48 Hrs. And The Angry Violence of Walter Hill

48 hrs poster48 Hrs. (’82) is a strange film. Directed by Walter Hill and written by a rotating cast of scribes over many years of development, it co-stars then-hot young comic Eddie Murphy in his first movie, but he’s given little room to be funny amid the bloody shoot-outs. Walter Hill was not known for making laugh riots, and why 48 Hrs. is thought of as a comedy, or an action comedy, or a buddy-movie comedy, is something of a mystery.

Mostly what 48 Hrs. is is angry and hyper-violent, two traits closely associated with Hill, who in those days claimed people who didn’t like violence shouldn’t see movies. Prior to 48 Hrs. he’d made, most notably, The Warriors, a bizarre flick about color-coded New York gangsters rattling bottles and dressing up like baseball players the cult-classicness of which continues to elude me; Southern Comfort, a Deliverance wanna-be set in the Louisana swamps most often read as a Vietnam allegory; and The Long Riders, a western about Jesse James best remembered for starring multiple sets of brothers—namely the Carrradines, the Keaches, the Quaids, and the Guests. I recently watched The Long Riders for the first time. It’s perfectly so-so in a way that inspired me to write nothing about it aside from this sentence.

Oh no. It's the, uh, the baseball gang?

Oh no. It’s the, uh, the baseball gang?

The other important pie Hill had his finger in was Alien, which he co-produced and, uncredited, co-wrote. He would go on to co-write the stories for and co-produce Aliens and Alien 3.

But so anyway, Hill was drawn toward intense stories about intense people committing violent acts and, generally, yelling at each other a lot. Hence 48 Hrs., in which Nick Nolte, as loner cop Jack Cates, yells a good 90% of his dialogue. And oh man is he ever angry. The only character who out-yells him is police captain Haden (Frank McRae), in his origination of the “angry police captain” role every movie about cops made since could not exist without.

The buddies meet

The buddies meet

Speaking of which, 48 Hrs. is the buddy cop blueprint, inspiring Beverly Hills Cop, Lethal Weapon, Running Scared, Red Heat, Tango & Cash, Bad Boys, Rush Hour, and multiple Oscar-winner Tom Hanks’s most revered film, Turner & Hooch. To name but a few.

Originally it was to be set in New Orleans and star Clint Eastwood and Richard Pryor as, respectively, the city’s meanest cop and meanest crook teaming up to prevent the Governor’s abducted daughter from being blown up. I’d’ve paid to see that one. Many rewrites later, Hill was hired, did his own rewrite, and we got a story with seemingly much less at stake, namely a bunch of crooks trying to grab a bag of cash they stashed three years earlier in the trunk of a car.

No bad guy has ever worn that sweater better.

No bad guy has ever worn that sweater better.

Bad guy Ganz (Walter Hill regular James Remar) escapes a chain-gang with the help of Native American mean man Billy Bear (Sonny Landham) and heads to San Francisco to hassle past gang members Henry, shot in the head before we get to meet him, and Luther (David Patrick Kelly, who we will now take a moment to remember and love as Jerry Horne in Twin Peaks), whose girlfriend they kidnap, to be returned when Luther coughs up the dough.

But the dough is in the trunk of a car stashed in a parking garage that doesn’t open until Monday morning, two days away.

The last gang member is Reggie Hammond (Eddie Murphy). Angry cop Cates yanks him out of San Quentin for 48 hours to help catch Ganz, who in an earlier encounter takes Cates’s gun and shoots fellow cop Algren (Jonathan Banks AKA Mike in Breaking Bad/Better Call Saul).

Why does the SFPD allow just one angry cop to pursue a prison escapee who’s already shot and killed two guards and two SF cops? I don’t know. But everyone sure yells about it a lot.

Mr. Banks shows up

Mr. Banks shows up

I mean everyone in here is just really, really angry. Why did I like this movie so much when I was 11? Just the Eddie Murphy factor? Who is, after all, kinda funny now and again, but he’s also something of a sleaze. His one goal, aside from seeing Ganz dead and getting his money back, is to get some “trim,” as he puts it over and over again. Late in the film, at a club, he dances with a woman, then straight up tells her he needs to get into some pussy, and fast. She’s semi-aghast at his lack of subtlety, but game to screw anyhow. Which they do come movie’s end. “I’ll call you in six months,” he tells her, on his way back to jail.

Cates has a girlfriend, Elaine (Annette O’Toole), who’s in the movie for who the fuck knows why. I think she’s in maybe three scenes, in all of which she yells at Cates for being such a bastard. There’s not even a scene at the end where they make up. No idea what purpose her presence serves.

Couple of tough guys

Couple of tough guys

The shoots-outs are aggressively violent. Ganz and Billy Bear shoot anyone in their way—cops, bystanders, it doesn’t matter. They even hijack a Muni bus by movie’s end. 48 Hrs. came out in a peculiar era for films, what I’d pin as lasting from ’80 to ’84, when the grittiness of ‘70s cinema had yet to fully wear off, and the bright colors and happy themes of ‘80s cinema had yet to fully take over. It’s a movie clearly originating in the ‘70s, yet with a look and feel pointing to the future, creating something of a clash. At the time this wouldn’t have been evident, but in restrospect, knowing where action flicks and buddy cop movies would go in only a few short years, it’s surprising to see how dark the violence is played in 48 Hrs.

It’s no spoiler to tell you Cates kills Ganz at the end. How he does it is he shoots him once, winging him, then shoots him about five more times. None of that having-your-cake-and-eating-it-too ending of cop movies to come, wherein the hero cop neutralizes the bad guy without killing him—even though he could have killed him—only to have the bad guy grab a gun/bomb/monkeywrench, thus forcing our reluctant hero cop to kill him after all. No, not a bit of that bullshit. Cates finds his man, and shoots the fuck out of him.

Country boy Reggie Hammond

Country boy Reggie Hammond

The last thing I’ll note about 48 Hrs. is that despite all the yelling, all the killing, all the absence of comedy—it’s pretty good. Best thing Hill ever directed, I’d go so far as to say. In some strange way, it works. Nolte is excellent, the bad guys are believably insane, and Murphy, then known only as a stand-up comic and new star of Saturday Night Live, gives a solid dramatic performance. He’s funny too, here and there, though most of the comedy, as in his showcase scene in the country-western bar (located in the Mission district, we’re told…hmm), involves him yelling at white people. As one expects from Hill, the action sequences are well shot, and the movie as a whole has a nicely lit, gritty look. Best of all might be the music, a wild concoction of jazz horns, dramatic drums, and relatively subtle synths provided by the great James Horner. What more do you want from an action flick?

7 responses on “48 Hrs. And The Angry Violence of Walter Hill

  1. Hmm… I think you may be giving short shrift to Southern Comfort. I just think this, rather than proclaiming it with enthusiasm, because it’s been like 25 years since I saw it. But I remember thinking it had an amazing cast and was a total gem–a movie we’d never heard of that we rented based on a recommendation from a friend’s dad, that was surprisingly good.

    • My shrift may indeed have been short. I saw it somewhat more recently… maybe 15 years ago? My recollection is that while it has its moments, it never quite amounts to much more than a bunch of hotheads shooting at natives in the swamps.

        • I believe you both have misjudged the appropriate length of Southern Comfort’s shrift, which is long but threadbare, so that it reaches the ankles in places but also reveals quite a bit of buttock.

          I’ll write something about it soon.

  2. Intriguing… I think it starts with a floor of 3.5 stars just for having Fred Ward and Powers Boothe acting to the dulcet tones of Ry Cooder.

  3. OMG… just watched the trailer. Looks like some super-hot manly 80s action with bad sound design. I may have to get drunk and watch this ASAP. It may say more about my 12-year-old sensibilities than I’d care to contemplate.

Yeah, well, you know, that's just, like, your opinion, man.