Without giving too much away (that’ll be done later, so don’t read much more if you wish to go into the film completely blind), the first 25 minutes or so of 48 Hrs.—in other words, everything before Eddie Murphy’s character, Reggie Hammond, is discovered loudly belting out The Police’s “Roxanne” in a prison cell—make you question whether you’re watching the silly police comedy you expected from the Daddy Day Care star being slapped on the poster, or something more on the lines of, say, Dirty Harry or your average Safdie Brothers flick.
There’s violent kidnapping, lethal shootouts, policemen being mercilessly blown to bits, and more generally bloody mayhem—all of which make it receiving the same MPAA rating as the later Murphy vehicle Coming to America pretty hilarious (by today’s standards, some of this mayhem almost seems tame, but it’s still rather jarring). All of this occurs around deserted railroads, dirty hotels, and pretty much the grimiest other corners of San Francisco imaginable.
And yet, the only trailer I’ve seen on YouTube touts Hrs. as no rougher than the later Murphy smash Beverly Hills Cop. Yeah, I haven’t actually seen the latter movie yet, but if what I’ve heard about it is true, it’s actually as far apart from this particular vehicle of his as Mars is apart from Jupiter. As will be discussed later, the film’s comedic scenes are often zany (and, compared to everything else, pretty lighthearted overall), but even those are always underscored with the looming threat of gunfire, the all-consuming fear that one character’s next step around the street corner will be their last.
I get it. Some films can certainly be a little tough to market to the widest possible audiences, and it’s not hard to see why 48 Hrs. may be one of them. That does not give Paramount the right to so absurdly warp the story’s overall tone that—I’m not joking—one of the central antagonists coldly threatening to snap a woman’s neck, which the film itself presents without a single drop of humor, genuinely seems like a wonky laugh riot in said trailer, thanks to the genius decision to play “The Boys Are Back In Town” (meaning this, not the Thin Lizzy song) over it. Nicolas Winding Refn’s gnarly neo-noir thriller Drive may have been so terribly marketed that one enraged moviegoer threatened legal action, yet nobody left a screening of this film urged to do the same?
On to the plot. Since California’s law enforcement is apparently so smooth-brained that only one shotgun-wielding officer is assigned to guard a group of unchained, uncuffed inmates as they work on anonymous train tracks, a vicious pair of criminals—with a special fondness of killing cops, no less—goes on the loose, leading to a brutal confrontation that takes the lives of two more.
Unfortunately for them, one of these murderers (Albert Ganz, to be precise) was once partners with the now-imprisoned Reggie, who the only officer left standing after the attack is forced to team up with to find them; and, as the title tells us, there’s only a single 48-hour window for this very unlikely team to do so. Despite how impressively Reggie holds his own in a street fight against Jack, it’s not the slightest bit believable that such a brash, yet lovably witty cartoon character would even give the time of day to a stone-faced psychopath like Albert, but for reasons to discuss later, he’s still 48 Hrs.’s greatest strength.
Once the plot really comes into shape, nothing really happens in a way you wouldn’t expect from any other run-of-the-mill cop thriller, which may have been par for the course in a genre film for this sort, but prevents 48 Hrs. from being nearly as rewatchable as it should have been. After such an unexpectedly intense beginning, this subsequent lack of any narrative surprises or risk-taking is honestly quite the disappointment—and the ending’s plunge back into straight-faced darkness is, much to my annoyance, greatly marred by how dumb it is.
As the rest of the movie is still worth seeing, I’ll hold off on specifics until after giving my rating, but nobody—and I mean nobody (not even anyone as desperate and panicked as that particular character)—would ever act in such an absurdly idiotic way. If this had been an earlier scene with a different antagonist, or if the entire movie had a consistently goofy tone throughout (which the scene in question doesn’t, making it all the more laughable), my mind might—might—have been able to overlook such stupidity in the grand scheme of things. Since that is what the entirety of this Very Serious thriller was building towards, it’s nearly unforgivable.
Throughout the film, a subplot involving Jack’s deteriorating relationship with his girlfriend decently dangles another ticking time bomb over the grizzled killer-chaser’s head, but it’s confusingly never resolved by the end. Even more confusingly, several other inmates are seen dashing away from the railroad in the opening scene, yet the rest of the film pretends as though they don’t exist.
Still, although I may never watch it again, 48 Hrs. is absolutely worth flipping on once, if only to see Murphy’s grand entrance into the acting world—which, as you may’ve already guessed, is an immensely entertaining entrance indeed. Even if the camera solely captures him in the background, his vivid, magnetic presence dominates every single scene he’s in, and every single scene he’s in has him hurling a foul-mouthed comeback of some sort, or letting us know who’s really the boss of this banter-loving duo. Nothing, however, compares to the sequence in which he “takes charge” of a sleazy redneck bar while hunting after Albert. (Don’t ask what that means, just experience it for yourself.)
While the central buddies in this buddy-comedy-actioner don’t have much very depth to them, the way they constantly bounce off each other—and, unsurprisingly, form as close of a bond as cop and (ex-)convict ever could—polishes this rough, dirt-coated gem just enough for it to work as fast-paced popcorn fun, but not to the point of losing all the story’s edge.
At the very least, 48 Hrs. is worth comparing to cop-comedy stinkers like the Big Momma’s House franchise (yeah, that’s the worst example anyone could possibly ever think of, but considering how much my family used to enjoy those movies, it’s seriously the first one that popped into my mind), which are badly shot, thoroughly unfunny, and do a horrid job mixing silly comedy with “serious” action. The cinematography in this film may not be Oscar-worthy, but it keeps our eyes’ attention, whereas the sitcommy look of every single Big Momma film has it quickly wandering other places. Similarly, the story’s events are paced with brisk economy, so if there’s one thing this movie never made me feel, it’s bored.
Circling back to the Safdies, it’s absolutely no surprise why they considered helming a remake for this very film; the generally fast-and-dirty tone of every scene (complete with James Horner’s cheesily breathless score) almost feels right at home with the stylistic thrills of their own Uncut Gems. If one were to squint hard enough, they could very well dub 48 Hrs. a Good Time on the right side of the law; while it’s unfortunately not as fun or unique as that makes it sound, they wouldn’t be far off-track. Do with that information what you will.
Needless to say, this review took way, way longer to be finished than anticipated. Writing ones for Poltergiest, The French Connection, and Gone Girl (all of which I thoroughly enjoyed) would be great, but at this rate, we’ll just have to see if those actually get done or not. At least when summer finally arrives, and all my more important work is out of the way, matters like these should be far less common. Once I’m at such a comfortable place, a far more consistent publishing schedule will be developed, I promise.
[MAJOR SPOILERS] And here are those specifics now:
In the last 10 minutes or so, Albert (the only baddie left standing) is badly shot by Jack after threatening to blow Reggie away, and drops his hostage to the ground in pain. Despite one of the previously—and scarily—fast-on-his-feet murderer’s hands tightly squeezing a loaded firearm, and the cop who just put metal through his body still pointing a loaded firearm towards him, Albert chooses charging Jack over simply shooting him back. Even though they’re a good five feet apart from each other. Take a wild guess what happens next.