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You know they don’t give out Oscars in prison?


Beverly Hills Cop III
(1994)

I wasn’t sure I’d ever made it all the way through Beverly Hills Cop III before. But some sequels are so awful, all that remains is an amorphous memory of their fundamental shitness (Robocop 3, Highlander 2: The Quickening). So I thought, best be certain; give it another chance. But, my God, it stinks.


The first sequel to the 1984 phenomenon that really put Eddie Murphy on the map had already experienced diminishing returns but, by inflation adjusted (and worldwide gross) standards, it remains his second most successful non-animated movie. Understandably, ideas had been knocking about for a trilogy-forming addition for some time. Most popular was sending Axel Foley to London. All the regulars would have returned (John Astin as Taggart, Judge Reinhold as gun nut Rosewood, Ronny Cox as Bogomolil) and the plot would have involved Foley rescuing Bogomil from terrorists. Yes, Axel would succumb to the post-Die Hard action movie formula. Possible pairings with Sean Connery and John Cleese were mooted for Foley’s sojourn in Blighty (I can’t imagine Murphy really sparking off either, but at least the producers were spitballing). Terrorists became London gangsters, and Paul Reiser’s Jeffrey was set to buy the farm (Reiser was good at dying in movies around this time).


For various reasons, that concept fell apart (ultimately it seems that producers Simpson and Bruckheimer thought there were too many similarities to Black Rain). A retooling of the same basic concept in New York was briefly considered before the uber-producers exited over budget disputes. Joel Silver then flirted with taking the producer reins but the dreaded budget wrangling saw him depart too. And so Mace Neufield and Robert Rehme ended up shepherding Beverly Hills Cop III to the screen. They were in Paramount’s good books thanks to the cash cow of the Jack Ryan franchise. But the budget concerns didn’t go away.


Back in the early ‘90s Murphy had pretty much fallen from grace. Harlem Nights was a costly and disappointing vanity project which, while no means a financial debacle of the scale of Bruce Willis’ ego-strewn Hudson Hawk a couple of years later, had put a serious dent in Eddie’s stride. He followed it with lazy sequels (Another 48 Hrs) and a series of attempts to try something different. Neither Boomerang nor The Distinguished Gentleman are bad movies (indeed, they’re far superior to much of his feted ‘80s product), but the returns were at best middling. The star was barely 30, but with a decade behind him as a huge draw it seemed like he was already on the wane. In the near distance was the rediscovery of his comic mojo (The Nutty Professor), but there and then Paramount had serious misgivings at throwing money at a star who might not attract sizable audiences. And Axel was very ‘80s, as his signature Harold Faltermeyer theme attests (the music here, from Nile Rodgers, is listless and inappropriate).


So Steven E. de Souza was hired to pen a new script. He seemed to know his action, and had proved his worth with two Die Hard movies (and Another 48Hrs). Looking at his subsequent resume, the studio might have thought twice, but that was then. Quite why “Die Hard at a theme park” was seized upon is anyone’s guess. A dearth of imagination most likely. Foley didn’t need to be derivative, he needed to be his own thing (whatever that was; it is sort of nebulous). Robert Towne had worked on previous screenplay ideas, which again suggests the studio didn’t really have a keen idea of what the character was all about.


Various directors were considered; Towne, purportedly (why they’d give him a broad action franchise is anyone’s guess; perhaps it’s a confusion over his story involvement), Joe Dante (great director, but not him at all) and Kevin Hooks (a safer pair of hands perhaps; no real flair, but he had solid action chops and had delivered a minor sub-Die Hard hit with Passenger 57). But then John Landis was got the offer.


Landis has commented that Murphy may well have suggested him as an apology/olive branch over their falling out on Coming to America. On the face of it, the director might not seem such a strange choice; the Landis of the big, broad, freewheeling destruction derby pile-ups of The Blues Brothers at any rate. But the John Landis of Beverly Hills Cop III is borderline incompetent. Like, Kevin Smith incompetent. It’s as if he has never directed a movie before. Shots are static, the staging is leaden, the editing almost aggressively disinterested in producing thrills or narrative momentum. He brought with him his Oscar and Innocent Blood cinematographer Mac Ahlberg, who worked out fine on the later Brady Bunch movies; his textureless blocks of colour aren’t a problem in “straight” comedy vehicles (few funny movies get raves for their photography, which may be an error in the thinking of filmmakers, but it’s an understandable one if attention is seen to be on yuks). Here, it’s a disaster.  BHCIII looks like a cheap and nasty TV movie, one with an in-network director less interested in the “art” of what he’s doing than ensuring he knocks off at a decent hour.


So it beggars belief that during the shoot costs inflated so much, Paramount took the step of closing down the production. The picture had already taken a budget cut due to Murphy’s diminished standing (he still took home $15m, a third of what the movie ended up grossing), and finished up costing more than $70m (it had been slashed to $55m, so ended up tallying with what de Souza’s screenplay was originally budgeted at). None of that is up there on screen.


Originally rides were supposed to be built for Wonder World (the theme park in the movie), but filming took place at California’s Great America theme park (then owned by Paramount). You’d be forgiven for wondering why anyone would go there. Adapted rides included the Earthquake ride from the Universal Tours (complete with Cylons). I don’t know how popular Great America is, but Landis makes it look semi-deserted (there isn’t a single scene in the film with any care take over it).  When he attempts to shoot an action scene the results are sleep inducing, painful to behold (Axel saves some kids from a malfunctioning ride; it seems to take hours) or resoundingly inept (the climactic showdown(s)). A similar collapse of a once-great (as in making great movies, rather than being the most proficient in the field) director’s career occurred a couple of years later when John Carpenter brought back Snake Plissken. But that film seems Oscar-worthy next to this.


The plot, what there is of it, involves a private security firm running a counterfeiting ring under the guise of the park. Yeah, it’s a stretch by any standards. Axel comes to California to track down whoever shot his boss (an enfeeble motivation following a not dissimilar set up for II). There’s little detective work here; he shows up at Wonder World and it’s immediately obvious that nefarious forces are up to no good. The big villain is Timothy Carhart’s Ellis De Wald; Carhart’s a reliable bad guy in various big and small screen fare, but he has little to work with. The same goes for John Saxon. Theresa Randle’s the not-so-very-much love interest (there’s never much of that in a Murphy film, as with Vin Diesel). Stephen McHattie makes an impression as a Fed, but he’s well-versed in making the best of bullshit.


Such were the production delays that neither Ashton nor Cox returned, a blessing in disguise for both of them. Reinhold is left to wax nostalgically, and he’s game. But the whole affair is so devoid of care that his enthusiasm is for nought. Hector Elizondo, a very likable performer, assumes Ashton’s role (basically they substituted names). There is one other returnee; Bronson Pinchot’s Serge is back for two scenes. There’s so much care in the script department that he’s forsaken hairdressing for arms dealing (with a really cheesy monster gun called The Annihilator 2000). As forced as his involvement is, his are the only scenes that remind you of the BHC of old. You can see him having fun riffing on whatever comes into his head, in particular his tale of colonic irrigation and “a candy bar you ate when you were five coming out”. If Murphy isn’t really engaging with him, it’s because he wasn’t even there for those scenes.


Murphy looks like he can't be arsed, but apparently it’s more complicated than that. The light was gone at the time. Pinchot relates how Murphy was so lacklustre that Landis played opposite him in the scene. Worse, it seems this lack of fun was intentional; he told Landis Axel was an adult now, so he shouldn’t act the wiseass. If you take away that core ingredient of the character, you’re left with nothing. And it shows from the start. I’m not sure Murphy commands a single laugh (okay, “You know they don’t give out Oscars in prison?” made me smile). Even when he arrives on stage for his Cary Grant in North By Northwest improvisation, to a crowded gala event, he’s subdued. Eddie in an elephant suit ought to raise a smile, but he – and we – is bereft.  


Landis says he saw the chance to comment on Disney and violence. I can see the Disney bit with the tired and tiresome Uncle Dave (Alan Young), who owns Wonder World, but whatever commentary he thinks he’s making falls flat (unless it’s something as dementedly exaggerated as Disneyworld being a haven for murder, counterfeiting rings and all-round corruption… ) And where the violence bit comes in… I’m mystified. Although, you do notice the typical Landis splatter. Like the swearing, it stands out because the presiding vibe is of a limp kid’s Saturday afternoon matinee. The dance number during the chop shop opening informs you his bearings are massively off; it may work in The Blues Brothers, but it’s too random and undisciplined to be endearing here.


I liked seeing a couple of The Banana Splits, but even the inevitable director cameos lacked fizz (George Lucas and a best-not-try-cameoing-again Joe, Dante being the most memorable). Landis readily admits the script wasn’t great but thought that, with Murphy on board, they could make something solid out of it; then he found Murphy wasn’t interested in being Eddie any more. Maybe the director’s interest subconsciously ebbed away as a result. He needed more of the actually funny stuff, like DeWald sitting a cohort of underprivileged kids at his gala table to show what a nice guy he is. But it needed that kind of funny stuff times 100.


Beverly Hills Cop III is probably the worst movie of both Landis and Murphy’s careers (I’m hesitant to say for definite; there’s Norbit, Best Defense and Blues Brothers 2000 to consider). It’s no surprise that possibilities for IV have been knocking around for years with few overly interested in biting. The Disneyfication of Eddie seemed to have fully put paid to any chance of the Axel spirit being revived. But then, in Tower Heist, he was actually R-rated funny again. Brett Ratner is a horrible choice for most movies, but he might have been a good fit for the announced fourth installment, to be shepherded once again by Bruckheimer. It looked the movie was permanently off when the TV pilot happened this year, with Murphy cameoing and Brandon T Jackson as Axel’s son. CBS passed on it, and then it looked like it might be shopped elsewhere. Jackson thought it was nixed as a series because it was too edgy. Whatever the reason, something about it must have caught Paramount’s attention as they announced the big screen fourth was back on after all. I’d like to see it happen, despite my reservations about how Murphy would tackle the role. If nothing else, he gave the right reasons in 2006 when he said another was needed because, after III, he “didn’t want to leave the series like that”.


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