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The beat up truck barreling down the dusty dirt road can only mean one thing. Something bad. The prisoners in the road gang digging on an old railroad bed sense it. So do the armed guards. As the decades old rusted flatbed pick up truck skids to a halt, the men stop and stare, one of them moving up close to the guard in front, curious about the commotion. You know that ain’t good. Out of the driver’s seat emerges a brawny looking man in faded denims and a soiled, grungy taupe cowboy hat, a native American with a weathered face and steely eyes. He approaches and claims his truck is overheating and needs a spot of water. The prisoner up front throws a few racial jabs at the stranger, taunting him while the guard beside him smirks.
Soon enough, the racial slurs become too much for the driver of the truck and he wrestles the mouthy prisoner to the ground where they roll into a stream while the guard shouts exposition statements: “He’s a state prisoner.” Of course these will be his last words. The two men in the water, by no surprise to anyone, are in cahoots and the pickup truck driver has brought some guns. Time for a shoot ’em up where trained, armed guards spend their last moments standing like cardboard targets and the baddies fire aimlessly with bullets that can’t miss. The two eventually get in the truck and speed up the road while the one surviving guard gets in the nearby transport bus and calls for help, confusingly reporting that only ONE prisoner has escaped in a blue truck, saying his name twice (we wouldn’t want the audience to not know who got away, would we?), even though clearly every single prisoner in the road gang is now bolting as fast as the can in every direction.
So the two bad guys drive off to San Francisco where they meet up with and kill off one of their partners and then kidnap a girl as collateral for a guy who owes them money. So no, they aren’t turning their back on a life of crime. But that’s not all. They hole themselves up in a seedy hotel room and when the cops come calling they shoot their way out, killing two of the three officers in a bloody gun battle. Unfortunately for them, they didn’t get the third, Jack Cates, because now he knows who they are and worse, he’s very angry.
In the Captain’s office, Cates gets assigned to the case and he heads straight for the prison where he’s learned one of the guys who used to hang with dirtbags is serving the last six months of a three-year stretch. That “guy” is Reggie Hammond, a fast-talking streetwise punk with a whole lot of attitude. When Cates asks him for help in catching his old partner, it turns out Hammond is pretty eager. He wants the guy back behind bars. But he has one condition. If he’s gonna help Cates, he needs to do so from the outside. No more prison. With a little forgery and a friend on the inside, Cates does just that and gets Hammond a release for 48 hours.
Directed by Walter Hill, this genre-defining buddy cop movie is the film debut of Eddie Murphy, giving him a platform to be a little more raw than his career-making work on Saturday Night Live. A wild mix of comedy and extreme violence (for the time) made for a perfect combination, giving the film a gritter, more grounded feel that appealed to audiences. Paired with Nick Nolte, who was already well established, the movie does not shy away from controversy as the usual action comedy profanity is minced together with some decidedly awful racist, homophobic and sexist dialogue, staples of the decade’s more adult-themed fodder. Despite that, the two leads are undeniably good and very natural in their roles, with Nolte especially effective as a bitter, disillusioned cop, trying to keep his streets clean and show his frustrated girlfriend the attention she deserves. It’s touching how he has no interest, or actually ability, to be the sensitive man, but struggles to be so with her, knowing her companionship feels right. When she wraps a scarf around his neck on his way out, he dutifully wears it to the car, but then drapes it over the mirror. He could have tossed it in the back or on the passenger seat, but instead reveals a little something deeper about his character. He’s pragmatic as well, not remorseful of the two cops slain in the hotel, but filled with fury at their killing. He’s a man hardened by the vulgar, abusive world he lives in, desperately failing to hold on to the romance of something better. This is not to say that Murphy doesn’t shine. He does. Originally written with Richard Pryor (and Clint Eastwood no less) in mind, Murphy makes Hammond all his own and can be entirely credited with making the film the box office smash it came to be. Charming, endlessly watchable, and in your face, Murphy began right here on his eventual near twenty year reign as a mega movie star, blazing a trial like few others before or since.
Scene Setup: Hammond and Cates are trying to find a killer named Ganz, the man Billy, the native America pick up truck driver helped escape from prison. They went to Luther first, whose girlfriend Ganz kidnapped, but he had nothing and refused to be a rat. So Hammond suggests a club where he last knew Billy worked. Problem is, the bar is a redneck hangout, a country music tavern filled with good ‘ol boys. Cates is confident that anyone inside will be able to spot he’s a cop and a debate between them breaks out over whether attitude and experience or a gun and a badge can control a crowd. Hammond says all it takes is a pistol but Cates argues it’s much more. Reggie offers a bet where he can um, be with a lady if he wins. But Cates is after something more. He wants to know why Ganz broke out and why Reggie wants to catch him. The challenge is set. Cates gives Hammond his badge and they walk into the cowboy bar.
The Scene: (Time stamp 40:00) The club is filled to capacity with men and women in tight denim, plaid shirts, and cowboy hats. A skinny, buxom girl in silver star pasties and white fur chaps is dancing on a stage. A live band is banging out a heavy southern rock beat. Confederate flags cover the walls. As Hammond notes, “Not a very popular place with the brothers.” The men separate and move to the bar while Hammond is viewed with some rather unsavory stares. He asks the bartender for a vodka and is offered a “black Russian,” which inspires a sarcastic laugh from Reggie. He then flips open the badge and starts asking about Billy, to which he’s told he’s never been heard of. So much for niceties. Hammond hurls the vodka shot glass past the tender, smashing the enormous mirror behind the bar, getting the entire tavern’s attention.
In a room full of rowdy White boys, Reggie has the floor. His sudden outburst has all eyes on him and he decides to take advantage. Moving to the center of the room, he begins to verbally accost the patrons, calling them rednecks and other er, more derogatory terms that gets one cowboy to take a swing. Reggie, a hoodlum from the streets, easily handles it and eventually has a few men up against a pillar where, as he continues to berate the room, finds and pockets a small revolver. One of the men, clearly indignant, asks him what kind of cop is he? Hammond’s answer is spot on and would become film legend.
It terms of moments that make or break an actor, few get a chance like this. Brando had “I coulda been a contenda.” Stallone had “Adrian.” Cruise had “Show me the money.” These are not only landmark cinema moments, but they have come to define the actors. With Murphy, this one scene propelled him into mega movie stardom and opened door in all directions. While he would eventually grow out of the cop and action genre and transition into comedy and family films, he legacy begins here and is what many wish he would return to.
There is much about the scene that merits a closer look, beginning with the name of the bar. In bright green neon, the word “Torchy’s” glows above the entrance, hinting at the possible heat they might encounter inside. And that heat is well displayed once the two men enter. A sign at the door reads: It Takes A Real Man To Be A Cowboy. It’s ignored by Cates and Hammond, but we can see it, and it serves as the first visual clue that they are considered lesser just by walking in. Wildly overstocked in Southern cliché, the room is a swarm of blue-collar hicks partying to generic hillbilly rock, establishing clearly that Reggie is far removed from the setting, and more importantly, confirming our assumptions about the two cultural groups as well, no matter how off it might be.
Reggie is scripted in nearly every possible way to be the antithesis. He’s well-dressed. He’s dapper. He’s stylish. Oh, and he’s Black, which is important because without it, this is a long forgotten moment. The very second Reggie steps in the club, nearly every word spoken is about race. Murphy takes this tenet and absolutely owns it, never letting a word of it even slow him down, and some words surely could have. But this is the point. This is why it works so well. By having Cates sit it out while Reggie rules the roost, we see a shift in not only the film itself, but in how movies themselves will change. Giving credit to pioneers like Poitier and Pryor, Murphy take the reigns. The cultural and cinematic impact of the moment seems undoubtedly less significant as years pass, but it’s important to remember that Murphy redefined the role of Black actors, dismissing, in one scene, the archetypes of Blacks suffering indignities or pleading for equality, as was so standard beforehand. Here, he was already a step above the bigoted crowd of rednecks and never once seems the weaker. Brash and ballsy, Murphy builds a fresh new highway to fame right before our eyes. From there he would partner with Dan Akroyd and cameo for Dudley Moore before finally going solo and being the lead, where he remained ever since. Many owe him for their success.
The movie never pretends to be anything but dark and gritty, about tortured, vulnerable men a dank and inhospitable world. The comedy only works because it comes at expense of the violence. It’s the humanity of it that gives it heart. Much of the dialogue would most assuredly never make it into mainstream Hollywood now, and therefore has that much more effectiveness when listening now. Aged well, the film is an exciting buddy cop film that breaks molds and unleashed to the world a brand new star.
Roger Spottiswoode, Walter Hill
Nick Nolte, Eddie Murphy, Annette O’Toole