Released in 2013, Now You See Me was a modest success. Modern Hollywood’s terror of new ideas led to a sequel being commissioned. The inevitable title, ‘Now You Don’t’…was rejected, in favour of the more prosaic Now You See Me 2. I doubt that this decision was made lightly. Creatives and accountants sat around for days debating the accessibility and profitability of various potential titles. What to choose? The simplicity of the simple 2. Follow that 2 with a colon and a subtitle to set out the increased threat facing the hero. Choose instead a Part 2 to suggest it was all one big story planned out from the start. Try a 2 for utter incoherence.
In the early nineties, mainstream American cinema was awash with sequels. Ever since the success of Rocky II (and its subsequent, and superior, follow-ups throughout the eighties), studios started to place emphasis on rehashing and reheating successful films as much as establishing new ideas. This is not an unfamiliar situation to us in 2016, but the sheer amount of sequels (and they were strictly sequels, rather than very slightly more interesting mix of sequels, prequels and reboots we currently experience) would have been unusual to the contemporary viewer. Die Hard 2, Predator 2 and Robocop 2 all hit screens during 1990. Every single one of them is an inferior (though the first two in the aforementioned list are not without their own charms) take on a superb original idea.
Another 48 Hrs. is not an exception to this series of disappointing sequels. The title in itself suggests the unpromising potential of the film we are about to watch. Another 48 Hrs. Another one. There will be no twist on the original film, no new, more dangerous enemy to oppose our heroes. This will be another. A retread of something you used to love.
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In 1982, straight-talkin’ Walter Hill was coming off a consistently strong run of movies. Following on from his directorial debut Hard Times (1975), Hill created a series of movies exploring the remnants of American masculine identity. He applied the principles of Melvillian autonomy to the car chase in The Driver (1978), captured the horror of the hollowness of male bluster and arrogance in Southern Comfort (1981) and documented the dangerous cultural tensions of seventies New York in his fantastical The Warriors (1979). It’s a run of quality films that is rarely commented upon, especially when their influence was extensive. Although Hill is quick to define every one of his films as a Western, he was keen explore his understanding of the impotence of an individual’s resilience and integrity within as many different situations as possible. His films are knuckle-dusting direct; he was a key figure in realising that the straight-forward, all-American hero was obsolete. He had until this point explored the limits of traditional heroism, demonstrating to America what it was no longer capable of. But with 48 Hrs. (and his crucial contributions to Alien) Hill redefined heroism, identifying a new kind of leading actor.
Eddie Murphy started filming 48 Hrs. several weeks into production. He was busy with his day job – saving Saturday Night Live from cancellation. Dormant and dismal, SNL was a shadow of its former self, barely suitable, let alone not ready, for prime time. But Murphy swept onto the 1980 season, full of charm, piercing insight and an ease in front of the camera that most actors fail to come within a hair’s breadth of. 48 Hrs. was his movie debut…and quickly identified him as a star. He would begin a career of mainstream comedy hits, stand-up films and the occasional action picture that employed his star power to the fullest. A smile from Eddie Murphy was worth the ticket price alone.
Murphy embodied chaos. There was a danger to his performances, as if the screen could not contain him. The populist white audience was confronted with a black movie star who was unprepared to be their clown, and somewhat surprisingly, they found this quality enormously attractive. All great movie stars trade upon their innate likeability; a quality they apply to every role they take on. Murphy not only had likeability, he had adulation. He was not an actor who you wanted to meet, he was an actor that you wanted to form some form of organised religion around.
48 Hrs. is a defiantly distinctive film in its apparent uncommercial intentions. Despite being a movie where the appeal lies entirely in the interplay between its two leads, the movie has an astonishing visual style, full of hazy neon lights reflected in pools of rain upon the floor. It is uncompromising (and wince-inducing) in the overt racism and violence of Nick Nolte’s white police officer. But from the moment we see Eddie Murphy’s Reggie Hammond, oblivious to everything apart from his desire to wail along loudly to ‘Roxanne’, we see Murphy’s chaos captured on celluloid. There is a scene in a redneck bar where Hammond turns around every implicit and explicit threat and presents himself as the most dangerous man in the room. His blackness corrupts and terrifies the small-minded safety of the racism that is thick in the air. Murphy was never a safe actor.
The film launched a sub-genre of movie known as the ‘buddy-cop’ cop movie. Two individuals, quite unalike (one would usually be straight-laced, the other a complete mess), would be forced together to pursue some maguffin or other. Hilarity would ensue. At their best, buddy-cop movies capture the level of weariness that can come from spending too much time with another person. The level of comfort we experience in our most meaningful relationships slips into petty snips, as we irritate each other just to ease our own boredom. The bonds of friendship are deep, and often forgive the frustration we can feel after letting other people into our lives. Buddy cop movies just add a car chase of a varying level of quality. Almost instantly, this sub-genre would become a regular feature of the picture house.
Murphy himself would star in a number of these films, most significantly Beverly Hills Cop and its sequel. These particular films build upon the success of 48 Hrs. and present Murphy as a figure of chaos, not just to a single partner, but to whole city, cops, criminals and civilians alike. Beverly Hills Cop II is notable for building upon the neon beauty of 48 Hrs. as Tony Scott began his devotion to exploring montage and the kaleidoscope of abstract images within mainstream American cinema.
But being a movie star is an expensive business, and the star can begin to dim very quickly once it has a few flops. For most stars the issue with their careers is that their choice of movie becomes determined by size of the paycheck and not from any intrinsic artistic value. Matt Damon wants a nice house and a nice car and a nice suit…so he has to make Elysium rather than anything of actual worth.
In the late eighties, Eddie Murphy needed to continue his lifestyle and Walter Hill was quickly losing his quicksilver touch. 48 Hrs. had been followed by the quite unique Streets of Fire, which attempted to push the neon-lit danger of its predecessor’s bar scene into a full length feature. With songs by Jim Steinman. It is a wonderful film, unusual in the simplicity of its heart-on-its-sleeve emotion, but few would agree with me. The proposed trilogy that would follow it never materialised. Walter Hill was still working regularly (including a stint directing the Arnold Schwarzenegger buddy-cop picture Red Heat), but his immaculate run was broken, and he needed to recapture his magic touch. What better vehicle for this than a sequel to his most influential film, where his breakout actor was now one of the most bankable stars in cinema?
What could possibly go wrong?
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Another 48 Hrs. opens like a Western. The eighties had been an especially fallow period for the genre, and we were a few years away from its totemic revival in Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven (1992). So we know that we’re watching a film quite out-of-sync with current movie trends. But Hill had a crush on Westerns (his movies often featured a stranger coming into town to solve an unsolvable problem), and the opening to his anticipated sequel builds tension through sideways glances, silence and vast, cruel landscapes. The shadow of Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) hangs over the sequence, almost casting it into darkness. Incidental characters are blown away. Violence streaks the screen.
But we didn’t turn up to see a Western. We’re here to see Murphy (and to a far lesser degree, Nolte). Sequels have it easier in that there is no need to establish character; but they often lack the ability to surprise, so eager the audience is to return to the world they have longed to see. In the early nineties, movies were only just beginning to understand that going to the cinema itself was not the be-all-and-end-all. VHS and television were starting to strangle the screen, and movies could no longer be taken on their own terms, especially a sequel. Nolte lumbers into frame; everything is alright.
Nick Nolte is a curious screen presence. He resembles a fist holding a piece of ham that has learned to speak. The 48 Hrs. films put him to good use. He is intimidating and inhuman. As an actor he was the only individual who could match the danger of Eddie Murphy. But whereas Murphy’s danger came from the grin that reminded you he could tear this whole industry apart, Nolte’s danger was simply that he would drunkenly say something inappropriate.
By 1990, the casual (and piercing) racism that spikes the first film is no longer acceptable. Murphy has been prominent in his insistence that the black actor will not be subservient to the film industry. But Another 48 Hrs. fails to capture the mounting anger that black people were feeling in America, especially to an institutionally racist police force. That tension could have driven a film forward. But Nolte is diluted, and this denies Murphy the white predator he needs to undermine and usurp. Murphy himself is becoming safer, his blackness more and more acceptable to white America as they seek to moneterise him. He will be able to escape this system through his reclusiveness in his late career, but not now in 1990.
In many ways, Murphy is guilty of playing into commercial hands. His reintroduction in this film is not the uncomfortable, strange hilarity of an individual singing a commercial/uncommerical pop song about prostitution, but that of a man who is very good at basketball. It is the action of a man who knows he is a star, and is going to remind us of this fact that no matter what. We did not need reminding. Stars cannot be weird. They are cool and unobtainable. We still enjoy his company, but he’s started to play up to us, like a teenager who’s not quite as popular as they once were.
The villains of the film are a group of bikers. Nothing says cowardly 1990’s film scared to tackle race issues than a group of antagonistic bikers. White, aggressive, sweaty. Bikers fail at being a reasonable threat because there is the underlying realisation that they have all spent too much money and time on their motorbikes. It’s kind of pathetic. All men are obsessive about something (football, music, cars…ahem…movies) and these individuals are effectively neutered as we understand that in all likelihood all they are interested in is endlessly talking about their chrome and rubber machines. It is the arena of the white, middle class – the least intimidating ethnic group ever.
Murphy and Nolte have an endearing rapport that at time threatens to overcome the blandness of their dilemma. The two of them are dressed in near identical suits; a counterpoint to Murphy’s Axel Foley in the Beverly Hills Cop films, whose radical casual clothes are disruptive element to stuffiness of the police department of Los Angeles. The pair are dressed in the vein of Eastwood’s Dirty Harry film series; and indeed, the violent, unforgiving force of Harry Callahan moulds these two heroes. Their greatest weapon is that they are more intelligent than their foes, their violence is enacted through handguns. But this suited, smart hero is already obsolete in 1990. The largest muscle in the action hero is no longer the brain, and the weapons have become enlarged and engorged.
Within the movie, both Nolte and Murphy become outlaws. They are both the embodiment of and superior to the law. Action movies (most prominently in the aforementioned Dirty Harry series) flirt with extreme libertarianism, where state forces are no longer required, and the individual becomes the only meaningful protective and vengeful body. “Who needs a police force/army/government/taxes, when our heroes blow up the bad guys?” cry the right-wing nuts. “Who rebuilds the buildings, roads and lamplights?” we respond in return.
Hill was formerly a substantial creative force in the action movie, but by the point of Another 48 Hrs., his direct, straight-forward style of action cinema had started to fall out of fashion. For Hill, the force of a gunshot (or car crash, or fist) was enough. The damage was done. But the nineties needed more bullets and more balletics. Hill would struggle to find his place within this aesthetic movement.
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Another 48 Hrs. fails because it is unable to build upon its father film. Beloved scenes are regurgitated with little distinctiveness and far less humour. VHS culture meant that the audience would begin to know previous films inside out by the time the sequel came out, and Another 48 Hrs. is a pale imitation of a pioneering film. The ‘Another’ in the title was a weary sigh, rather than a glorious cheer.
The film was bowdlerised before its release, cut and cut and cut in order to make the most accessible film possible. But there is no redemptive director’s cut available on DVD for us to know for sure, so little is the interest in this film. Our goodwill was abused once watching this film, they won’t fool us twice.
Murphy would continue to be a substantial creative force for a few years. Beverly Hills Cop III (1994) would be his final contribution to the action movie genre in the nineties. An awkward attempt at satirising the Disney corporation the film further dilutes Murphy’s chaotic screen presence. He has become as much a commercialised cartoon character as any reductive Mickey Mouse stand-in. It is a film where any number of people involved have sought to justify its creative failure. None of these explanations convince, although the film can provide some pleasure in notoriously negligent director John Landis’ (for whom the film represents part of a once significant career in decline) amusingly schlocky approach to violence.
Murphy would occasionally return to the buddy-cop genre that made him a star, his co-stars interchangeable regardless of their own career achievements and accomplishments. These films are not without their merits (Showtime (2002) has some bright moments), but lack the danger found in the originator of the sub-genre. His most successful recent roles come from voicing animated animals.
Within action movies, Walter Hill had ended up like one of his 70’s heroes – obsolete. He adopted a certain level of contentment with this fact, and instead of applying Western genre rules to other movies, he began directing a series of likeable Westerns that followed the significant genre renaissance subsequent to the release of Unforgiven. The occasionally hallucinatory Wild Bill (1995) features some terrifying violence and Last Man Standing is as engaging in its reimaging of Yojimbo (1961) as A Fistful of Dollars (1964) was. However, for a director who once created entire genres from scratch (even if the post-pop-punk Western musical of Streets of Fire didn’t quite capture the zeitgeist), he was a reduced figure of the 1990’s, and certainly of limited influence upon the action genre.
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For a film that begins our decade, Another 48 Hrs. is only useful in that it utterly failed to demonstrate the way forward. Its direct approach to acting coupled with a leading man whose charisma was beginning to leak away meant that it could only be a creative dead end. Sequels could no longer simply rehash the former film; the audience had not only seen it before, it had now watched it on repeat in their homes.
Fortunately, someone was just around the corner to show them just how a sequel could be successful…