The best of the buddy-cop genre, I got a chance to watch this 1982 release last night with my boy. This was Eddie Murphy’s kinetic debut as hustler Reggie Hammond, released from prison for 48 hours under the brutal watch of Detective Jack Cates (Nick Nolte) to hunt for Hammond’s ex-partners, who have gone on a cop-killing spree in San Francisco. The film catapulted Murphy to stardom. It was also the first picture to feature a Saturday Night Live comedian in a raw, crime story.
The film holds up well. Murphy is very funny but he does not treat every scene as an opportunity to do a bit or schtick. Rather, he picks and chooses his moments, trusting in the story directed and mostly written by Walter Hill. He has one virtuoso scene, when he poses as a cop to roust a redneck bar, but even there, where he puts a knife to a man’s face and tells him, “I’m your worst fu***** nightmare, I’m a ni**** with a badge”, he is in keeping with the picture’s tough tenor. And Nolte’s Cates is brutal, unpleasant and an unrelenting racist, almost shockingly so, given our current advanced ethos. Given that we’re dealing with tough cops and criminals, the racial dynamic is not off-putting. It just adds to the tension.
I was also surprised by the gritty brutality of the movie. The body count is high, but rather than explosions and elegant slo-motion, Hill takes more of a Sam Peckinpah approach. The shootings are bloody and awkward, not stylized. And the bad guys – Albert Ganz (James Remar) and Billy Bear (Sonny Landham) – are scary bad.
James Horner’s original music (he’s been nominated 5 times and won for his scoring of Titanic) is apt, a moody mix of jazz and Asian chimes. Hill also uses San Francisco to his full advantage, mixing the grimy feel of Bullitt and Dirty Harry with a little early 80s glitz.
It has a few weaknesses. Annette O’Toole, for whom I have had my own weakness since Robby Benson’s One on One
is wasted as Cates’s suffering girlfriend. And the finale, where Cates and Hammond just “play a hunch.” is a bit lazy. Still, this is a solid crime picture.