Although dated, there is a brute edginess to this popular slice of formula odd coupling. It’s not just about Eddie Murphy’s foul-mouthed comebacks, although they were never as bouncy or cutting as here, or Nick Nolte’s irresponsible bullyboy pose he has spent the rest of his career trying to unseat, but also the way Walter Hill pitches a ready Hollywood staple into a harder, dare-we-say more realistic world. It’s as if Lemmon and Matthau had stumbled into The French Connection, with the added spice of race.
Indeed, there’s more than a casual tip-of-the-hat in Murphy’s (possibly career best) scene in which, posing as a cop, he saunters into a redneck bar, Confederate Flag pressed to the wall, humming with racist lunks, and jives his way to supremacy. It’s the direct inverse of Gene Hackman’s take-over of a black-filled Harlem bar in that famous thriller. “I'm your worst fucking nightmare, man!” snaps Reggie to the dumbstruck clientele. “A nigger with a badge.” The writing is an equal to Murphy’s whiplash tongue.
As this is a film by Hill, who has busily traded in a violent, earthbound machismo (Southern Comfort, The Warriors) it hardly pulls its punches. If anything, this must surely count as the most violent “comedy” in film history, as Hill dwells on the many bare-knuckle beatings (usually involving Nolte) that are his particular filmic peccadillo. Yet, he’s also a skilled purveyor of a piquant, scuzzy atmosphere, a lurid, criminal underbelly where it takes two distrustful specimens to further the cause of good.
Their story is regulation potboiling, the bad-guys are simply that, bad to the bone, the good guys have the bonus of character and the two stars are having a ball. Nolte no less than the showpiece his partner grants, threads in a sense of pressing moral determination beneath his louche, jack-the-rules exterior. That the fact they come to appreciate one other, the grudging respect of a million clichés, feels so satisfyingly, shows just how successful the film is.