48 Hrs. (1982) – The birth of a Genre
After having directed 5 films by the beginning of the 80’s, Walter Hill was in need of a real hit. Sure, his films had gathered some nice critical response, and a few of them had made profit and “The Long Riders” was even nominated for Palme d’Or in the 1980 Cannes Film Festival. But his following film, the 1981 cajun actioner “Southern Comfort” was a complete box-office disaster. In Hill’s own words: “didn’t make a fucking nickel anywhere. Foreign domestic, anything… I was proud of the film… But I was disappointed in the lack of response. It was a universal audience failure… Usually you can say they loved it in Japan or something. I don’t think anybody loved it anywhere.” So, as things usually go in Hollywood, you’re only as good as your last films box-office receipts. Hill needed a film that would attract some serious audience.
Hill’s long-time producer Lawrence Gordon was actually the one who came up with the idea of “48 Hrs.“. It didn’t really resemble anything that the final movie was about, but the 48 hour timeline stuck. In Gordon’s version the Governor of Louisiana’s daughter is kidnapped by a criminal, who strapped dynamite to her head and threatened to blow her up in 48 hours if the ransom was not met. The meanest cop goes to the worst prison in the state and gets out the most vicious criminal for his knowledge of the kidnapper who was his cellmate. So – it sounds more like “Speed“, with a governor’s daughter. Roger Spottiswoode, mostly known as an editor for Sam Peckinpah and having just directed his first film “Terror Train“, was brought on board to write the first drafts of the screenplay(along with an uncredited writer Bill Kerby). Also on the writing team were Hill himself, Larry Gross Steven E. De Souza and Jeb Stuart(uncredited). Slowly the film started to resemble the story we now know, but it would still undergo some heavy changes – especially dialogue-wise – when it’s two leads were finally cast.
“Reggie: Jack… Tell me a story.
Jack: Fuck you!
Reggie: Oh, that’s one of my favorites.“
The first two people approached to play the mismatched duo of a cop and a crook were Clint Eastwood and Richard Pryor. Might’ve been an interesting team indeed, but Eastwood rejected the offer – saying that he wanted to play a villain instead – and it’s pretty understandable as Eastwood had already played a tough San Fransisco cop on several “Dirty Harry“-movies. And went on to do “Escape from Alcatraz“(1979). So the development of “48 hrs.” went into a two-year limbo. At that time, a young stand-up comedian by the name of Eddie Murphy had become a regular in “Saturday Night Live” and everybody wanted to take some of that foul-mouthed, witty energy that he possessed and bottle it. A deal was made, and Murphy was set to make his feature film debut with one little catch: he could only start shooting the film a couple weeks later than the rest of the crew as he had to finish his SNL duties first. Murphy also requested that his character’s original name, Willie Biggs, was changed into something that is not “so stereotypical” – so the imprisoned, fast-talking street crook was named Reggie Hammond. After actors such as Jeff Bridges, Mickey Rourke and Kris Kristofferson passed on the role, it was Nick Nolte – suggested by Lawrence Gordon – who ended up being cast as the tough San Fransisco detective Jack Cates. Due to the improvisational nature of Murphy and the chemistry between him and Nolte, the screenplay ended up being re-written, by Hill’s account “right to the very last day of shooting“.
Among other “firsts”, a young and ambitious Joel Silver – previously only acting as co-, associate- and executive producer – finally got his first full “Producer”-credit. And he and Lawrence Gordon would go on to do many things together in the following years.
Convicted criminal Albert Ganz(James Remar, returning Hill regular from “The Warriors” and “The Long Riders“) escapes from working detail with the help of his partner-in-crime, Billy Bear(Sonny Landham), murdering two guards in the process. They set their way to San Francisco, where they murder a man named Henry Wong, assault another member of their old gang, Luther(David Patrick Kelly, playing a character named ‘Luther’ for a second time in a Walter Hill film – the first of course being in “The Warriors“), kidnap his girlfriend and tell him they will be holding her until “he can get the money”. and then settle into a hotel – calling up some female companions. Jack Cates – a disheveled, slightly boozing cop – wakes up, has a slight argument with his girlfriend Elaine(Annette O’Toole) and leaves for work. He joins two fellow detectives who have answered a call of a stolen credit card being used in a hotel. As Jack stays to guard the lobby, the two detectives are ambushed upstairs by the criminals, who are revealed to be Ganz and Billy. In a standoff at the lobby, Jack is forced to give his gun to Ganz as Billy is holding the surviving detective, Algren(Jonathan Banks, lately of “Breaking Bad“-fame) at gunpoint. Ganz shoots Algren with Jack’s gun, just nearly misses Jack and escapes with Billy. Furious, Jack wants some payback and convinces his boss, Captain Haden(Frank McRae, creating the ultimate prototype of the “angry” police captain), to let him chase down Ganz and his accomplice by any means necessary. He goes through the records of Ganz’ known associates – makes the connection of Henry Wong being one of them and finds the next name on the list: Reggie Hammond, serving a 3 year sentence of armed robbery. Jack manages to talk Reggie into helping him find Ganz, and forges a two day leave(the titular 48 hours) for Reggie – making it the deadline in which Ganz must be caught(dead or alive). Reggie has as much to lose with Ganz being roaming free as Jack, we later find out.
Looking for leads, the first stop for Jack & Reggie is Luther who fires some shots at Jack and tries to escape but is subdued by Reggie – with a well-placed opening of a car door. Not getting anything out of Luther – who’s fearing for his girlfriend’s life – Jack throws him in jail and the bickering team goes for the next lead; a bar where Billy Bear used to work. The bar is a country/western bar called “Torchy’s”(this bar name pops up in Hill’s filmography several times) which is, to put it politely, full of rednecks. Reggie, saying to Jack that he could do this “detective bullshit” just as well as him makes a bet with Jack; if he can get some lead from this bar, Jack must give him half an hour with a woman. Jack – beginning to suspect that Reggie has some ulterior motives to catch Ganz – agrees, but if Reggie loses the bet he has to come clean about the whole story. Armed with Jack’s badge(and his own mouth), Reggie proceeds to bully and subdue the entire bar full of rednecks(this has been widely regarded as “the scene that made Eddie Murphy a superstar”) and he DOES get an address for Billy’s former girlfriend who lives down the street, in the edge of Chinatown. But it turns out to be a dead end and Jack & Reggie only manage to get threatened at gunpoint and swung at by a baseball bat by Billy’s former girl and her roommate. Frustrated with the case going nowhere, Jack engages in a fistfight with Reggie and neither one backing down, they both beat each other bloody – only to be interfered by a police patrol. Finally Reggie decides to come clean; Ganz is after a loot of $500, 000 which he, Reggie and the others robbed from a drug dealer and is now hidden in Reggie’s car that has sat inside a parking garage for 3 years.
As they stakeout the garage, they see Luther walking in the next morning and driving away with Reggie’s car. They follow him to a subway station where the exchange of money for Luther’s girlfriend is supposed to happen. But Ganz spots Jack in the crowd and Billy shoots a policeman who stumbles on the scene. In the following chaos Jack tries to catch Ganz and Billy who escape in a subway, while Reggie follows Luther and the money. He calls Jack to meet him outside the hotel where Luther is hiding in and the two make up. Jack even agrees to lend Reggie some money so he can get a room in the hotel with a girl he’s just met, but as soon as Reggie and the girl step out, Luther leaves and boards a bus. The bus is stolen and driven by Billy, while Ganz sits inside with Luther’s girl. Angered by a comment by Luther, Ganz shoots him down, just as Jack and Reggie appear next to the bus. A wild shootout and chase later, Jack’s car gets pushed into the front of a car dealership and the bad guys get away. Haden chews Jack a new asshole for causing property damage as well as forging Reggie’s two-day “leave”, ordering Jack to return Reggie back to jail immediately. The two decide to have one last drink at a bar when they come to a wild goose chase-conclusion that Ganz & Billy might actually hide in the Chinatown apartment, as the abandoned bus was found nearby. A final standoff in the shadowy alleys of Chinatown commences…
“48 Hrs.” started a lot of things. First off – after it’s December premiere in 1982 it grossed $78,868,508 at the domestic box office, becoming the seventh highest-grossing film of that year – and as such, becoming the highest-grossing film of Walter Hill’s career. Another thing that this film’s success started, was what could be called Joel Silver’s “golden era” – a string of high-concept action movies; “Commando“(1985), “Lethal Weapon“(1987), “Predator“(1987), “Die Hard“(1988) and several sequels to all of the forementioned movies. For about ten years or so, Silver could do no wrong – and even some of the not so successful pictures from that period, like “Action Jackson“(1988), “Road House“(1989), “The Adventures of Ford Fairlane“(1990), “Ricochet“(1991) and “The Last Boy Scout“(1991) have later gained a certain cult following among the action aficionados like this author – and many others, I’m sure. Also, several actors from this film would pop up in several of Silver’s productions later on, like Sonny Landham and David Patrick Kelly.
“48 Hrs.” has also been marked as the first film in the “buddy cop” genre, although only one of the lead characters is an actual cop. But in it’s wake began the trend of the humorous action movies that starred a mismatched pair of characters that would start out as dysfunctional but would develop a bond during the course of the film – usually in dealing with several “life and death”-scenarios that would entail gunfire, carnage and lots of vehicular and property damage – and end up as friends by the time of the end credits. Several of the Joel Silver-productions I mentioned before follow this formula, but there have been others too; “Beverly Hills Cop“(1984), “Midnight Run“(1988), “The Hard Way“(1991), “Rush Hour“(1998), “The Rock“(1995), “2 Guns“(2013)….the genre of the “buddy movie” has continued strong up until today and will probably go on to the unforeseen future.
“Reggie: 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? [to the bar patrons] 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.“
But the major thing that “48 Hrs.” started was of course Eddie Murphy. He turned from a TV-star into a major motion picture superstar pretty much overnight. And it’s so easy to see why; he single-handedly steals the entire movie from Nolte. You take a look at any scene that Murphy’s in and you see a certain kind of fire in his eyes – he knows that this is his big break and he’s going to do whatever he can to make the best of it. There’s a hunger in those eyes. And it fits extremely well to the character of Reggie, as he ALSO knows that this is his one big break to get rid of his insane former partner in crime and secure his money. You could say that it’s pretty much impossible to say where Eddie Murphy ends and Reggie Hammond begins – Murphy IS Hammond. And the critics certainly noticed his performance too. His role was considered in one instance “one of the most sensational debuts in screen history since Lauren Bacall’s in ‘To Have and Have Not‘(1944)” and he ended up being nominated for a Golden Globe-award for “New Star of the Year – Male”-category, but lost to Ben Kingsley for “Gandhi“. Murphy’s star skyrocketed with the following years’ “Trading Places” and “Beverly Hills Cop” – some would say that he got too big too fast, as his subsequent career has shown. And that hunger has sadly disappeared from his eyes a long time ago. But for that short period in the 80’s-early 90’s it was magic. And it all began here, with “48 Hrs.“.
The story of “48 Hrs.” is not rocket science – it’s a pretty simple chase movie in it’s heart. As Hill likes to compare most of his movies to westerns, it sort of abides to this one as well – it’s your basic “tough marshall and his delinquent partner track down criminals”-premise, seen in many a western but only this time in an urban setting. Actually not that different from Hill’s “The Driver“(1978) – which was mostly played from the criminal’s side of things. And Nick Nolte’s Jack Cates is VERY much cut from the same cloth as Bruce Dern’s Detective was in that film. Both are tough, both are willing to bend any which rule to get their man. I guess the only difference is that Jack Cates actually has a girlfriend – well, sorta; it’s not exactly described as a harmonic relationship as Annette O’Toole only appears in 3 scenes and in the first she’s arguing with Nolte in the morning after waking up and in the subsequent two she’s arguing with Nolte on the phone… a cop’s life is a lonely life. Nolte’s film career also got a significant boost from the success of “48 Hrs.“, as before it he was mostly known from an acclaimed TV-miniseries “Rich Man, Poor Man” and a few lead parts in films like “The Deep“(1977), “Who’ll Stop the Rain“(1978) and “North Dallas Forty“(1979).
If there is one minor flaw in the movie, it’s that while the focus is so much on the two leads, the villains of the piece become pretty one-dimensional. But James Remar and Sonny Landham certainly make a naturally imposing team; Remar brings to play his naturally menacing and unpredictable persona(which he so successfully brought to the character of Ajax in “The Warriors“) and Landham – with his 6 ft 3, 200-pound frame – just looks scary without even doing much(and as anyone who has seen some “making of”-material from “Predator” knows, Landham was considered a somewhat dangerous man both on-screen and off-screen). It’s sometimes a risk with these types of movies; when the “good guys” have a good chemistry and just chew up the scenery, the villains don’t have enough time to be developed. I most certainly would’ve liked to have seen more scenes with these guys.
Great dialogue(in the case of Nolte/Murphy mostly improvised), great action, humor and skilled direction by Hill – that’s what is “48 Hrs.“, a film that started many things and it’s legacy continues even now; whenever there’s a mismatched pair of heroes chasing after criminals and bonding in the process(sometimes bonding while beating the shit out of each other) it’s good to remember: it began right here. And based on my recent re-watch, it has withstood the test of time and is as relevant as it’s ever been.
(Author’s note: the old DVD-release by Paramount is of piss-poor unanamorphic quality – seek the Blu-Ray or another HD source for the best viewing pleasure)
“Can You Dig It?!!?” will return.