Written By: Daniel Kinsley
EDITOR’S NOTE: This piece was initially deemed too large by management, and thus will be broken up into several installments so that for all three of our readers, the size will be more manageable! PART ONE will cover Chapters I & II.
Even though it is now one of the most ubiquitous templates in the action genre, the modern buddy film is fairly young in cinematic terms, owing largely to a trail blazed in the 1980s and early 1990s. There are a number of notable precursors; films like Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid (1969), The Defiant Ones (1958) and In The Heat of The Night (1967) the latter two of which were significant for pairing a white and a black lead before this became common practice. * However, up until the early 80s, the action genre had been largely dominated by the Western prior to transitioning into the sort of urban man on a mission films populated by strong silent types like Steve McQueen and Charlie Bronson. **
The 80s marked an interesting decade for the action genre, though. By and large, it is remembered as the peak age for larger-than-life figures like Arnold and Sly, and with good reason; these are the same years that gave us the likes of Rambo: First Blood (1982), The Terminator (1984), and Predator (1987). Due to the influence of an emerging style, however, things began to change in a major way.
In 1982, Walter Hill (The Warriors, Streets Of Fire) ostensibly gave life to the buddy-action film. 48 Hrs. (1982) began as an idea from producer Lawrence Gordon in the mid-70s about a cop and a convict teaming up to stop a kidnapper who plotted against the President. While the film was originally envisioned as a Clint Eastwood vehicle, by the time Hill was hired, the two men disagreed on the creative direction. Eastwood expressed interest in playing the criminal, while Hill wanted him to play the cop, pairing him with rising star Richard Pryor, as the crook. Eastwood soon moved on (to fulfill his wish in Escape From Alcatraz ) and the film went into limbo.
Several years later, the producers were able to settle on Nick Nolte to play the hardened cop; however Pryor had become far too famous by then to play alongside him. His ascension, however, made the studio much more amenable to pairing Nolte with a young black actor. The role would eventually go to an upstart most famous for his part on Saturday Night Live, a man named Eddie Murphy.
The plot was pared down from its original lofty ambitions, but remained straight-forward in its pairing. Inspector Jack Cates (Nolte) is forced to partner up with Reggie Hammond, a convicted robber and former partner to the escaped bad guy Cates is attempting to run to ground. Cates manages to get Reggie paroled for 48 hours, and a dysfunctional duo is formed.
Eddie Murphy is operating at his most hungry here, dominating every scene, and a re-watch still sells you on how obvious it was that the film made him a bonafide star overnight, while Nolte’s grumbling, miserable Cates makes for the perfect foil. What made the film such a revolution for the action genre is how funny it was. While the racial mismatch plays a role in the dynamic, the script never leans too hard on its most obvious crutch. What made the film so successful (and so significant) was both the charisma and chemistry of its leads, and the fact that the laughs never compromise the stakes. When the bullets fly, the subsequent violence is as visceral as any action film preceding it.
The film would go on to be a huge success, both commercially and critically, and spawned a 1990 sequel, Another 48 Hrs.
Several years after the success of 48 Hrs., Warner Brothers shelled out a cool quarter of a million for a new script pitched as an “urban western.” Producer Joel Silver (Lawrence Gordon’s partner, as fate would have it) was brought on to polish the script, and eventually the studio hired Richard Donner (Superman, The Omen) to direct. Although 48 Hrs. was the first through the door, it was Lethal Weapon (1987) that would solidify the template that would be emulated and imitated for the next 30 years.
Lethal Weapon undoubtedly stood on the shoulders of its predecessors, but perhaps its biggest diversion from those films was the lack of any real mention of race. Mel Gibson and Danny Glover played Martin Riggs and Roger Murtaugh as a mismatched duo, but the script relied entirely on their vastly different backgrounds instead of any superficial differences. Riggs is a young man; wild, unpredictable, and at times, flat-out suicidal, while Murtaugh is the aging by-the-book cop who just wants to get home to his family safely. The film makes it look easy in how effectively it plays their conflicts for both tension and laughs, as the two feel each other out; Riggs with his feral disregard for safety and procedure, and Murtaugh with a disbelieving “I’m too-old-for-this-shit” shake of the head.
The film opens with an apparent suicide, as a woman takes a swan dive off of her apartment balcony. The woman turns out to be the daughter of Michael Hunsaker, an old Vietnam War buddy of Murtaugh (Glover). Autopsy reports soon reveal that Hunsaker’s daughter was poisoned with drain cleaner before leaping to her death, making it an apparent homicide. Riggs and Murtaugh are drawn into the investigation and run afoul of the mysterious “Shadow Company”, a heroin-smuggling operation run by former Vietnam Special Forces led by retired General McAllister (Mitchell Ryan) and his head enforcer Mr. Joshua (Gary Busey).
Though many buddy films that followed would adopt the 48 Hrs. method of partners, this was not one of them. While the two men begin at odds, the dangers they face in the investigation quickly make them work together like real partners, and before they know it, they are. In the early parts of the film, Riggs’ reckless (and at times, suicidal) behavior is traceable to the death of his wife, while Murtaugh is largely a product of his aging reminding him of his mortality. As the two men bond, each undergoes a significant change. Through his partnership with Riggs, Murtaugh shakes off the dust and seemingly regains his edge, remembering why he loves being a police officer and sinking his teeth into the Hunsaker investigation. Similarly, Riggs begins to take on a warmth that isn’t there prior to being introduced to his partner’s family, as he becomes invested in them too. This anchors the character, reminding him of his humanity and reigniting his will to live. When Murtaugh’s family is drawn into the sprawl of the case, it is ensuring their safety that permanently solidifies Riggs and Murtaugh as partners willing to go the distance. It’s terrific writing, as both character arcs dovetail in a way that is so effectively complementary.
While 48 Hrs. often feels like a 70s action film with laughs, Lethal Weapon is idiosyncratic to feel like something new, entirely, making it the true heir to the buddy action-film. While later entries would go on to be more generally comedic, the original is a serious action-er that this writer would put next to Die Hard (1988) for revolutionizing the genre for the next twenty years.
* Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier started in the former, while Poitier also starred in the latter alongside Rod Steiger. Poitier would reprise the character Virgil Tibbs twice more, marking it as the first cop series to reach three films since the black and white era.
** A transition some have argued is only a modern update on the Western; a thoroughly American approach to a story.