Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (July 1, 2021)
In the fall of 1980 at the tender age of 19, Eddie Murphy joined Saturday Night Live and rapidly ascended to the spotlight. Within short order, he became the show’s most popular performer, and this led to offers from Hollywood.
Rather than opt for a pure laughfest, Murphy got a co-lead role in a comedy/action hybrid: 1982’s 48 Hrs. The film became a hit and the rest is movie history.
A criminal named Billy Bear (Sonny Landham) helps his convict partner Albert Ganz (James Remar) escape from police custody. They end up in a San Francisco hotel under assumed names.
When the cops investigate, Ganz and Bear retaliate violently and kill two of the three officers. Survivor Jack Cates (Nick Nolte) swears revenge and pursues Bear and Ganz.
To assist, Cates recruits prison inmate Reggie Hammond (Murphy), one of Bear and Ganz’s old associates. However, Hammond states that he’ll only cooperate if Cates takes him on the streets with him.
Grudgingly, Cates agrees. The two work to find their targets, a task made complicated by the ample disdain Cates and Hammond show for each other.
As noted, 48 marked Murphy’s cinematic debut, and he didn’t get the top credit, as Nolte occupied that slot. Murphy remained second-billed to a more established performer in his second flick, 1983’s hit Trading Places.
Technically, this stayed the case for Murphy’s third film, 1984’s Best Defense, but I put an asterisk next to that one. As originally shot, Murphy’s character didn’t exist in the Dudley Moore feature, but when the flick tested poorly, they wrote a new role and paid Murphy a boatload of money to capitalize on his popularity.
It didn’t work, as Defense still pretty much flopped. In any case, Murphy leapt to the main lead with 1984’s Beverly Hills Cop and never looked back.
Given how many clunkers Murphy made across his career, I occasionally find it tough to recall what a burst of energy he presented in the early 80s. Murphy remains arguably the most dynamic and charismatic SNL alum of them all, even if he squandered a lot of that talent over the years.
48 reminds us why we came to love Murphy all those years ago. While it doesn’t become his best performance, it still shows his talents well.
The film takes a good 25 minutes to get to Hammond, an awfully long span for a 97-minute movie. 48 works reasonably well during that expository segment, but it never feels like anything more than a standard cop drama.
Once Murphy enters, though, matters kick into higher gear – well, to a reasonable degree, at least. Despite efforts to sell the movie as a wild romp, it remains a cop drama, albeit one with more humor than usual.
This appeared to confuse some audiences back in 1982. I saw the film theatrically, and I know many people expected laughs, laughs, laughs.
During my screening, one weird patron chortled at virtually everything, no matter how inappropriate. When a cop got shot in the head, he roared with laughter – that remains one of the weirdest movie-going experiences of my life.
Once Murphy emerges, we do get a good number of laughs, but the cop material stays the focal point, and Murphy more than holds his own in these moments. While we expect Murphy to prosper in the comedic scenes, he also manages to keep up with Nolte in the more serious bits.
No, I won’t call Murphy the Second Coming of Olivier. Given that he came from a sketch comedy/stand-up background and never did dramatic acting, though, his strength in these cop scenes seems nearly miraculous.
Murphy and Nolte display fine chemistry, though the film’s portrait of Cates as a racist doesn’t play too well. Sure, he attempts to atone for his nasty comments, but he threatens to lose the audience, as his name-calling goes too far.
I admit that’s a 2019 perspective aimed at a 1982 film, though. Not that most of us felt comfortable back then with the racial taunts Cates uses, but they stand out more negatively now.
I guess we can accept that Cates throws epithets at Hammond more to get under his skin than as actual racism – maybe. In any case, Nolte does fine in the part, and as mentioned, he meshes well with Murphy to create a memorable on-screen duo, one that largely set the template for all the “buddy cop” movies to come.
Seminal as it may be, I won’t call 48 Hrs. a great film, as it seems more invested in its character adventures than a real plot. Still, its stars – especially Murphy – carry it and make it an entertaining ride.
Trivia: note than Jonathan Banks plays one of the cops killed in the movie’s opening act. He’d reunite with Murphy two years later, as he played the villain’s slimy second-in-command in Beverly Hills Cop.