About seventy minutes into 48 Hrs., Nick Nolte apologizes to Eddie Murphy for the racial slurs he’s been calling him since Murphy showed up in the movie. Nolte’s just doing his job, he explains, “keeping him down,” which is an unintentionally honest moment about cops and Black men. Murphy nods to it, but says, “that doesn’t explain all of it,” and Nolte sadly agrees. He’s just a racist White cop. There’s only so much he can do.
At this point in the film, Nolte and Murphy are buddies. 48 Hrs. is an eighties buddy cop movie after all. Even if the first act is a bad but mildly amusing riff on a Dirty Harry movie, introducing hard-living rogue copper Nolte, who just happens to have a sophisticated girlfriend, Annette O’Toole. O’Toole’s pointless in the film, which ends up being fine because the movie’s literally got nothing for her. She gets maybe one good line—which isn’t bad for the supporting cast; outside Nolte and Murphy, not many good lines in the film… you’d think with four screenwriters on it and at least three of them desperate to be iconic, there’d be some good lines thrown around.
Not really. In fact, when O’Toole gets hers’, it’s a surprise because it’s on the end of a bad conversation. The writing on O’Toole and Nolte is awful. Somehow they’re likable together, but not because of anything in the dialogue. Or maybe the scene where much shorter than Nolte O’Toole follows him down the hallway and it’s cute is an accident. 48 Hrs. is not successfully directed, so it’s hard to give Hill much credit other than keeping the trains running on time. Even if it does start really dragging at the end of the first hour, after Nolte and Murphy have just had a fistfight to kill time, followed by the threat of another fistfight.
So the movie opens with Sonny Landham breaking James Remar out of prison. He’s on a chain gang. Hill gets to pretend it’s Cool Hand Luke for a shot or two and the James Horner music is really, really good, but then things start to fall apart once Remar escapes and leaves a guard behind to call it in. The calling it in is a bunch of expository nonsense; 48 Hrs. frequently reminds of plot points in the first hour. It’s like the screenwriters were leaving notes for each other where to pick up. Not a smooth script. Not good dialogue script, not a smoothly paced script. Thank goodness for Eddie Murphy and Horner and cinematographer Ric Waite.
Nolte tags along on a routine call with Jonathan Banks, who’s great and sets a way too high standard for the cop acting in the movie, only they’re not prepared for Remar and Landham and Remar ends up with Nolte’s gun. So Nolte has to go get Eddie Murphy out of jail—Murphy and Remar used to do jobs together—so Murphy can help Nolte find Remar. That sequence of the film, outside Murphy’s introduction, isn’t good. It’s way too perfunctory and doesn’t do anything to transition affable tough jerk Nolte from the opening to the cruel racist who’s going to be berating Murphy for the next thirty or so minutes. If the film had just stuck to its convictions and had Nolte be as vocally racist as he appeared… it’d be taking a position on something. But those are questions for non-buddy cop movies so you get the laughs you can. The first turn for Nolte comes during Murphy’s big set piece in a redneck bar. It makes it seem like 48 Hrs. has its set pieces down… but then the fistfight in the streets because the guys are tired is a few scenes later and it’s clear the movie’s got no idea.
The second act ends with a bad chase sequence in a subway station, but at least Hill’s got to try because there’s so much going on, followed by a song montage with Murphy dancing with a girl and Nolte driving through San Francisco to meet him to kick off the third act, which quickly leads to a stole bus sequence, then there’s the big Chinatown finale. So much action. And all of it middling or worse.
During the Chinatown chase sequence, it’s obviously not the three editors’ fault—though earlier some things are definitely their faults—it’s Hill not knowing how to direct the sequence.
Hill’s… a peculiar director for the film. He’s humorless, he’s got terrible instincts with performances: Nolte’s never good, just more mediocre at times than bad, Remar’s disappointing, David Patrick Kelly’s annoying, Brion James’s annoying–Frank McRae’s yelling police captain is worth walking out of the movie on—other than Murphy… nobody’s actually good. McRae and James aren’t in the movie very much and shouldn’t able to mess it up, but they do. Banks and O’Toole get off easy with “too small” roles.
The James Horner score keeps it interesting for the first forty or so minutes, until the way the movie positions Murphy and Nolte gets a little more tolerable, Ric Waite’s photography is good enough in the first act you wonder what happened later on. There are a lot of obvious insert shots in 48 Hrs.—McRae doesn’t even appear to be in the same room with the other actors in his big scene—and they never match. Technically, 48 Hrs. asks for a lot of indulgence. The music’s not good enough to cover it all.
I mean, the San Francisco scenery does do quite a bit of the lifting. I’m not sure the movie could get away being so thin anywhere else.
It’s ostensibly a Nolte vehicle, which starts as a fine one, turns into a terrible one, but then turns into an adequate one for Murphy. Not all of Murphy’s scenes are good. Maybe a quarter of them fail. But the successful ones are big hits.