Eddie Murphy redefines black comedy in "48 Hours," making murder merry as half of a salt-and-pepper pair on the trail of a mother meaner than "Mommie Dearest."

His partner in solving crime is Nick Nolte. No longer the pretty "Poor Man," he looks like Tom Waits sounds. His beer belly smothers his love handles and his jowls bristle with two-days' growth -- Dirty Harry with a jelly belly. But he's a generous straight man: Not even George Burns was this good to Gracie Allen. So Murphy mugs.

"48 Hours" would win raves from "Saturday Night Live" film critic Raheen Abdul Muhammed: There's murder and mayhem with lots of whites getting theirs, all to the beat of thrumming, explosive music. The film's also racist and sexist, with four-letter- word dialogue shot ratatatat out of an obscene submachine gun. But Nolte and Murphy get by with it -- and the writers played catch-up, finishing the script on location.

We get an adrenalin rush -- violent, flashy, slick and rough, with contrapuntal clowning. It's a riot in the cellblock. Nolte releases Murphy -- a robber in the slammer -- for 48 hours. Nolte's after a sociopath named Ganz (James Remar) and his sidekick Billy Bear (Sonny Landham). Murphy, the last live member of the Ganz gang besides those two, rides into San Francisco with Nolte in a battered '64 Caddie ragtop. Murphy takes a look at the clunker: "This your car, man? Looks like you bought it off one of the brothers."

Murphy's at his funniest when Nolte forces him to play cop and roust a cowboy bar decorated with Confederate flags and rednecks. He parodies all those police stories where the white cop busts a black bar: "Listen up," yells Murphy, prancing in his three-year-old designer suit, "I don't like white people. And I'm enjoying this." Grab the lapels, up in their face. Rough stuff.

The film's a visual gripper, too, shot in available light on state-of-the-art film. A subway scene becomes a deadly game of dodge 'em, recalling "The French Connection" with cops and robbers taking aim through a grille of commuters. Murphy makes his break from Nolte in this underground scene, but turns up later to put the final touches on their growing friendship.

A last shoot-out finishes off the film -- truly a Saturday Night special. 48 HOURS -- Opens Friday at area theaters