May 22, 2020
48 Hrs. (1982)
Grade: 82/100

Director: Walter Hill
Stars: Nick Nolte, Eddie Murphy, James Remar

What it's about. Onetime mega moviestar Eddie Murphy makes his film debut as the second lead in a violent cops-and-robbers crime drama. Convicted criminal Ganz (James Remar) escapes from a prison chain gang thanks to his burly and equally malevolent American Indian buddy, Billy Bear (Sonny Landham). In their escape, they murder prison guards, and shortly thereafter kill two city cops.

Ever-disgruntled Jack (Nick Nolte) is the police detective assigned to the case. The only lead is Ganz's former criminal partner, Reggie (Eddie Murphy). Because it's a movie, Jack springs Reggie from prison on a two-day pass to help Jack hunt down Ganz. Reggie's motivation is to recover the same suitcase full of money that Ganz is pursuing.

Enter Luther (David Patrick Kelly), whose young girlfriend is Rosalie (Kerry Sherman). Luther was also partners with Ganz and Reggie, and knows where the cash is stashed. Ganz kidnaps Rosalie to compel Luther to turn over the money. Reggie also finds Luther, and it is a question of who gets the money first. Or is the last to survive.

Third-billed is Jack's long-suffering younger girlfriend, Elaine (Annette O'Toole). Frank McRae is Jack's bellicose boss. Margot Rose and Denise Crosby are the girlfriends of Ganz and Billy Bear. Olive Brown is a woman whom Reggie solicits in a bar.

The film is set in San Francisco. It is notable as the only screenwriter credit in the career of director Roger Spottiswoode, who shortly thereafter cast Nolte as the lead in Under Fire (1983).

How others will see it. 48 Hrs. is best-known as Murphy's feature debut, though he was already a star from his stint as a regular on "Saturday Night Live." 48 Hrs. was a big box office hit, and Murphy's star rose yet further with his second film, the comedy Trading Places.

His first two movies were probably the best of his long career, though he continued his commercial success in Beverly Hills Cop, Coming to America, Dr. Doolittle, and the Shrek franchise. The only inarguably great movie from that long stretch of films was The Nutty Professor.

But Nick Nolte is the lead here, just as Dan Akroyd was first-billed in Trading Races, er, Places. Nolte goes through eight of his nine lives here, but survives to make the disappointing 1990 remake, Another 48 Hrs. Gruff Nolte dishes out the verbal and physical abuse, but it doesn't take long for Murphy to earn his trust. Because it's a movie.

Those who like action, violence, crime dramas, salty language, and stereotypes of redneck culture should enjoy this movie. But it failed to earn any Oscar nominations, and at the user ratings are lower than expected at only 6.9 out of 10. Men over 45, who remember when the film first came out, grade it highest at 7.1. Women under 30 grade it lowest, perhaps because of how poorly the various girlfriends are treated by the male jerk leads.

The "most helpful" user reviews, though, tell a different story. Most comments are pleased with the Nolte and Murphy performances, their scornful dialogue, and the electrifying action scenes.

How I felt about it. The plot hole everyone notices is, what happened to Rosalie, Luther's luckless girlfriend. She completely disappears from the film after her lover Luther is taken out. But the movie has multiple other plot problems.

Both Reggie and Jack seem eager for Reggie to have sex with a prostitute he met in a bar. Jack's relationship with Elaine is so stormy that it could never last for a month. Why would Luther agree to meet Ganz on a private bus (instead of in public) where he is likely to be shot? Wouldn't Luther be at least tempted to steal the money and leave Rosalie at the mercy of Ganz and Billy Bear?

Why don't Jack and Reggie request police backup while headed to the apartment where Ganz and Billy Bear are holed up? Can you imagine Jack's police report for the shooting of Ganz and Billy Bear: "I knew Reggie, a convicted felon released from prison in my custody, was carrying a stolen handgun before he shot Billy Bear multiple times, killing him."

Despite the improbable plot, there is much to enjoy here, besides the dynamic duo of Nolte and Murphy. The latter does a spot-on impersonation of Jack Benny's sidekick Rochester. James Remar is well cast as the psychotic mass murder Ganz. The climactic scene between Reggie and Billy Bear is laden with suspense despite its predictable outcome.

In fact, 48 Hrs. is far better than it should be. Could it be a miracle of casting, Spottiswoode's rookie script, or Walter Hill's gritty direction? My bet is that the hammy performances pull off what should have been another Another 48 Hrs.