‘48 Hrs.’ at 40: How Eddie Murphy’s First Movie Birthed the Buddy-Cop Comedy

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‘48 Hrs.’ at 40: How Eddie Murphy’s First Movie Birthed the Buddy-Cop Comedy

It’s ironic that Walter Hill helped create a genre whose name isn’t entirely applicable to the movie that started it all. Today is the 40th anniversary of Hill’s 48 Hrs., and earlier this year he was asked about its legacy as the film that popularized the buddy-cop comedy. “It is a very imitated movie. I recognize that,” the director said. “And, I take the old Oscar Wilde thing, that imitation is flattery. I do think, though, that so many of what are perceived to be imitations kind of miss the point of 48 Hrs. The real secret of the film was that these guys were not buddies. They really didn’t like each other and said so constantly. Finally, only after a trial by fire and a trial of character on both sides, do they grow towards a mutual, weary, but mutual, respect. I thought that’s what gave the movie its dignity, if you will.” 

Another thing I’d add is that, while 48 Hrs. definitely has funny scenes and one-liners, I’m not sure I’d necessarily call it a comedy comedy. And that, too, may be part of the reason why the film has endured: It’s actually more of an action-thriller in which one of the two characters just so happens to be played by perhaps the funniest man in the world. This wasn’t the wisecracking Eddie Murphy who emerged two years later in Beverly Hills Cop — this is a tougher, edgier guy. And Hill’s right: Murphy and Nick Nolte aren’t buddies. Indeed, like a lot of groundbreaking films, 48 Hrs. inspired myriad copycats, who took all the wrong lessons from its success.

Technically speaking, there were films before 48 Hrs. about mismatched partners forced to work together. It wasn’t even the first movie in which a Black character and a white character had to confront racial tensions along the way to stopping the bad guys: Fifteen years earlier, there had been the Oscar-winning In the Heat of the Night, starring Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger. But that drama was very much a social commentary that examined race relations in America. It wasn’t trying to be funny. 

But 48 Hrs. definitely wanted laughs, which is why Hill had initially thought of Richard Pryor for the role of Reggie Hammond, a convict who’s six months away from being released. (This was after Clint Eastwood turned down the part, having just recently played a prisoner in Escape From Alcatraz.) The movie would be Murphy’s big-screen debut, but there was a problem. “Eddie couldn’t shake out of his TV show early,” Hill said, referring of course to Saturday Night Live, which had made him a sensation. “We’d already been shooting for two weeks before he joined us, so he came in absolutely cold. It was his first film, and he was a seasoned performer, but not a trained film actor, and we really could have used a good week of rehearsal.”

And while you can see some of Murphy’s comedic trademarks in 48 Hrs. — that great “Who, me?!?” smile, that penetrating laugh — Hammond was a jaded, coiled thief just as invested in busting escaped convict Ganz (James Remar) as hard-ass cop Jack Cates (Nolte) is. (Hammond and Ganz have a history, you see, since they’re former criminal associates.) But if Murphy was nervous about the role, he didn’t show it. “I’m looking forward to the movie coming out,” Murphy declared at the time, “and if my acting looks bad in the movie, which I don’t think it will, I’m covered: It’s like, ‘Well, his forte is in comedy.’” 

The film almost didn’t happen when Nolte, who had been in hits like North Dallas Forty, refused to meet with Murphy. Told by a friend that the SNL star was a drug addict, Nolte said no — only to later learn that his pal was mistaken. (The friend got Murphy confused with Garrett Morris.) And although Murphy is the scene-stealer, it’s Cates who’s really the main character. It takes a while before Hammond even enters the movie: In the early stretches, we’re hanging out with Cates, who barely survives a shootout with Ganz and his partner Billy Bear (Sonny Landham) before resorting to securing Hammond a 48-hour release to help him track down Ganz. Going into prison, Cates hears Hammond before he sees him, the cool-as-ice crook belting out the Police’s “Roxanne” while rocking out to his Walkman. It immediately makes Cates resent this guy — who does this smart-ass think he is? — and the tension only builds from there.

Hill’s comment about Cates and Hammond not being buddies might seem a little silly — a lot of buddy-cop films are about the partners not getting along — but it can be shocking to remember just how much they despise one another. In later films, like Midnight Run or Rush Hour, there’s a playful animosity between the bickering characters, which leads to lots of zingers — but in 48 Hrs., it’s outright hatred. Hammond loathes cops and assumes most white people are racists. (Based on the redneck bar they visit or Cates’ casual use of offensive epithets, Hammond is justified in his suspicions.) Meanwhile, Cates thinks this young guy is nothing but a fast-talking punk, which isn’t too far off: Give Hammond an opportunity and he’ll steal anything that’s not bolted down, whether it’s a gun or a switchblade. 

Plus, there’s something suave and arrogant about Hammond that just sets off the older Cates. With that bulletproof grin and expensive suit, Hammond looks like a million bucks — meanwhile, Cates is a disheveled, exhausted mess who spends his days chasing after lowlifes. Other buddy-cop movies are mostly just an excuse for punchlines, but in 48 Hrs., Cates and Hammond get into a literal fight, punching the hell out of each other. The moment’s way too real to just be funny. You feel like there’s something deeper and angrier going on between these men.

“The only films before 48 Hrs. (to include racial epithets back and forth between characters), if I’m correct, were Lilies of the Field and In the Heat of the Night,” Nolte said in 2010. “After (the) civil rights (movement), there was this long period of very awkward attempts at communication between the whites and the blacks. The whites didn’t know if ‘brother’ was the right thing to say or not. It was just really awkward. I think more than anything, that was the underneath appeal of 48 Hrs.

There might be something to that, but also the two actors just had dynamite chemistry, neither character willing to give an inch to the other. They’re both stubborn men who don’t like to show weakness — they’re constantly goading each other, pushing the other’s buttons. Which is why Hammond goes into that redneck bar looking for information, determined to win a bet from Cates that he can get a good lead. And so Hammond pretends to be a cop and starts interrogating people. In his review of 48 Hrs., Roger Ebert wrote, “Sometimes an actor becomes a star in just one scene. … In 48 Hrs., it happens to Eddie Murphy.”

Because it’s Murphy, the scene is inherently funny, but Hammond isn’t messing around — he’s not trying to be adorable. Coming from a comedian we’d only known from late-night sketch comedy, it was a pretty remarkable performance. Sure, you laughed, but that wasn’t your first response. As Murphy put it later, the scene was transformational for how audiences saw Black characters — and saw the skinny kid from SNL. “My significance in film — and again I’m not going to be delusional — was that I’m the first Black actor to take charge in a white world on screen,” he said. “That’s why I became as popular as I became.” Sidney Poitier may have good reason to refute that assessment, but that iconic 48 Hrs. scene was huge for Murphy’s burgeoning film stardom.

Because 48 Hrs. was a hit, Hollywood started doing other buddy-cop movies. Everything from Running Scared to Lethal Weapon to Midnight Run borrowed Walter Hill’s template, but more often than not, the comedy took precedence over the action. Hill didn’t know why there couldn’t be both, which also explains why 48 Hrs. stands out. Its chase scenes and shootouts are actually really good, and there’s not the kind of tedious back-and-forth banter between the partners during them that we now get all the time in buddy-cop pictures. When Nolte and Murphy are doing action scenes, they’re just doing really good action scenes. There’s no time for snide asides when the bullets are flying. “I always thought if you went to see an action movie, (my movie) was very funny,” Hill said this year. “And if you went to see a comedy, there was an awful lot of action. So it was a mix of genres a bit, and obviously we had some gifted performances from Nick and Eddie.”

In 1990, the stars and Hill reunited for Another 48 Hrs., a perfect example of how sequels almost never recapture the original magic, even if you bring back all the original people. Murphy was too big of a star by that stage — he wasn’t going to sneak up on anyone the way he did in the 1982 film — and the chemistry just wasn’t the same. Not to mention, there was no moment as unexpectedly sweet as the one at the end of 48 Hrs. when, after going through hell, Cates kinda sorta apologizes to Hammond for the racist stuff he’d said. It would be too much to call that scene “moving” or “poignant” or “tender,” but there was a genuineness there that buddy-cop films have almost never touched since. In the wake of 48 Hrs., the jokes became the genre’s main staple. Hill’s classic has its share of laughs, but you might be surprised how serious and grounded it is most of the time — and how good it is because of that. 

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