Welcome to Fistful of Features, a celebration of film preservation through physical media and the discussion of cinematic treasures to maintain their relevance in the cultural lexicon. Today we’ll be discussing the birth of Eddie Murphy’s rise to comedic stardom in Walter Hill’s gritty cop comedy masterpiece 48 Hrs., coming to Blu-ray courtesy of the Paramount Presents label from Paramount Pictures.
The unsavory glare of criminal psychopath Albert Ganz (James Remar) immediately protrudes with menace and sweat under the unforgiving sun amidst his fellow chain gang moments before charlatan Billy Bear (Sonny Landham) arrives on the scene to offer some misdirection to the bewildered guards before a bloody shootout erupts with the backdrop of the barren California wasteland. Cinematographer Ric Waite frames this opening with the gusto of an operatic western, not unlike The Long Riders, which was his previous collaboration with Walter Hill. James Horner’s opening score sets the tone for Hill’s commanding grand entrance but is later utilized to fuller effect when recycled for Mark L. Lester three years later in Commando. It’s actually quite astounding that Hill’s directorial imprint managed to shine through at all considering the uphill executive battle he managed to endure with former Paramount president Michael Eisner and his bureaucratic cronies. They did not only appear clueless to the director’s cinematic sensibilities when it came to staging violence, but also didn’t have the foresight to see that they were about to strike gold with a young sharp-tongued comedian who just began making waves on Saturday Night Live.
Luckily, producers Lawrence Gordon and Joel Silver had the sense to protect their investment, but even they couldn’t have known what it was they actually had.
Not to take anything away from the serviceable screenplay that was cleaned up last minute by Larry Gross, but all of the magic in this movie comes from the chemistry of Nick Nolte and Eddie Murphy, both of whom have said that much of their quirky dialogue was improvised between the two of them on set. Without that we have a standard but amusing procedural that finds these reluctant partners Jack Cates (Nolte) and Reggie Hammond (Murphy) pursuing cop-killing maniac Ganz through the city for about an hour with the romantic angle between Jack and Elaine (Annette O’Toole) seemingly shortchanged to keep the action brisk, and then something magical happens. Reggie Hammond has the opportunity to show some lowlife rednecks in a run-down country bar that there’s a new sheriff in town and, within that scene, a movie star is unveiled right before our eyes.
Almost a decade after Freebie and the Bean, 48 Hrs. paved the way for the equally astounding Lethal Weapon and countless lesser imitations that followed, and none of them had the spontaneity or circumstantial rawness that oozed from this haphazard miracle that bested Hollywood’s cynical executive decision making that became overtly dominant throughout the rest of the eighties. This is a film that proves that sometimes there is no rhyme or reason for great creations and things that don’t belong together can be a recipe for brilliance. We would be so lucky if we ever got anything close to the haphazard miracle of 48 Hrs. again.
48 Hrs. Special Features
- Filmmaker Focus: Director Walter Hill on 48 Hrs. (19:08)
- Space Kid—original 1966 animated short, which makes an appearance in the film (5:32)
- Theatrical Trailer
Available on Blu-ray and digital July 6th, 2021.
Head to the official Paramount Pictures’s home video websites for more information on 48 Hrs..