This is especially important for two genres in particular. First and foremost is the Romantic Comedy, in which an audience is expected to buy into the notion that two characters are destined for each other in all matters of life and love, and that external forces either cannot or will not stand in between them. For this idea to actually stick, the viewer must believe that both actors are fully and truly attracted to each other; otherwise, what is there to root for? Successful examples of this throughout history include Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn (acerbic banter at its best), Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers (whose passion for each other often caused them to break out into elaborate dance numbers), and Hayden Christensen and Natalie Portman (I'm kidding).
The other genre which relies heavily on the chemistry of its co-stars is the Buddy Film, in which two characters from contrasting backgrounds are begrudgingly partnered together to face a common goal. At first they bicker and fight, as all people with conflicting personalities tend to do, but eventually they come to respect one another and even learn to embrace the differences between them. (It's the non-romantic equivalent of the Romantic Comedy.) The most famous of these big-screen pairings date all the way back to Laurel & Hardy and Abbott & Costello, and then trickle down through the decades, from Midnight Run to Thelma & Louise to The Shawshank Redemption.
For the "buddy cop" film, one of these men (or both) is, naturally, a police officer. And the movie most often credited with starting this trend is the Lawrence Gordon/Joel Silver-produced, Walter Hill-directed 48HRS. from 1982, starring Nick Nolte and Eddie Murphy. While that may be giving it too much credit (Norman Jewison's In The Heat Of The Night, after all, had already won the Academy Award for Best Picture fifteen years before), 48HRS. certainly helped set the template for all "buddy cop" films that came after it. The volatile back- and-forth banter, the nagging neglected girlfriend, the flustered police chief/captain who keeps warning the hero that he'd better straighten up and fly right or "it's your badge!" – it's all here. These oft-repeated clichés have been copied and recycled so many times since, as a matter of fact, that 48HRS. might actually seem old-hat to modern- day audiences.
Walter Hill, best known for his pared-down, laconic style of filmmaking (see 1975's The Driver or his 1980 Western The Long Riders for the best examples of this), plays it equally straight this time. There are zero directorial flourishes, the point-and-shoot photography by Ric Waite rarely calls attention to itself (there's an early, three-minute tracking shot through a squad room that is so matter-of-fact it's virtually unnoticeable), and there are no explosions – other than the deafening boom of gunfire on the soundtrack. And the movie itself is a fairly straight-forward police procedural for the most part, with Nick Nolte as grizzled police detective Jack Cates, on the trail of a brutal killer named Ganz (James Remar) who's just escaped from the chain gang. Then Eddie Murphy shows up and the movie basically catches fire.
Murphy plays Reggie Hammond, a fast-talking con man serving a three-year prison sentence for armed robbery. He's sitting in his jail cell when we first meet him, in sunglasses and warbling The Police's "Roxanne" in a slightly off-tune falsetto. Hammond had partnered with Ganz on a previous job, so Cates is forced to sign Reggie out for a two-day stint to help track the killer down. The friction between the two of them is instantaneous: Reggie doesn't trust cops (for obvious reasons), and Cates is slowly but surely revealed as a racist with a short fuse for anyone in his orbit, especially this hotshot black convict released under his care. (Cates: "Now, get this. We ain't partners, we ain't brothers, and we ain't friends. I'm putting you down and keeping you down until Ganz is locked up or dead. And if Ganz gets away, you're gonna be sorry you ever met me!" Reggie: "I'm already sorry.")
This escalating racial tension is what gives 48HRS. much of its edge today. Considering how Cates spends roughly half the movie calling Reggie names like "watermelon" and "nigger," I doubt you'd find anything like it getting a green light from a major studio in our current PC climate. (Even the more popular copycat extravaganzas from recent years, including the Lethal Weapon and Rush Hour series, feature bi-racial partnerships but make little mention of it.) Yet the screenplay by Hill, Roger Spottiswoode, Larry Gross and Steven E. de Souza never shies away from it, so that later, when Cates apologizes for his actions (he blames it on his job), Reggie's logical response is, "Well, doing your job don't explain everything, Jack."
The most famous scene in the movie - in which Reggie, on a wager from Cates, shakes down a crowded redneck bar for information on Ganz - is the apotheosis of this theme. It's probably not the rip-roaring laugh riot you expect - Reggie simply wades in through a sea of bigoted white faces, smashes a shot glass through the mirror behind the bar when he isn't shown the proper respect, and then proceeds to intimidate every man and woman in the place, until he gets what he's looking for. The scene is justly celebrated, I think, not because of how funny it is, but because of the way it showcased Eddie Murphy's innate ability to charge into a room and command everyone's attention. That he's a fish out of water gives the viewer a little something extra to root for; it's refreshing, after so much verbal abuse from Nolte, to see the little guy come out on top.
And so Eddie Murphy, Movie Star, announced himself to the world. There's a real sense of discovery here, an electricity to Murphy's performance that, sadly, would never be equaled again. Though his follow-up films (Trading Places and Beverly Hills Cop) were hits, the general consensus is that Eddie became too cool for the room - too busy being "Eddie Murphy" to take on projects that really mattered.
48HRS. matters, for the trends that it started, for the candid, non-jokey approach to its subject matter, and for the way it (supposedly) helped bridge the gap between blacks and whites in America. The chemistry between Nolte and Murphy is important too: like everything else in the movie, their prickly partnership set the tone for all buddy cop formulas that followed, though few have been quite as audacious or racially-tinged.
Let that be the lesson here: When pairing any two actors together, as buddies or romantic partners or what have you, make sure the differences between them are eclectic enough that they actually have something worth arguing about. And if you're lucky enough to bring those characters back for a sequel, make sure those differences are still relevant today.
The Original: 48HRS. (Walter Hill, 1982)
Cast: Nick Nolte, Eddie Murphy, James Remar, Sonny Landham, Annette O'Toole, David Patrick Kelly, Frank McRae, Brion James
Plot: A San Francisco police detective partners with a fast-talking criminal hustler to track down a brutal killer.
How It Set The Tone: A straight-forward police procedural for the most part, with little flash or show-off camera trickery from director Walter Hill. Then Eddie Murphy shows up (in his feature film debut), and elevates it to something higher. His volatile, racially-charged byplay with grizzled detective Nick Nolte gives the movie its edge, which may seem a bit dated to modern-day audiences. The film is also notable for introducing many plot elements of the "buddy cop" genre (bickering stars, neglected girlfriends, flustered police chiefs) which have long since become clichés.
Room For Improvement: If you've yet to see the movie, watch out: it's unapologetically smarmy and racist and profane, even by today's standards. A little more conscious style might have helped (and some conscious humor too), though the no-frills approach is typical of Hill's pared-to-the-bones iconography. And the Chinatown alley climax feels more like an afterthought, as if the screenwriters, like the characters themselves, were literally backed into a corner with no place else to go.
Sequel: Another 48 HRS. (Walter Hill, 1990)
Returning Cast: Eddie Murphy, Nick Nolte, Brion James
New Cast: Kevin Tighe, Ed O'Ross
Plot: A cop and an ex-convict are forced to team up again, after they've been targeted by a mysterious criminal mastermind known only as "The Ice-Man."
How It Compares: Not much has changed in the interim between the first movie and this – Murphy's name comes before Nolte's in the titles now, but that's about it. In fact, almost all of Another 48 plays like a remake rather than a sequel – entire sequences are lifted from the '82 version, with added "twists" for, you know, variety: Eddie warbles James Brown instead of The Police, there's a bus chase with motorcycles instead of Nolte's beat-up sky-blue Cadillac, Eddie shakes down another bar for information but winds up shooting someone in the leg, and there's a standoff at the end with Eddie used (again) as a human shield (though Cates's aim is a bit off the mark this time). Also, the climax is so comically over the top it borders on the ridiculous; I actually lost count of how many characters flew backwards through large panes of glass, after they'd been riddled with gunfire. As for the chemistry between Murphy and Nolte, the edge is gone. Their bickering back- and-forth defines the entire movie: empty and shallow, a shrill copy of the original.
More To Come?: There had been whispers of a third 48, after the second movie grossed over $80 million in U.S. box office sales. But Jack Cates and Reggie Hammond, for better or worse, would never partner together again. There's always hope, though, for the almighty remake or reboot.
Hungry for more Franchise Face-Offs? No problem! Click here, here, here, here, here, and here. This is, by the way, Part One of a Buddy Cop Face-Off - a sub-series leading up to Warner Bros.' Sherlock Holmes: A Game Of Shadows, due this December.