Even now, knowing that he's coming, it is still a bit shocking that Eddie Murphy takes over 48 Hrs. as quickly and completely as he does. Up until his entrance, it is a well-made if unexceptional cock-waving early '80s crime picture--all tough talk and gratuitous nudity and loud shoot-outs. But then, 25 minutes in, Nick Nolte's growling cop, Jack Cates, goes to visit Reggie Hammond (Murphy) at the penitentiary. As he walks through the facility to Reggie's cell, Murphy's voice is heard, a comically high falsetto, singing along to "Roxanne" by the Police. We're laughing before we even see him; Murphy's not even on screen yet, and already he's stolen the movie.
It could be said that the film is constructed and the role is written in such a way that it's damn near impossible not to steal the movie when playing it, and there might be something to that--some roles are just like that, like W.C. Fields's in International House or Orson Welles's in The Third Man. But that only explains it up to a point. Making 48 Hrs. when he did (as a rising , barely 20-year-old star of Saturday Night Live) was an astonishing bit of good timing, the right project for the right performer at the right moment. The picture showcased exactly what he could do at that moment (and not much more--his serious tough-guy scenes aren't terribly credible); his natural, untrained acting style renders his dialogue scenes conversational and believable, and his unforced charisma is still a marvel to behold.
And then there's the scene. When the film was originally released, Roger Ebert noted that "sometimes an actor becomes a star in just one scene," and (putting Ebert in the company of Nicholson in Easy Rider and Faye Dunaway in Bonnie and Clyde) contended that this very thing happened in 48 Hrs., when Murphy walks into a Confederate flag-flying country and western bar and absolutely takes the joint over. In retrospect, Ebert was right; in that one scene, you have everything that's great about early Eddie: the effortless cool, the wide-eyed bravado, his gift for wielding a laugh-line like a weapon.
Of course, 48 Hrs. is far from a one-man show; it was, in fact, the template for the buddy action/comedy movies that so defined the decade-plus that followed it. Murphy and Nolte are a solid on-screen team--their chemistry is sharp, their dialogue scenes tightly-paced, with a good give and take ("Jack, tell me a story." "Fuck you." "Oh, that's one of my favorites..."). The arc of a duo going from outright hostility to grudging respect over the course of two-or-so hours has more than worn out its welcome, but it's well done here, even if their big bare-knuckle fistfight comes from out of absolutely nowhere, and Nolte's racial insults ("watermelon," "spearchucker," "boy," and even a "nigger") make him pretty hard to root for--thankfully, that dynamic isn't really part of the buddy-cop toolbox these days. (It was dispensed with entirely by the time of the film's wheezy sequel, 1990's Another 48 Hrs.)
Though he hadn't quite aged into it yet, he's doing what we'd now think of as the quintessential Nick Nolte performance--grizzled, chain-smoking, grunting his dialogue under a half-awake squint, the kind of turn that looks, as Patton Oswalt would later say, like he was "roused from a really bad hangover and just kind of pushed towards the camera." But it works for this role, and his relationship with Murphy gives the picture the lift it needs; we've got an investment in the tense, well-made second act chase scene, and the warmth and humor of their last scene is surprisingly rich.
THE BLU-RAY DISC:
The MPEG-4 AVC 1080p transfer is not the cleanest you've seen, even for a movie going on thirty years old; color saturation is a pretty badly washed out, and occasional specks and dirt are noticeable. Grain is quite heavy (particularly in the scenes surrounding Reggie's exit from the penitentiary), and black levels are messy as well (worst in the late scene between Reggie, Jack, and Jack's shrieking captain). There are occasional bright spots--like the bright neons of the Chinatown exteriors--and long stretches with no issues of note, but overall, it's not a film that benefits much from the HD upgrade.
The English 5.1 Dolby TrueHD mix, on the other hand, is a real treat, vibrant and active, from the ricocheting bullets of the opening escape to the immersive shoot-out at a seedy hotel to the crashing glass and thudding gunshots of the big climax. The brassy, sassy score (by James Horner, surprisingly) is nicely dispersed throughout the soundstage as well. Dialogue reproduction isn't quite as sharp--talkier scenes are modulated a bit too low, requiring a bit of remote jockeying.
French and Spanish mono mixes are also included, as are English, English SDH, French, Spanish, and Portuguese subtitles.
Hey, Paramount, way to not go the extra mile on this one. As with the standard-def DVD release, all we get is the original Theatrical Trailer (3:09)--in HD, which is nice, but still... that's it?
48 Hrs. has its problems--some of the cop-movie tropes (like the screaming black captain) were already tired, even in 1982, and the picture's casual chauvinism remains troubling. But Walter Hill's direction is razor-sharp; the picture is involving and inventively photographed (as in that first, off-the-cuff police station scene, shot in one unbroken take), and it proved the defining moment in the early evolution of Eddie Murphy. It's particularly worth revisiting these days, as Murphy's career continues its long, sad descent into family "comedy" hell. Once upon a time, we remind ourselves, he was a filthy-mouthed, fast-talking keg of cinematic dynamite. Once upon a time.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their daughter Lucy in New York. He holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. His first book, Pulp Fiction: The Complete History of Quentin Tarantino's Masterpiece, was released last fall by Voyageur Press. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.