Comfortable and Furious

Starring Debuts #5: Eddie Murphy in 48 Hrs. (1982)

The pioneering brilliance of the ancient Greeks laid many of the foundations for Western civilization, producing great leaps forward in fields as diverse as philosophy and science.

For hundreds of years progress and innovation flourished until the curtain was violently brought down by the Romans.

What a shame.

Somehow, though, a cinephile like me finds the near-overnight deterioration of Eddie Murphy much sadder and more profound. Artistically, this guy fell off a cliff somewhere in the mid-80s and, as far as I know, is still falling. I can honestly say that watching him stumble through unforgivably cutesy dreck like 2003’s Daddy Day Care made me want to burst into tears.

What the hell happened?

This gifted stand up had lit up the screen with his sassy energy and enviable charisma. The undeniable star power, those in-your-face putdowns, that 2000-watt smile and distinctive hee-hee-hee laugh… Must all beauty die?

Apparently so.

But, believe me, his outrageous talent is on full display here as the temporarily released, sex-starved perp, Reggie Hammond. From the moment he’s introduced belting out an off-key jail rendition of The Police’s Roxanne, he’s literally on song.

Reggie wears a sharp suit while wielding an even sharper mouth. “I’ve been in prison for three years,” he tells his new police ‘partner’ Jack Cates (Nolte). “My dick gets hard if the wind blows.” When Jack tells him about his girl, he can’t resist a dig: “The generosity of women never ceases to amaze me, you know that?”

There’s just so much to love about Reggie, especially his flair for impersonations whether it be a pussy-hunting lawyer, a deferential southern black, an outraged husband or a needy child wanting a bedtime story.

But although he’s an expert bullshitter, he’s also cool under pressure and able to slug it out with a bigger man.

And then, of course, there’s his standout moment in a heaving hillbilly bar where Jack allows him to impersonate a cop.

“I don’t like white people,” he tells the seething, barely cowed customers. “I don’t like rednecks. You people are rednecks. That means I’m enjoying this shit… I’m your worst fucking nightmare. I’m a nigger with a badge.”

Credit must also be given to the gruff Nolte, who expertly plays off the debutant. They form a union akin to a hate-filled marriage, their constantly aggressive bickering filled with imminent violence. Indeed, they direct an amazing number of gratuitous insults at one another. Jack remains resolutely unimpressed by anything the ‘spear-chucker’ Reggie does, even though it’s obvious he’s resourceful, intelligent and brave. “You make more noise than a goddamned busted chainsaw” and “You’re just a crook on a weekend pass” are two of his more polite observations.

48 Hrs. is a rare old beast in that it succeeds as action flick and comedy, the two well-handled shootouts in its opening twenty minutes brilliant at hooking you in. Director Walter Hill (The Driver) displays a sure touch throughout, helped by a big, driving score. His villains might be 2-D, but at least they’re convincingly mean.

And as for the white/black dynamic at the heart of the movie, it’s obviously old hat now. Here, however, it feels fresh and vibrant. 48 Hrs. remains politically incorrect, foul-mouthed, and unashamedly a bloke’s movie in that women barely get a look in and when they do they’re usually in a state of undress.

And what’s wrong with that?

Eddie Murphy barely drew breath before he had another classic outing under his belt in Trading Places. He was also very good in Beverly Hills Cop, even if its final half-hour did slump into a disappointingly violent and unimaginative shootout. The rot set in with The Golden Child, although the fitfully amusing Coming to America suggested there was at least a little hope.

It wasn’t to be.

Still, although we don’t have any home movies of Socrates and Plato strutting their groundbreaking stuff, we shall forever have 48 Hrs. and Trading Places.

Be grateful, people.



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