August 15, 2013

Hungover For A Surprisingly Racist 48 HRS.

"We ain't partners, we ain't brothers and we ain't friends."
Sometimes, whiskey gets the better of you.

I went out for a friend's birthday on a recent Friday night and after multiple shots of Jameson washed down with a few Jack and gingers, I eventually stumbled the fuck home and passed out in my empty apartment.  (Jamie was with her parents on Cape Cod.)  I woke up the next morning to discover that the power had gone out at some point in the night, which meant that my hot water heater had tripped a circuit and needed to be reset.  Of course I didn't figure this out until after I had taken a shower that could optimistically be described as lukewarm.  I gathered enough of my wits about me to roll solo to a birthday party for a friend's one year old, which was actually kinda great.  Since I didn't really know anyone else at the party except for the hosts, I pretty much just sat on the ground with the birthday boy and played with balloons.

I was home a few hours later and the afternoon had turned increasingly humid, so by that point I had used whatever slight reserve of energy I had left in me.  All I wanted to do was sit on my couch in my air conditioned living room and watch something amusing that required very little focus.  48 Hrs fit the bill perfectly.

It can sometimes be hard to remember these days, but young Eddie Murphy was one of the funniest motherfuckers alive.  His two standup specials, Raw and Delirious, are breathlessly entertaining, his work on Saturday Night Live is nothing short of legendary and his first handful of films include a string of comedy classics like Trading Places, Beverly Hills Cop and Coming To America, all of which rank among my favorite comedies of that era.  In fact, when it comes to young Eddie Murphy, there are really only two entries in his filmography that I've never gotten around to but really should have by now: The Golden Child and 48 Hrs.*  (Well, three if you also count Another 48 Hrs.)

I love me a good odd couple/buddy cop movie and the 80's was pretty much the golden era of that particular subgenre.  The more mismatched the pair, the more hilarious the hijinks that would ensue.  So a surly cop and a fast-talking criminal are already a match made in heaven, but when they're played by Nick Nolte and Eddie Murphy...holy shit!  Talk about the odd couple to beat all odd couples.  That literally sounds like the casting directors pulled two random names at out of a hat.  Throw in a smoking hot Annette O'Toole, the huge black guy from *batteries not included as the angry black police lieutenant plus classic "that guy" James Remar as a greasy psycho in a crocheted tank top?  48 Hrs has all the makings of greatness and it does not disappoint, delivering both great action and sharp comedy in equal doses.  Director Walter Hill was coming off his amazing The Warriors, and he hasn't lost a step here.  The gunshots sound like cannon blasts and everything's staged with a great energy that keeps the action moving at a brisk pace.  Just watch the first scene at the police headquarters: there are a hundred moving pieces around the periphery with Nolte dropping in and out of conversations to get the relevant bit of information and then moving on to the next person while shouting at others off screen, and it's all captured in one long, wonderful shot.  It drags a bit in the second half, but my hungover ass appreciated the chance to zone out a bit for a while.  It's worth noting that 48 Hrs was Eddie Murphy's first movie and it's easy to see how this launched his meteoric rise to stardom.  Not only is he incredibly funny, but you can see there's a real depth to his Reggie Hammond, who can flip from goofball to smooth operator to hard-nosed badass all in the blink of an eye.  Anyone who had seen his work on SNL knew that Murphy was funny, but 48 Hrs really shows off his remarkable range as a performer.  Watching it now only makes the current state of Murphy's career all the more depressing.

But what really threw me for a loop was how completely, off the charts unconcerned the movie is with any kind of political correctness.  The characters do and say things that you could never get away with in a major studio release these days, and what's more there's a casualness to it all; over the course of 96 minutes, Nick Nolte calls Murphy pretty much every racial slur in the book and nobody bats an eye.  I'm not exaggerating here - at one point the word "spearchucker" comes into play.  It can be easy to forget just how far we've come in the past 30 years, but 48 Hrs places that difference in stark relief.  As much as we'd like to believe that institutionalized racism is no longer a reality, nothing could be further from the truth - just ask black voters in Texas or anyone in New York who's fallen victim to the NYPD's odious stop-and-frisk program. But even still, if a movie character today spoke the way that Nolte's Jack Cates does, he'd instantly be classified by audience members as a villain, or at least as an asshole that shouldn't be rooted for.  Today's film heroes don't call black men "watermelon", even if they are talking to a criminal.  When I showed Jamie The Warriors a few months back, she had a real problem with the way the characters treated the film's women.  In that case there's a reason - the Warriors are a gang of hoodlums, so they're not really supposed to be lovable characters.  They can be assholes and that's okay because it fits within their role as lawless thugs.  But after seeing 48 Hrs, I'm now honestly starting to wonder if this is just a thing with Walter Hill.  Was he actually a misogynist with no ear for racial sensitivity?  Or is this kind of behavior just a symptom of the times?  It's hard to say, but regardless it's almost impossible to ignore, like the way characters in movies like Midnight Run used to smoke cigarettes in restaurants and on planes.  I'm going to watch Another 48 Hrs this weekend and that was released in 1990.  I'm curious to see if there are any major tonal shifts as a result of the eight years that passed between films.

Either way, I think I'll try that one sober.

*In all honesty, I've seen the two most memorable clips in the movie, Murphy singing Roxanne in the prison cell and the "nigger with a badge" scene in various clip shows and TV specials, but that's about it. 

Title: 48 Hrs.
Director: Walter Hill
Starring: Nick Nolte, Eddie Murphy, James Remar, Annette O'Toole, David Patrick Kelly, Sonny Landham, Frank McRae
Year Of Release: 1982
Viewing Method: Netflix Instant

1 comment:

  1. Cates doesn't like Reggie and thinks he can use racial slurs because Reggie is a thief and a prisoner. Eventually a mutual respect develops between them. Another 48HRS. makes it seem like these guys never knew each other in the first place...a watchable yet unnecessary sequel.