(Walter Hill, 1982)
The formula established by 48 Hrs., usually referred to as the "buddy cop" movie, would go on to become one of the most popular and successful templates in commercial cinema in the 1980s. But viewed today, 48 Hrs. stands out from most of the films it influenced.
That's because Walter Hill, at that point, was in the middle of an incredible run of genre films, beginning with Hard Times in 1975 and continuing through The Driver, The Warriors, Southern Comfort and, in 1981, The Long Riders. Each of those films is the work of a brilliant action craftsman; they are all accessible yet a little arty too, with some abstraction, a witty understanding of genre conventions, and an inventive, exciting, even poetic approach to shooting violence.
48 Hrs. is more obviously commercial, and yet Hill's sensibility elevates it, gives it a grit and a darkness which make it feel more adult than most films of its type.
The plot unites ragged mess of a San Francisco Cop Jack Gates (Nick Nolte) with convict Reggie Hammond (Eddie Murphy) after an escaped convict (James Remar) and his partner (Sonny Landham) kill a couple of detectives. Hammond and Gates bicker, brawl and develop a wary, grudging respect for one another against a vivid San Francisco backdrop, while they violently hassle cowboys in a country bar, bully the girlfriends of the criminals they seek, stakeout a long-stay garage and drive Gates' enormous sky blue Cadillac all over the city.
As always Hill exhibits a great eye - some of the compositions and lighting during the final shootout in a misty Chinatown are fabulous - and his action scenes are thunderous and reliably visceral. But the script - co-written by Hill, Larry Gross and action specialists Steven De Souza and Jeb Stuart - is also surprisingly smart and frank. The characters are a mix of utterly archetypal and realistically complex. The villains are cartoonish bad men, set on murder and mayhem, and Nolte's Police Chief yells at him in his every appearance. Women are given short shrift too. The lovely Annette O'Toole plays Gates' girlfriend, and though their relationship is founded on a believable dynamic based on tension over commitment and her resentment about working in a bar, that translates as her mainly arguing with him. While every role of note is filled with a high-quality supporting player, its the leads that have to carry the film, and these two are more than capable. Nolte plays it dead straight, making Jack a shambling mess, all impulse-control issues and gratuitous swearing (some of the racist abuse he tosses at Hammond is shocking). In fact, Jack is a bit of an asshole, which makes his interaction with the annoying Hammond all the more entertaining. Hammond was a prototypical Murphy role - all attitude, fast-chatter and grinning charm, he is ever-likeable and funny too.
That doesn't mean the film is a comedy - though it often throws up laughs in the scenes where Reggie and Jack bicker. Generally it is extremely tough and dark. Gates and Hammond fight hatefully, nobody ever cooperates with the police, violence is always close. But all that just makes its noirish world more convincing and interesting as a venue for this ind of story.