THE EDDIE MURPHY PROJECT: “96 HOURS”
It’s hard to consider the current state of Eddie Murphy, working actor, without eulogizing the man. To consider what he is now necessitates grappling with what he once was. Eddie now exists in a uniquely millennial state of purgatory. Kids must think of him as the Donkey from Shrek, the guy who used to make family movies with unbelievably shitty premises. The diehards such as myself keep waiting for the moment when Eddie drops his guard, lets go of his bitterness and ego and lets us back in. Will a prestige director emerge with the perfect part, a specifically written renaissance? A Pryor bio-pic? Another cameo like his heartbreaking work in Dreamgirls that will finally give him the Academy cred he needs to crawl back onto the popular stage? Can Brett Ratner make a movie that doesn’t suck?
After the characteristically withdrawn, frustrating non-appearance on the SNL 40th Anniversary Special that should’ve been his coronation, and the Monday morning speculation that followed, I spent a lot of time thinking about Eddie and his legacy. These days the talk mostly seems to focus on Eddie the personality. Eddie as a symbol of faded glory and talent gone to seed, a projection of potential who could be great again if he could just compartmentalize his shit and embrace his greatness.
I don’t know about you, but I’m tried of waiting for the Eddie Murphy I grew up with to rise from the ashes. I decided to go back and spend some time with the actual work. Jokes from Raw and Delirious live on as punchline fodder for rappers. As we’ll discuss at some point, Trading Places will live forever as a mandatory once a month viewing. But I think while we all remember how big Eddie was, we tend to forget how important his specific vehicles became to popular cinema over the course of the past 30 years.
The purpose of the Eddie Murphy Project will be to revisit Eddie’s great works of the 80s and 90s, perhaps even delve into a film or two from the aughts, to pinpoint their place in culture, the footprint they left, their performances in context to Eddie’s personal evolution as a black man who became the world’s biggest movie star in the Reagan’s America. It will be a critical reading of his incredible run of blockbusters, a conversation about genre, representation and race. Let’s start at the beginning with 48 HRS. and it’s sequel. — Abe Beame
Besides being Eddie Murphy’s big screen debut, 48 HRS. remains a landmark film. It remixed the action flick by injecting a seductive blend of breezy humor and fun into what had been a stark, joyless, masculine blood sport. It invented the “Buddy Cop” genre and its footprint on popular American genre film can still be felt today. Eddie has a lot to do with this innovation, but it’d be wrong to give him all the credit.
Walter Hill likes to say that all his films are Westerns. He was a master stylist of bleak and spare thrillers, like his peer Michael Mann, or his spiritual heir Nicolas Winding Refn. His early films play like bloody zen koans, contemporary samurai flicks. Coming off the triumph that was The Warriors, he was enlisted to rework a Southern kidnapping noir that involved a cop getting an old cell mate out of jail to help him catch the bad guys. That idea became the seed for 48 HRS. The changes Hill made to the original premise are instructive.
Both films in the series start outside a city in barren California plains and foothills, harkening back to the Wild West and its outlaws. This is where we meet an outlaw named Billy, and later, his brother. They’re two beasts without moral code or compunction. Billy’s escape and his brother’s quest for vengeance are the drive behind both movies, demanding a force of good to intervene.
The original setting was moved from Louisiana to San Francisco, one of the all-time great noir cities. It’s the city of Sam Spade and Dirty Harry. This is important when we meet Jack Cates, a heavy-drinking self-destructive cop living on a hard edge of cynicism. He’s played by Nick Nolte, delivering his dialogue almost exclusively through a series of grouchy monosyllabic grunts. Nolte is the classic cop with authority issues. He is compelled to catch bad guys, not by any hero’s morality, but an egotistical superiority complex—A sense of indignation that some schmuck would dare match wits with him.
For thirty minutes 48 HRS. is very much in the tradition of the hardboiled thrillers from the 70s, including Hill’s own directorial debut with Charles Bronson, Hard Times. Our two villains Billy Ganz and his Indian sidekick get a surprising amount of screen time. Nolte pursues, shots are fired and cops die. Then, Walter Hill takes us to jail.
From the moment we meet Reggie Hammond, in a prison cell furnished like a rich man’s den as he sings “Roxanne” off-key, it’s clear 48 HRS. is taking us on a different trajectory than the classic “Cop v. Crook” pot boiler. Murphy’s Reggie Hammond is confident and suave, paired with his opposite in Nolte. It’s almost too on-the-nose symbolically that the role of Reggie Hammond was intended for Murphy’s idol, Richard Pryor. By the time the film was ready to cast, Pryor was already one of the biggest and most controversial stars in Hollywood. He passed on it, as did Gregory Hines. Murphy’s agent lobbied Hill to give the role to his twenty year old client, coming off his first year at Saturday Night Live.
Hill liked to pit stoic, manly heroes with brash loud mouths. It’s a dynamic he employed in both Hard Times and The Driver. The idea is that the contrast paints a silent hero as wise and disciplined, infusing what little dialogue he has with import. The yappy sidekick allows him to remain silent. In the duo of Nolte and Murphy he found a new wrinkle. Reggie Hammond is more than an annoying foil, he pushes Cates, justifiably calls him on his bullshit, and crucially, he’s very funny. He’s also black.
Hill has said a crucial component, and main misunderstanding of the Buddy Cop genre, is that Jack Cates and Reggie Hammond were not buddies. These two men did not like each other. They refer to each other in the first film as “cop” and “convict” when Cates isn’t calling Hammond “watermelon” or “n******.”
The two men are very different, dysfunctional in their own ways. Cates is highly unlikeable, a gruff asshole unconcerned with his appearance. He cares about little besides drinking and rendering justice on his terms. Hammond is a low-level slime ball, confident, composed and personable, but always playing an angle, and not a particularly good thief. By virtue of a shared mission, a slow warming process, and some very convenient turns of character delivered via lazy screenwriting, the two forge a mutual respect by the end of the film. This is a dichotomy Billy Wilder himself would approve of, and it was revolutionary.
48 HRS. wasn’t the first action comedy. Lucas and Spielberg had begun playing with comedic-action epics during this era, and there have been elements of humor in noir since its inception. But often, the pithy observations of the detective are more sad than amusing, a joke on top of a reservoir of sadness. Most of the older films that fit into the hyphenated “Action-Comedy” genre tended more towards lighthearted comedy. The carnage was often cartoonish. 48 HRS. is properly rated R. Eddie Murphy was the first true comedian who found himself mixed into a film with such graphic violence. The film doesn’t quite nail tone. Characters are underdeveloped, the humor hasn’t aged well, and the plot is undercooked and often blatantly advanced by peripheral characters showing up for a scene to spout exposition. But the mixture in tones was a potent cocktail that would go on to inspire a generation of filmmakers who would improve on the idea, and none of them would have Eddie Murphy.
There is no scene in the film too dire for Murphy not to play for laughs. San Francisco’s long and ugly history of racial segregation is practically a character in both films. Cates and Hammond visit the same two bars in each—one is an all white honky tonk, the other a black juke joint. In the first film, there’s a key early scene in the honky tonk that displays the trademark comedic tone breaking through an extremely tense situation. It’s also an introduction to the Eddie Murphy character that will captivate us for the next 20 years.
The bar is draped in confederate flags, filled with dudes in cowboy hats. A woman wearing wool chaps, nipple pasties and nothing else dances on stage next to a band with a fiddle player. It’s a Saloon straight out of Leone, ripe for a throw down. Armed with nothing but a fake license and his wits, Murphy quickly pushes back against the racial hostility in the room, forcibly taking control of the situation by rebuking the easy, cowardly racism of a bartender who is stonewalling and shocking the crowd to attention by beating up three redneck toughs. He isn’t phased by racial epithets and returns the scorn, loudly professing a dislike for white people as he easily owns the room. It’s the empowerment expressed by the superheroes in Blaxploitation films inserted into something closer to resembling a real world, and it was absent from major motion pictures at the time. Take a moment and google “Movies 1980” (or 81, or 82) if you want an idea of how whitewashed commercial American cinema was at the time.
“But as far as critical response to Another 48 HRS, I thought the movie was alright. And after doing a movie that was received both commercially and critically as Harlem Nights was [laughs], after doing a picture that was viewed as a shitty movie, I should have done a movie that was great as opposed to a movie that was alright.” — Eddie Murphy, SPIN, 1990.
Another 48 HRS. is included in this piece because while it was a pale derivative of the original, it contains several credits the first film did not. It came eight years after the release of the first. By 1990, Eddie Murphy was arguably the biggest movie star in the world. He gets a story credit, and it was produced by Eddie Murphy productions. He received a slight raise from the first film, in which he made $450,000 to Nolte’s million. This time around, he made nine million to Nolte’s three.
As a result, the first film’s two hander, in which Murphy plays scene-stealing second banana, is replaced by an Eddie Murphy star vehicle. Hammond is given the best lines and almost never sacrifices control in the picture. In what will become a recurring theme in Murphy’s films, much of the racial humor has been replaced by shameless misogyny. In this manner, his art would increasingly mirror his career choices.
By 1990 Murphy was already in retreat coming off the failure that was Harlem Nights (Which of course, we will be discussing in depth). The extremely negative experience had broken him. He was grappling with his limitations as a talent, finding little patience or ability to write or direct. he had finally gotten the opportunity to work with his idol, Richard Pryor, on that doomed project. But rather than finding a kindred spirit to collaborate with, he had found a diminished, bitter old man, showing up to read his lines and collect his paycheck, but resentful of Eddie and his fame. It broke Eddie’s heart.
Murphy was convinced the government was bugging his house, that every piece of negative press was racially motivated, that the entire world was waiting to see him fail. He responded by playing it safe. Another 48 HRS. was the movie he made immediately after Harlem Nights. It was a hit, even with middling reviews, but as a career choice, it’s not hard to see it as a regression to the womb.
It’s a tricky thing, gauging the canonical value of action comedies. There are no AFI lists to reference, box office is temporal and relative, crowd sourcing sites like IMDb and Rotten Tomatoes are so inclusive the lines of genre blur to the point of invisibility. My person impression is successors to 48 HRS. such as the Lethal Weapon series, Die Hard, and Men In Black are more readily recalled and fondly remembered. When people discuss the 48 HRS. films it’s in relation to Murphy, the first time they’d seen him. It’s a shame, because Walter Hill’s films had a grittiness and tension, not just in action, but in how the protagonists related to one another, that was homogenized and made more palatable for a broader audience by subsequent stabs at the formula. Comparing 48 HRS. to its friendlier offspring leaves me wanting for something just a touch more provocative. Like a prisoner in barcalounger, behind bars but in his element singing The Police off key, unconcerned with expectation or convention, ready to take over the world.