Monday, February 21, 2011

New on Blu: "48 HRS."

Even now, knowing that he's coming, it is still a bit shocking that Eddie Murphy takes over 48 Hrs. as quickly and completely as he does. Up until his entrance, it is a well-made if unexceptional cock-waving early '80s crime picture--all tough talk and gratuitous nudity and loud shoot-outs. But then, 25 minutes in, Nick Nolte's growling cop, Jack Cates, goes to visit Reggie Hammond (Murphy) at the penitentiary. As he walks through the facility to Reggie's cell, Murphy's voice is heard, a comically high falsetto, singing along to "Roxanne" by the Police. We're laughing before we even see him; Murphy's not even on screen yet, and already he's stolen the movie.
It could be said that the film is constructed and the role is written in such a way that it's damn near impossible not to steal the movie when playing it, and there might be something to that--some roles are just like that, like W.C. Fields's in International House or Orson Welles's in The Third Man. But that only explains it up to a point. Making 48 Hrs. when he did (as a rising , barely 20-year-old star of Saturday Night Live) was an astonishing bit of good timing, the right project for the right performer at the right moment. The picture showcased exactly what he could do at that moment (and not much more--his serious tough-guy scenes aren't terribly credible); his natural, untrained acting style renders his dialogue scenes conversational and believable, and his unforced charisma is still a marvel to behold.

And then there's the scene. When the film was originally released, Roger Ebert noted that "sometimes an actor becomes a star in just one scene," and (putting Ebert in the company of Nicholson in Easy Rider and Faye Dunaway in Bonnie and Clyde) contended that this very thing happened in 48 Hrs., when Murphy walks into a Confederate flag-flying country and western bar and absolutely takes the joint over. In retrospect, Ebert was right; in that one scene, you have everything that's great about early Eddie: the effortless cool, the wide-eyed bravado, his gift for wielding a laugh-line like a weapon.

Of course, 48 Hrs. is far from a one-man show; it was, in fact, the template for the buddy action/comedy movies that so defined the decade-plus that followed it. Murphy and Nolte are a solid on-screen team--their chemistry is sharp, their dialogue scenes tightly-paced, with a good give and take ("Jack, tell me a story." "Fuck you." "Oh, that's one of my favorites..."). The arc of a duo going from outright hostility to grudging respect over the course of two-or-so hours has more than worn out its welcome, but it's well done here, even if their big bare-knuckle fistfight comes from out of absolutely nowhere, and Nolte's racial insults ("watermelon," "spearchucker," "boy," and even a "nigger") make him pretty hard to root for--thankfully, that dynamic isn't really part of the buddy-cop toolbox these days. (It was dispensed with entirely by the time of the film's wheezy sequel, 1990's Another 48 Hrs.)

Though he hadn't quite aged into it yet, he's doing what we'd now think of as the quintessential Nick Nolte performance--grizzled, chain-smoking, grunting his dialogue under a half-awake squint, the kind of turn that looks, as Patton Oswalt would later say, like he was "roused from a really bad hangover and just kind of pushed towards the camera." But it works for this role, and his relationship with Murphy gives the picture the lift it needs; we've got an investment in the tense, well-made second act chase scene, and the warmth and humor of their last scene is surprisingly rich.

48 Hrs. has its problems--some of the cop-movie tropes (like the screaming black captain) were already tired, even in 1982, and the picture's casual chauvinism remains troubling. But Walter Hill's direction is razor-sharp; the picture is involving and inventively photographed (as in that first, off-the-cuff police station scene, shot in one unbroken take), and it proved the defining moment in the early evolution of Eddie Murphy. It's particularly worth revisiting these days, as Murphy's career continues its long, sad descent into family "comedy" hell. Once upon a time, we remind ourselves, he was a filthy-mouthed, fast-talking keg of cinematic dynamite. Once upon a time.

"48 Hrs." makes its Blu-ray debut on Tuesday, February 22nd. For full A/V and bonus feature details, read this review on DVD Talk.

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