Redneck: What kind of cop are you?
Reggie Hammond: You know what I am? I’m you’re worst f*****g nightmare, man. I’m a n****r with a badge. That means I have permission to kick your a*s whenever I feel like it.
Not many people ever get to be the coolest man on the planet, but for a while in the early ’80s, it was Eddie Murphy. Aside from maybe four Joe Piscopo fans, people would line up to watch Saturday Night Live for no other reason than his smarmy brilliance. Eddie Murphy doesn’t enter 48 Hrs for at least a half an hour into the picture, but in his first thirty seconds he owned the picture, within his first two minutes he got to say his first cinematic “F**k You!” and by the time he gets to enter a redneck bar in the San Francisco, Mission, his was the standard by which everyone else had to compare themselves.
I don’t remember exactly what Blacks were getting to do on the screen at the time, but it certainly wasn’t anything like this. Murphy’s Reggie Hammond takes his convict stereotype and almost instantly turns himself into a measure of angry authority effectively throwing America’s racism back in their face, and enjoying ever minute of it with his soon to be famous catalog of whimsical chuckling laughter. That was a huge scene. It and every other moment of 48 HRS that he is on the screen are eminently joyful and pleasurable. Eddie Murphy exploded like a Neutron Bomb here, he became someone I could root for, and after his off key falsetto version here, people would never again be able to hear the Police’s Roxanne in the same way
The only problem I have with his coronation is this. I moved to San Francisco about eight years after 48 HRS came out. Things might have changed in the meantime, but when I got there I couldn’t find any redneck bar in the Mission District. I mean there are like hundreds of them in that scene and the only guy I ever saw wear a cowboy hat in San Francisco was that guy in the Village People.
48 Hrs kicked the buddy movie formula into high gear. It got its own cues from the Bill Cosby television show I Spy, but it and Die Hard have to be the most imitated movies of the last twenty years. One of my favorite ingredients it started was the pissed off Black Police Chief. I’m not sure how many Black Police Chiefs there are in the world, but it sure seems like there is one in every movie. I think it is a little bit of subtle racism. Only the big burly white guys get to be the cops. Remember they made Eddie Murphy pair up with Nick Nolte, Dan Ackroyd, and even Dudley Moore before they were convinced he could carry a movie on his own or with another Black actor. You can make a Black guy Police Chief. It looks like you are giving him some authority, but really how many movies have there been about Police Chiefs?
Except for Murphy everything about 48 Hrs’ San Francisco is downcast, dingy and chilly. Nick Nolte plays gruff, Dirty Harry wannabe Jack Cates. He’s unkempt, perpetually angry and hung over. He drives a beat up blue Cadillac convertible, and has a girlfriend who nags him night and day. James Remar is my all time favorite movie villain, the completely lawless Albert Ganz.
Prostitute: I think he’s gonna give you guys a hard time.
Cop: What makes you think so.
Prostitute: He likes shooting cops a lot more than getting laid.
In the first thirty minutes of this movie he busts out of a chain gang, kills a couple of guards, lifts some credit cards, leaves an ex member of his gang dead on a park bench, orders some hookers, and kills a couple of cops shooting his way out of a hotel, the last with Nolte’s gun. When he gets shot by Nolte near the end of the picture, it seems to only make him angrier.
Murphy is Reggie Hammond, another jailed member of Ganz’ gang. Nolte gets him released from prison for two days to help him track down Ganz and his huge Indian pal, Billy Bear. Hammond is trying to keep Ganz from reclaiming a bundle of money they robbed, “the kind of money nobody reports stolen.” Murphy’s fast talking Hammond is a dandy in the high priced suit they arrested him in. He’s just as interested in finding a girl to spend six minutes with as he is in protecting his money. He responds to Nolte’s cranky racism by playing silly, but shows the ability to snap back with anger and dead seriousness at any moment. If you haven’t seen it for a while and remember Nolte and Eddie as a team, you might be surprised at how surly and bigoted his Cates comes off.
“48 Hrs” proved that an action movie could have a serious tone and be drop dead funny at the same time, and it’s mostly because of Eddie Murphy. Perhaps the best screen debut ever.