In short order we meet Jack Cates (Nolte), a grizzled SFPD Officer, and his much-neglected ladyfriend Elaine (Annette O'Toole), as well as Elaine's Breasts, who cite the dubiously authentic Mark Twain quip "the coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco." The jazz clarinet and bass are joined, inexplicably, by steel drums, who will remain with us for the rest of the film.
In another part of the city, lowlife Luther (David Patrick Kelly of the aforementioned Cabin) is confronted by Albert and Billy, who want money from him and decide to hold onto his girlfriend until he can give it to them. AlBilly, the hostage, and some naked hookers hole up in a sleazy hotel. Jack and two of his partners, including the inimitable master of the IDGAF sleepy-eye Jonathan Banks (Breaking Bad's Ehrmentraut), get into a shootout with AlBilly. Jack surrenders his gun to Albert to save Mike Ehrmentraut's life; Albert kills Mike Ehrmentraut dead anyway. SHIT JUST GOT PERSONAL.
After getting his ass handed to him by his 1980s standard-issue dyspeptic black police captain who has No Time For This Shit, Jack heads to San Quentin Prison to meet up with Reggie Hammond (Murphy, in his debut film role). Reggie is 6 months shy of completing a 3-year sentence and wants nothing more than to just do his time and get out at the end. He quickly changes his mind; he wants nothing more than to get out now, help Jack get AlBilly, and get some trim. Not necessarily in that order.
Jack picks up Reggie for his 48 hours (WE HAVE A TITLE, PEOPLE) of leave. Reggie is wearing Pee Wee Herman's suit with a black tie. Shenanigans ensue: Jack calls Reggie a 'watermelon,' Reggie tries to pick up prostitutes at the police station, a bartender suggests that Reggie get a 'BLACK Russian,' Jack calls Reggie a 'spearchucker,' Reggie goes on another hunt for trim, Jack calls Reggie a 'nigger,' and many people are called 'faggots.' During all of this, Jack's and Elaine's Breasts' relationship devolves over the course of a handful of shouted telephone conversations. Jack's voice begins to sound more and more like whiskey-soaked shards of glass.
Eventually we learn that Reggie has a bunch of money he's stashed in the trunk of his car in a long-term parking garage, and it's this money that Luther intends to use to pay off AlBilly. Jack and Reggie trail Luther into an underground Muni station, but lose him, AlBilly, and the hostage. Jack tells Reggie over drinks that the "watermelon and nigger stuff, well... I was just doin' my job." He is a police officer, so technically this is correct, but it's still pretty shit as far as apologies go. After Jack almost helps Reggie secure some trim, they chase a stolen Muni bus being driven by Billy, where Luther is doing the handoff to Albert. Albert shoots Luther, who dies on the floor of a Muni bus, which means Albert can add a charge of desecration of a corpse to his already considerable list of offenses.
Almost by chance, Jack and Reggie find AlBilly again in Chinatown. Reggie shoots and kills Billy, a decision sure to win him great acclaim with the parole board. There are many alleys and lots of fog and neon. Jack shoots Albert, who literally can't believe he's been shot: "I can't believe it!" Then Jack shoots Albert five more times. Albert has no further comment because he is dead. Jack and Reggie begin a beautiful friendship. Reggie finally gets some trim.
A bar like Torchy's existing and thriving within San Francisco city limits requires a certain suspension of disbelief: like many major cities on the West Coast, San Francisco has been known for being an end-of-the-line sanctuary for diverse weirdos, rejects, and progressive thinkers fleeing more conservative parts of the country since, well, nearly its founding. Although you'll find plenty of country livin' off the peninsula (ask the city of Castro Valley about their active chapter of the KKK!), The City itself simply isn't a rebel stronghold. Furthermore, the Mission district has traditionally been, and still is, a majority Latino neighborhood. While it's not out of the range of possibility to have a cowboy bar in the Mission (even a gay one), it's more likely to be on the vaquero end of the spectrum, rather than on the end fervently insisting that "The South Will Rise Again."
On second thought, Torchy's could exist in the Mission district today. It would be co-owned by two VPs of Marketing at AirBnB, crowdfunded through Kickstarter, and would serve $12 Coors Lite with a side of "ironic" racism and artisanal filet of possum. As it turns out, the location used in the film was a real bar named Torchy's, but in Los Angeles (I knew it!). It would go on to be a location in Brewster's Millions (1985).
The most authentic part of the decidedly inauthentic Torchy's scene is Reggie's terrifying impersonation of a police officer. Although the spectacle of a black "cop" threatening and brutalizing a bunch of ostensibly racist rednecks is clearly meant to be played for laughs, the accuracy of Reggie's cold stare and the threat that he is above repercussion or consequence is all too chillingly realistic. It's not too hard to imagine that Murphy, who grew up in New York City's projects, was channeling some real-life experience.
Another thing 48 Hours gets hilariously wrong about San Francisco is the Church Street Muni Station. This scene involves some sly reconnaissance, a blown cover, and a shootout. I assume the filmmakers were going for the effect of a large, bustling station. Unfortunately for them, Church Street is not that station. It's a small, two-platform station that, even at the height of rush hour, sees dozens (not hundreds, as portrayed in the film) of commuters at any one moment in time. Also objectionable to anyone who has ridden Muni is the frequency of service that this movie portrays. When Albert, Billy, and the hostage flee from Reggie and Jack, they narrowly miss a departing K Ingelside train, only to turn around and see an L Taraval pulling right in behind it. Super unrealistic, guys. Muni makes it its business to make you late for work; you think it's really going to give a shit about you trying to get away with your crimes? It's worth noting, however, that at the time 48 Hours was filmed, Church Street Station was the sparkling new gem in Muni's crown, having opened for service in mid-1980. Given the state of some of our older stations, it's understandable why they might want to show that one off.
In his never-ending pursuit of trim, Reggie winds up at Vroman's, a swingin' club in the Fillmore where "the brothers" go.
Although I suspect the Vroman's exterior was shot in Los Angeles, the only information I could find online was pertaining to the Vroman's bookstore. And that's about as hard as I'm gonna search for something in Los Angeles. Whether Vroman's existed in San Francisco or not, the Fillmore would have been the perfect setting: in the postwar era it was a black community where jazz and rock and roll acts were nurtured. Gentrification in the 1960s saw most of the black residents displaced, but music, especially jazz, continued to define the neighborhood, and does to this day. Regardless of whether Vroman's was a totally fictional figment of the 48 Hours universe, I'd say it's still one of the most authentic scenes in the movie.
Many things, however, have stayed the same. A lovely pan across the serpentine form of the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge to San Quentin Prison, taken from the Richmond side in 1982, could just as easily have been filmed today. You can catch the same view from the Miller/Knox Regional Shoreline in Point Richmond, or take the San Francisco-bound ferry from Larkspur for an even closer peek at California's oldest operating prison.
Elaine's apartment, which Jack is shown exiting at the beginning of the film, is (purportedly) on Vallejo Street in North Beach. Jack's car is parked at the dead end of Vallejo, between Kearny and Montgomery, and he is shown paradoxically driving west on Vallejo and then east on Broadway.
Although you can't drive a car down it, the half-block stretch between Vallejo's dead end and its rebirth on Montgomery is a delight to traverse by foot. A steep hillside garden is carefully tended by the residents of the non-street, and the famous parrots of Telegraph Hill are known to congregate in the trees (or, at the very least, fly past while screeching their fool heads off). And the view of the bay cannot be beat- especially with that pesky freeway gone.
Another common sight in San Francisco, which is shown in glimpses throughout 48 Hours, is our complex grid of overhead wires for electric Muni buses. Although it certainly lends credence to our reputation as a green hippy city, the wires are actually a necessity for heavily-laden buses attempting to lumber up our famously steep streets. Some critics will point to the wireless Muni bus that Billy Bear hijacks as an example of a continuity error, but San Francisco has several non-electric buses (all of which run on biodiesel these days).
When Jack and Reggie try to catch Lucas at his apartment, they are shown driving and parking on Woodward Street, a one-block street connecting 13th and 14th Streets one block west of Mission Street. Notably, the San Francisco Armory can be seen at the end of Woodward as Jack crosses the street from the car (parked facing the wrong way on a one-way street) to the apartment door. The Armory, long abandoned, is today enjoying a new life as the headquarters of Kink.com. It should be noted, however, that Lucas' front door is number 232, whereas Woodward Street numbers go no higher than 99.
Today, the Fillmore neighborhood is known for its numerous jazz clubs, including Yoshi's and the Boom Boom Room, as well as Bill Graham's eponymous Fillmore Auditorium, where some of the most seminal rock concerts of the 60s and 70s took place. Fun Fact: next to the Fillmore Auditorium on Geary Street sits an innocuous-looking post office, which occupies the former site of Jim Jones' People's Temple.
The Muni bus that Billy Bear hijacks is a 30 Stockton (a non-electric route), and the fact that it only had three passengers should have tipped the police off right away that something is not right here. In San Francisco, the "Dirty 30" is the stuff of urban legends- literally. Everyone's cousin's boyfriend's neighbor has seen a little old Chinese grandma wring a chicken's neck on this bus in response to being told she cannot bring live animals aboard (yeah, sure). In the film, Billy uses the 30 to sideswipe the car being driven by Jack and Reggie, sending it careening into a Cadillac dealership on Van Ness, which has plenty of car dealerships to this day, before running a red light at Eddy Street and disappearing over the hill.
The final scene, wherein Jack and Reggie quite literally drive off into the sunset, was really difficult to pin down. Any city will experience significant changes over the course of 32 years, but many of San Francisco's landmarks and roadways have been completely revised in the years following Loma Prieta. It didn't help that the scene, shot at dusk, features no clear street signs or landmarks. All I knew from certain was that they were headed somewhat westerly on a road that would lead them to I-80 and the Bay Bridge, and that they pass a Budget rent-a-car office. So I found a 1981 San Francisco phone book online and determined the locations of all four Budget offices at the time. Going off basic lay of the land as well as proximity to current and former routes to the Bay Bridge, I eliminated locations in Union Square, Fisherman's Wharf, and the Financial District, settling on the Van Ness location. It's my tentative judgment that the final scene shows Reggie and Jack driving towards O'Farrell, taking a hairpin turn, and continuing southwest on Van Ness, just blocks from where they went careening into a Cadillac dealership. I could be wrong, however! I am open to alternate theories.
SF Authenticity: 5/10- thinks the Haight Street Amoeba Records is an 'undiscovered treasure.'
Hate Speech: 8/10- Ferguson PD water cooler
Verdict: Like a drunk uncle at the holidays, 48 Hours is simultaneously enjoyable and embarrassing.
If there's anything I've missed or gotten wrong, please don't hesitate to mention it in the comments. Thanks for reading!