A chain gang of prisoners are working on the railroad when a man pulls up in his truck and asks if he can get some water for it, after all they are in the middle of nowhere. Before the guards can answer one of the prisoners, Ganz (James Remar) has begun insulting the driver who is Native American, and he snaps, throwing himself at the convict and starting a brawl. But this has been subterfuge as the driver is actually Billy Bear (Sonny Landham), an old associate of Ganz's, and they shoot two guards before getting away - so who in the world can catch them?
How about a couple of mismatched individuals who grow to set aside their differences and team up and yeah, you've heard it all before, but with director Walter Hill's 48 Hrs he practically set in motion the whole buddy movie craze of the eighties, even contributing more to the genre himself in the coming years. The main bone of contention between our heroes this time was not that one was a slob while the other was a neat freak or anything in the comedy movies of the decades before this took its cue from might have gone for, but something more racial, as white cop Jack Cates (Nick Nolte) joins forces with black convict Reggie Hammond (Eddie Murphy).
This was Murphy's first movie after standing out as the sole bright spot in the disastrous Saturday Night Live revamp of the early eighties, and he was obviously those seasons' breakout star, landing in a role here that played to his wisecracking strengths but making him more cool and collected than Nolte's hard drinking, racist detective. If this looks hackneyed now after umpteen movies depicting the same kind of thing, it genuinely seemed revolutionary to audiences of the day and precisely what they wanted to see from their thrillers from then on, and sure enough other filmmakers took these premises further than they ever did here.
Often with farcical results as they tried to top what had gone before, so while here the bad guys show up in a bus for their rendezvous with the ex-member of their gang (David Patrick Kelly), and do indeed get into a chase with Cates and Hammond, this is over with in a matter of a minute. Contrast that with the use of the bus in Hill's Red Heat, where there are huge crashes and much pandemonium, all to give the audience the sense of spectacle that they felt was necessary to a night out at the movies, as here the actual climax was far lower key, not because they wanted to be subtle but because they hadn't realised that the bad guy falling off a skyscraper into an explosion was even better.
So watching 48 Hrs now you get the sense of a style in its nascent stages, not quite fully formed but accomplished enough to get by as what we would be expecting all these years down the line. It actually pitted two buddies against another pair, as Cates and Hammond, who was part of Ganz's gang before he was put away, note that it is in their best interests to catch him and Billy Bear, Cates because Ganz stole his gun during a shootout that went horribly wrong for him, and Reggie due to him knowing where the money they stole is, and wanting to keep it for himself. There were still aspects that didn't seem quite as slick as you imagine the filmmakers intended: Annette O'Toole as Cates' girlfriend has nothing to do but get angry at him, part of the atmosphere of antagonism where it's seemingly impossible to have a civil conversation, and the much vaunted salty and near the knuckle dialogue is less hilarious and more affected to shock, though whether it still does is a moot point. It is entertaining, but maybe more interesting for what it kicked off. Music by James Horner.