasperated police chief, in pure Captain Dobie mode (Starsky and Hutch, folks) is played by hulking Frank McRae?, who helped Sly defeat the odds in Lock-Up. Antagonistic Deputy Ward from First Blood, Chris Mulkey, gets into uniform to play another petulant rozzer aggrieved at the amount of paperwork that Cates has caused him and his partner with his maverick antics. Keep an eye for the truly gorgeous Denise Crosby as the baseball-bat wielding half of a possibly lesbian duo held in the thrall of the ever-hungry Billy-Bear. Matt Landers, as the prison-clerk who deftly allows Jack Cates to break the parole rules, was one of those favourite TV faces, but he would also be seen in Commando, Jumpin’ Jack lash, Action Jackson and Die Hard ... just about keeping his foot in the action movie door. And Torchy's redneck club is filled with bumpkin character actors, from |Hill-regular Peter Jason scowling at the “new sheriff in town” from behind the bar, to the menacing looking John Dennis Johnston, who I doubt has ever played anyone friendly. The film is, thus, a weirdly comforting spectacle of amassed regulars from the genre.

    “You got a lady, Cates?”


    “You know … the generosity of women never ceases to amaze me.”

    The prolific James Horner had already made a name for himself with his scores for Wolfen, Battle Beyond The Stars and The Hand, but it was his cult-admired music for Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan (see separate BD and CD reviews) that got him the most attention. Still only young, the LA-born composer leapt to the task of providing a pulsating yet gritty and urban sound for Hill's film. The distinctive sound of steel drums would lend his tremendously evocative score for 48 HRS a distinctive and unique voice, and the popularity of his themes would lead him to carry on in this vein for the rest of what would become his quartet of “urban 80's thrillers” - Commando, Gorky Park and Red Heat (also for Walter Hill). I've already reviewed the recent, and long-overdue CD release of Horner's score, but it is worth mentioning again how the movie's cool soundtrack was also massively enhanced with the contributions of the funky R&B songs from The Busboys, most notably their excellent The Boys Are Back In Town, which has become the unofficial signature tune of the exploits of Cates and Hammond, right on into the second film. The Busboys even make their screen debut as the resident band cooking up a storm in Reggie's chosen establishment (a lot more popular with “the brothers” then Torchy's!) of Vroman's.

    “You start running a respectable business and I won't have to come in here and hassle you every night. You know what I mean? And I want the rest of you cowboys to know something … there's a new sheriff in town … and his name is Reggie Hammond. So y'all be cool. Right on.”

    Walter Hill was consciously carving out a niche for himself during this period. His influences were crystal clear and a spectacular benchmark. He admired Robert Aldrich and Sam Fuller, obviously, but it was to the great Sam Peckinpah that he owed the greatest debt. And yet, despite utilising the same slo-mo, blood-squib-packed set-pieces as the master of disaster, identi-kit male posturing and a complete lack of respect for the female of the species, his penchant for hard, linear narratives, darkly motivated heroes with outsized chips on their shoulder, and uber-stylised action was still something that was distinctive amidst the slew of muscle-man epics that were kicking up a storm in the decade of excess. His film is also quite important in how it depicted the in-fighting and inter-departmental strive of the policeman's lot. Oh, before this, there had been Serpico and The French Connection and, essentially, Dirty Harry, but they had also been message films that had corruption, rule-bending and moral skulduggery as their main focus. Hill's story was an action thriller that used the daily grind of law enforcement as both set-dressing and a perfect spine for character development. After this, it would become standard in the genre to have the rebellious and maverick cop forever in conflict with his boss, and always made the scapegoat by his more by-the-book colleagues who naturally resented his lone-wolf attitude and uncanny knack for getting stuck right into the thick of things … and making them look useless in the process. Like John Milius, Hill hearkened after the rugged, eye-for-an-eye, man's man kind of world. His style was hard-line and almost predestined to become dated, but this does not mean that his films lack relevance to today's audiences. He made films that refused to back down, and didn't take prisoners. What he lacked in the elegiac and moral-baiting fashion of Peckinpah, he more than made up for sheer sweat-caked exuberance and brawn. It is also reasonably amusing to see how aggrieved Cates is that he loses his Magnum six-shooter and has to resort to his backup of an automatic – the very sort of hand-held canon that cops throughout the genre after this would become totally enamoured with. Once again, this seems to remind us that Hill was hankering after the good old days of the frontier.

    48 HRS, therefore, was the epitome of his unforgiving outlook of men out of their time fighting against the odds.

    In many ways, Walter Hill remade the film with Arnold Schwarzenegger in Red Heat in 1988. Once again, we had two extremely mismatched and diametrically opposed heroes who were reluctantly flung together, another maverick, “own rules” cop in Jim Belushi's Chicago rozzer, Ridzik, and a villain harboured-up in low-life hotels and scummy apartments – most of which get blown to shrapnel and kindling – and, once again, there's a big scene featuring buses. Hill was exploring the seedy urban underbelly once again, but he recalled how important it was to mix mirth with the mayhem and, following the Cates/Hammond dynamic, Arnie's Muscovite cop and Belushi's sarcastic Chicago 'tec made for another extremely popular duo. Of course, Hill was totally revisit the old magic with 1990's more self-aware and less edgy sequel, Another 48 HRS, reuniting his stars for another, and even more violent caper. Actually, it would have been a great idea to have released the two films together in one package – they are so damn similar that it would have made for a smart double-whammy. Hill, who would direct, with lesser success, Streets Of Fire, Crossroads, Trespass, Johnny Handsome and Last Man Standing, not to mention Geronimo and Wild Bill and become an inaugural figure in the creation of TV’s excellent Deadwood, would be the main driving force of the ultra-macho Western, or pseudo-Western throughout the three decades’ worth of pulverising, toilet-mouthed challenges to male bravado.

    “But if I did decide to be a thief … what makes you think you could catch me?”

    Can I have my lighter back, Reggie?”

    48 HRS has certainly dated, and it doesn't seem half as action-packed as it once did. But this does not detract from what is a solid, hard-edged and brutal thriller that just happens to be extremely funny at the same time. Murphy would fine-tune his own screen-persona over the next few years with Trading Places, Beverley Hills Cop and The Golden Child, but the inaugural unveiling of the thousand-word-a-minute, street-smart locomotive can be seen and savoured here. Remember, though, that what makes his irrepressible persona work so damn well here is the gravelly response from the punch-drunk but resilient Nick Nolte.

    Highly recommended.