30 May 2001 | JawsOfJosh
Walter Hill's dark cop drama doubles as Eddie Murphy's propulsive film debut
Only a privileged few who remember "48 Hrs." acknowledge it as the primary influence of the buddy-cop films of the 80's ("Lethal Weapon", "Miami Vice"). Nick Nolte plays Jack Cates, a rusty, cranky, tough-guy cop working the homicide department in San Francisco. When a violent chain-gang escape reunites two hardened criminals (the greasy-looking Ganz and a towering Indian named Billy Bear) who subsequently murder two police officers and a prison guard, Cates is assigned to babysit paroled convict Reggie Hammond (Eddie Murphy), an old member of Ganz's gang. Reggie has been released for one weekend (hence the title) to aid Jack in capturing these two cop-killers. Unbeknownst to Cates, Ganz & Billy Bear are not simply out on a killing spree but rather in search of a very important briefcase that belongs to Reggie.
I can't think of another film debut as explosive as Eddie Murphy in "48 Hrs.", even though Murphy's work on "Saturday Night Live" already tossed him into the public's consciousness. It's also worth noting that because director Walter Hill is known for casting interracial leads in his non-western films ("Brewster's Millions", "Crossroads", "Supernova"), never before had we seen a black man act like this in a movie; assured, aggressive and confident to the point of being cocky. It would be easy to dismiss Murphy's character as a black stereotype; well-dressed, horny, smooth-talking, bantering, but Murphy pulls his character away from stereotype cobwebs with unfiltered charisma and instinct. Think of it, most people who now wail away the chorus to "Roxanne" are invoking Murphy instead of Sting (and what a hilarious introduction that is). Also, there is the unforgettable sequence where Reggie takes over a redneck bar, posing as a cop! It's the most magnetic scene in the film, and Murphy delivers ("You know what I am? I'm your worst f***in' nightmare! That's right I'm a nigger with a badge and I got permission to kick your f***in' ass whenever I feel like it.")
Obviously, this film wasn't written as a comedy. Nolte spends much of his time hurling every kind of racial epithet imaginable at Murphy when he's not chain-smoking or guzzling from a flask. Murphy injects his humor into the story without disrupting the movie's violently grim tone, and Murphy & Nolte are excellent at creating an oil-and-water duo that keeps them at odds for most of the film. There are no stylistic explosions, but there are some tense gunfights including a chase scene in a train station and a shootout that employs a convertible and a public bus. Composer James Horner, who would come to prominence in the 90's as one of the more reverent film composers, creates an unusual, percussion-driven score heavy with Caribbean flavor. It's works well, adding an element of heat while Jack & Reggie cruise San Francisco with the top down. The film has thankfully dated pretty well, and sometimes even holds the faint resemblance of a 1970's cop film (I'm sure interracial blaxploitation movies like "Across 110th Street" served their influence). Of all of Walter Hill's work, "Crossroads" remains closest to my heart, but this is certainly his most mature effort. Expect to laugh, but expect to be shaken too.