IN THE RARIFIED CULTURAL ATMOSPHERE of Cambridge, it is hard to praise a street movie like 48 Hours. You sound mean and hissing, like Peter Lorre. "But 'low-brow trash' is such an ugly word. I prefer to call it 'escapism'. You despise me, Rick, don't you?" On the other hand, it is necessary to distinguish intelligently among Hollywood's blood'n' guts action offerings.
48 Hours is for the independent moderates; those of you who would be just as happy if Fellini and Bertolucci were items on the Bel Canto menu, but who are not afraid to call a schlock a schlock. Among you, 48 Hours will step up beside The French Connection as a street movie classic.
Forty-eight hours is the time out of jail that convict Reggie Hammond (Eddie Murphy) has to help San Francisco cop Jack Cates (Nick Nolte), track down two killers--a former member of Reggie's gang and his American Indian partner. Despite their natural antipathies. Nolte and Murphy learn to rely on each other. The plot fits securely within the Holly wood tradition of fine escapist movies. A typical Western followed the teeming up of the conscientious lawman with the charismatic outlaw to defeat some psychopath or Mexican general. Inevitably, the two heroes soon realized that under their white or black hats they were pretty much the same guy, and when the lawman finally turned in his temporary partner he always shed a poignant tear over what might have been a great friendship.
In 48 Hours, the handling of Nolte's and Murphy's relationship is more sensitive and profound. Under their white or Black skins, they are not at all the same person. Nolte is a gruff, WASPish, bigoted cop, while Murphy the convict is affluent and civilized. Their developing friendship inspire of themselves provides the tender subplot to this tough movie.
From the first scenes 48 Hours proves technically superb the suspenseful music and the artistic photography of the serene landscape around a chain gang skillfully sets up a calm before-the-storm feeling. When the storm breaks, it is furious and violent, raging up from the streets around Nolte the cop. The camera often returns to the streets, recording the roar of the traffic from the level of the cars, as if refueling for the coming scenes.
THERE ARE A FEW rough spots. The men working in the chain gang under the noon sun in the opening shots do not seem to sweat; their shirts are dry and pressed. Some of the dialogue in the police precinct is terrible: "You know," says a female ballistics expert to Nolte, "there are some really bad people out there." Nolte quips in return that they would all be out of a job if it weren't for the bad people. Back to the streets.
When two of Nolte's partners are blown away by the psychopath and his Indian sidekick you begin to wonder how Eddie Murphy, the star of Saturday Night Live, will fit into the serious plot. 48 Hours is obviously not Animal House. But then again, Eddie Murphy is not Steve Martin. Eddie Murphy is first and foremost a character actor; his funniest skits on the TV show are when he becomes Buckwheat, or a stereotyped bad dude. In 48 Hours, he checks the manta of Saturday Night Live and straightforwardly portrays a cool guy with a good sense of humor. He injects a gritty comic relief without destroying all the tension built up by the scenes of violence and urban realism.
Walter Hill, the director and co-author, arranges interludes of repartee between Nolte and Murphy that round out their characters in a way that hours of gunfight scenes can not. For example, Murphy is introduced brilliantly: as Nolte walks down the rows of cells in a jail, he hears someone singing "Roxanne" loudly and off-key. Of course, the singer is Eddie Murphy wearing a Walkman.
Nolte can only spring Murphy for 48 hours for his mission. Before they are out of the jail, the two personalities clash. Murphy is all excited; he has been in prison for three years. "Let's go on a little pussy hunt," he begs Nolte, the conventional WASP whirls angrily and harangues the con. "I own you!" he yells, unconsciously quoting a line from Roots. Nolte and Murphy play off each other brilliantly. "I want some food with a nice atmosphere, violins..." he tells Nolte. A snickering Nolte takes him to a candy machine.
The movie's best scene occurs when Nolte and Murphy go into a country boy bar, full of rednecks in cowboy hats. "These are my kind of people," chuckles Nolte, "they sure as hell don't like you." Murphy takes the remark as a dare, and after borrowing Nolte's badge, breaks the big mirror behind the bartender. The room falls quiet. "Alright now, listen up!" yells Murphy. "I don't like white people."
Impressed by Murphy's chutzpah, the loner cop begins to open up, to the cultured convict, and they work as partners in some great car and subway chases through the streets of San Francisco. The photography, music, plot, characters all come together in Chinatown for the incredibly thrilling end. The Indian, the psychopath, Murphy and Nolte stalk each other by the eerie glow of the neon lights through the fog. The final explosive shots are in slow motion, and put 48 Hours on a par with Dirty Harry, White Lightning and The French Connection. With fast action, violence, urban realism, 48 Hours unites the best elements of escapism.