Thursday, August 5, 2010

Film Review: 48 HRS. (1982, Walter Hill)

Stars: 4 of 5.
Running Time: 96 minutes.
Tag-line: "When a tough cop has a cool convict as a partner and 48 hrs to catch a killer, a lot of funny things can happen in . . . 48 HRS."
Notable Cast or Crew: Nick Nolte, Eddie Murphy, James Remar (QUIET COOL, THE WARRIORS), Brion James (BLADE RUNNER, RED HEAT), Peter Jason (THEY LIVE, JOHNNY HANDSOME), Chris Mulkey (QUIET COOL, TWIN PEAKS), Annette O' Toole (CAT PEOPLE, STEPHEN KING'S IT), David Patrick Kelly (THE WARRIORS, TWIN PEAKS, COMMANDO), Frank McRae (RED DAWN, LOCK UP), Ola Ray (Female lead in the THRILLER music video), Marcelino Sánchez (THE WARRIORS, HILL STREET BLUES).
Best one-liner: "Who GIVES a goddamn what YOU like? You're just a crook on a weekend pass! You're not even a goddamn NAME anymore! You're just a spearchucker with a number stencilled on the back of his prison fatigues! And I'm through fuckin' around. You tell me the truth or you're gonna get the living shit beat outta you." (said by Nick Nolte)

Often cited as as the first of the buddy cop films– a label which I find contentious, given that films like BUSTING and FREEBIE AND THE BEAN were being released almost a decade earlier– 48 HRS. is nonetheless a fine entry into the genre. It began life as an idea from producer Lawrence Gordon (PREDATOR, DIE HARD), who wanted to make a film which involved a time limit (48 hours), a kidnapping, and a cop temporarily springing a convict to aid in the investigation. The concept underwent several iterations with additions made by Roger Spottiswoode (TURNER & HOOCH), Larry Gross (STREETS OF FIRE, TRUE CRIME), Steven E. de Souza (DIE HARD, COMMANDO, HUDSON HAWK), and Walter Hill himself. The end result is a little STRAY DOG here, a little COOL HAND LUKE there, and a proper sprinkling of THE FRENCH CONNECTION and DIRTY HARRY. Initial casting would have placed Clint Eastwood and Richard Pryor in the lead roles, which I'm guessing could have made this film something like BLUE COLLAR meets EVERY WHICH WAY BUT LOOSE, and I can't decide whether or not that would be brilliant or a train wreck. But the cast which Judith Holstra (who also cast such great ensemble pieces as EXTREME PREJUDICE and RENT-A-COP) finally put together is one of the best in 80's action cinema: Nick Nolte, Eddie Murphy, James Remar, Brion James, Sonny Landham, Frank McRae, Peter Jason, and David Patrick Kelly, to name a few.

Now the plot's fairly by-the-numbers, the action scenes and chase setpieces are far from being the best in Hill's filmography, and Brion James spends the movie stuck behind a desk

Brion James a good guy behind a desk- really?!

-so why does 48 HRS. still stand apart from the pack? Well, allow me to try and explain:

#1. James Remar is fucking insane.

To play our villain, the recently escaped jailbird Albert Ganz, James Remar deprived himself of sleep to nail that crazy-eyed, paranoid, 'walking dead' look. And by God does he succeed.

Whether watching cartoons, jostling innocents, wandering around anxiously in a tank top, or gunning down cops as his mouth contorts in all of its gap-toothed-gaping-maw glory– Remar is spooky-good.

Also, he wears a crucifix earring:

And I'm pretty sure he had a real piercing- see also: HOMEBODIES.

#2. 'Non compos mentis' is Latin for Sonny Landham.

He's been a porn star, a Kentucky politician, a proponent of genocide against Arabs, and is so goddamned nuts that he needed a bodyguard on the set of PREDATOR to protect Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jesse Ventura, and Carl Weathers... from HIM. Look at him cackling with that hunting knife. Is that acting? I'm not sure we can say for sure. But in the context of 48 HRS., as James Remar's number two, this hate-mongering psychopath is just what the doctor ordered. Also, his character is named Billy– is he the same character from PREDATOR, but in an alternate universe?

#3. Which brings me to... David Patrick Kelly... as Luther?!

He's come a long way since "War-ree-yoors...COME OUT AND PLAY-YEE-YAY!," but I guess he survived and was reborn as a cheap punk under the thumb of Ajax who apparently made it to the west coast as well. Preposterous WARRIORS conjecture aside: David Patrick Kelly really dives into the role and it fits quite well into his rogue's gallery of diminutive sleazes that he's played over the years.

And as a side note, I really need to pick up his album one of these days.

#4. Nick Nolte clobbering the shit out of David Patrick Kelly, and possibly for real.

You get the feeling that DPK is a real trouper and was probably injured for real what with the amount of slamming into pavement and car doors and all-around manhandling and neck-twisting that occurs within this scene. (But I'm sure that he was so committed that he didn't even complain.)

#5. Nick Nolte always wakes up with a hangover even when he hasn't had a drop to drink. Except for those 40 beers and a bottle of vermouth and oh dear God how did it come to that.

#6. James Horner's score. Horner (COMMANDO, ALIENS, WILLOW, AVATAR, THE NEW WORLD, TITANIC) has done his fair share of big budget actioners, and he certainly doesn't disappoint. But this leads me to an anecdote. Lately- and I'm not too proud to admit this– I've been doing a fair amount of listening to the COMMANDO (1985) soundtrack. It's kind of the superlative action soundtrack. Heavy brass, oppressive reverb-heavy kettle drums, nasty synthesized zithers, and some tropical flutes and steel drums for that Latin American flavor. On top of all this is a wailin' sax worthy of John Lurie which interjects breezy, squawkin' grooves with some amount of frequency. There's even some sentimental strings in there, too (for Alyssa Milano's character- I think her name was "Chenny"). Annyway, the point of my story is that every element that makes up the COMMANDO soundtrack makes sense- Latin American flourishes, a tropical vibe, an underscoring of father/daughter schmaltz. Now it had been some time since I had seen 48 HRS., so you can imagine my surprise to find that it basically has the exact same soundtrack as COMMANDO, give or take a few transpositions and subtle melodic shifts! I'll bet he thought no one would notice his self-plagiarization- but at least it makes thematic sense in the revisit. A fine action soundtrack (on both occasions).

#7. Ric Waite's hazy cinematography.

Ric Waite (RED DAWN, COBRA, OUT FOR JUSTICE) generally injects just the proper amount of creative lighting effects to make his images pop without overwhelming the bare-knuckled, no-frills stories they usually accompany. He knows the genres and directors that he works with well (from Milius to Hill to Flynn to Cosmatos), and he knows he ain't workin' with Bertolucci, Antonioni, or Ken Russell. His work on 48 HRS. can be described as 'evocatively smoggy.' You feel the grime and the haze and the heat of California as washed-out daytime earth tones are replaced at night by neon and twirling police flashers. It's a vivid imagining, and you really feel the stifling sense of what it must be to exist beneath the sweaty, grubby belly of the Golden State. Hollywood, of course has a rich history of depicting this sort of thing, and it can be seen in everything from John A. Alonzo's work on CHINATOWN (1974) to Robby Müller's on TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A. (1985) and beyond.

#8. The delightfully brutish way with which Nolte pronounces the word "bullshit." It's like it takes on a life of its own.


See also: Nolte's exclamation "My ass bleeds for ya!" and his assertion "You been dickin' me around since we started this turd hunt."

#9. A bit part by Chris Mulkey (Hank Jennings on TWIN PEAKS) as a patrolman.

I wonder if he and Remar became buddies, because he shows up again in QUIET COOL.

#10. Eddie Murphy's notorious starmaking scene in the redneck bar.

It's hyped up to no end, but it's still a great scene. And it's refreshing to see the raw talent of Murphy, years before he became intoxicated by his own self-importance. He tosses off lines like "Sit your country ass down, man!" with aplomb, and we suspend our disbelief that Murphy could singlehandedly rough up an entire bar of brawny (presumably racist) yokels because he commands– no, demands the viewer's attention, so much so, that you exist purely in the moment with him. You're caught up in the sheer masterpiece of bullshit that his character is constructing, and it's a joy to watch.

(And watch for John Carpenter-favorite Peter Jason as the back-talkin' hayseed bartender.)

Four stars.

-Sean Gill

6. BLIND FURY (1989, Philip Noyce)
7. HIS KIND OF WOMAN (1951, John Farrow)
8. HIGH SCHOOL U.S.A. (1983, Rod Amateau)
9. DR. JEKYLL AND MS. HYDE (1995, David Price)
11. 1990: BRONX WARRIORS (1982, Enzo G. Castellari)
12. FALLING DOWN (1993, Joel Schumacher)
13. TOURIST TRAP (1979, David Schmoeller)
14. THE THREE MUSKETEERS (1973, Richard Lester)
15. BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA (1986, John Carpenter)
16. TOP GUN (1986, Tony Scott)
17. 48 HRS. (1982, Walter Hill)
18. ...


Anonymous said...

Lotta Nolte content in the last few months- amen to that. You see the Nolte interview of Nolte on Sundance on Monday?

Unknown said...

Yeah, I saw that doc. It was pretty messed up but great to see Powers Boothe sing Nolte's praises.

Love 48 HRS. as it is definitely one of Walter Hill's high points. Great tough guy dialogue, vintage Nolte lookin all burnt out as only he can. I found Remar and Landlam's characters genuinely scary and feared for our heroes in this one. Ah, back in the day when Hollywood baddies actually constituted a threat! But then this a Walter Hill film we're talking 'bout, here and he always goes for it.

I also thought Annette O'Toole was good (and pretty sexy if memory serves) as Nolte's long-suffering girlfriend.

You might also want to check out the film's entry on Wikipedia. There are links to Larry Gross' production diaries for the film which make for fascinating reading.

Sean Gill said...


Damn! Somehow, I was not aware of this. Is it on DVD?

Upon researching it further, I somehow stumbled upon this 3D image of Nick Nolte's heart:


Powers Boothe, too?! I'm really kicking myself now.

Remar and Landham are truly insane in this, and you're right- there's a palpable danger at play there. As far as Walter Hill villains go- maybe only outdone by Boothe and Ironside in EXTREME PREJUDICE? (Though, stylistically, the Baseball Furies garner a lot of points, as does Lance Henriksen's psychotic turn in the otherwise kiiinda mediocre JOHNNY HANDSOME.)

Annette O'Toole is indeed pretty solid- I've always enjoyed her work since I saw her in CAT PEOPLE.

It was nice to revisit this film- I hadn't seen it in maybe 5-8 years, and when I first saw it, I'm pretty sure I didn't know James Remar by name.

Those Larry Gross production diaries look pretty damn interesting- I'm gonna start sifting through them forthwith!

Sean Gill said...

Just finished reading Larry Gross' production diaries- fascinating! Everything from Hill/Gross' literary tastes (I didn't really imagine the brains behind 48 HRS. discussing Tolstoy and Samuel Johnson(!), though Hill slamming Antonioni and Godard and Gross championing them certainly makes sense) to the mostly unflattering portraits of Remar and Landham to the logistics of the shoot to Eddie Murphy's increasing comfort levels (and levels of performance) to the theoretical Hill vs. Spielberg rivalry which finds Hill comparing himself to Hawks and Spielberg to Victor Fleming– candid, captivating reading. Thanks, J.D.!

Anonymous said...

Awesome write up, like the rest of your reviews.

Where is the review for COMMANDO!?


Unknown said...


Glad ya dug those 48 HRS. diaries. I figured you would. What's even more maddening is that Gross hints at ones for STREETS OF FIRE in his last installment. Man, I hope he publishes those!

From his writings, it sounded like a crazy shoot and I don't think I would ever want to meet Landham in person after reading 'em but maybe he's mellowed over the years?

Sean Gill said...


Thank you- and I wouldn't be surprised if you got your fill of "CHENN-Y!" sometime in the near future...


STREETS OF FIRE diaries would certainly be welcome. Less juicy, but likely interesting would be Hill's GERONIMO or Eastwood's TRUE CRIME, but I don't know if he was actually on set for those.

As for Sonny mellowing, er, read this 2008 radio interview transcript and tell me what you think- yikes!: