Beverly Hills Cop
(SPOILERS) You could reasonably argue Eddie Murphy was a phenomenon before Beverly Hills Cop, but following the release of Martin Brest’s 1984 box office champ, the entire world now knew it. At about the same time, Bill Murray was making similar waves in Ghostbusters (no one was quoting Aykroyd and Ramis from that movie), so it must have been a particular rue to studios that both then dropped off the screen for a couple of years. With 1980s stars, in particular, there’s often a dissonance between the size of their hits and the actual quality (look no further than Tom Cruise). Murphy’s most particular skill was (and is) that he’s so damn likeable, you can almost convince yourself a middling movie was a great one. Beverly Hills Cop isn’t a great one, but a key to it working as well as it does is that it would still function as a movie – as a cop thriller – if you took its star out of it.
The same couldn’t be said for many of his later pictures that decade. Some were actively hampered by his involvement (whether The Golden Child could have been halfway decent in any context is debatable, but as a Murphy movie, it most definitely was not) and others would have/collapsed in on themselves without him propping them up (Coming to America, Harlem Nights). Scorsese, considering one of the many iterations of a screenplay that first entered development in the late 1970s, turned Beverly Hills Cop down on the basis that it was too similar to Coogan’s Bluff. Todd McCarthy, in his contemporary review (Film Year Book Volume 4), compared it to Witness, suggesting they were, “in blueprint form if not in treatment, virtually the same movie”. But this fish-out-of-water dynamic was a common one, and far from confined to the cop genre; the ’80s would score big hits several other times by playing that tune, most prolifically with Crocodile Dundee and Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home in 1986 (the latter flirting with a Murphy supporting role at one stage).
Nick De Semlyen charts Beverly Hills Cop’s course in Wild and Crazy Guys, a Peter Biskind-lite account of the Saturday Night Live stars who went onto huge success in the ’80s (Biskind’s “An enjoyable romp” cover quote is about as faint praise as it gets, but it’s actually quite a fair assessment; De Semlyen offers a satisfying soufflé rather than a sumptuous three-course banquet). Most recently, it had Stallone attempting to construct his version; he was persuaded to depart the project, taking his ideas to Cobra where Axel Cobretti became Marion. And we all know what a masterpiece that was.
The alchemy of comedian and genre produced “that rarest of things: a fun movie about a cop” (compare this to the soullessly slick first sequel, a consummate Simpson and Bruckheimer production in that sense, complete with overt festishisation of its star: “The whole joke of the first movie was that Axel mocks people like that” observed less-than-impressed screenwriter Dan Petrie Jr). McCarthy referred to the original and Witness depositing their protagonists as “aliens in a foreign country, if not another world” (big city cops in an unfamiliar milieu); in Murphy’s case, this represented a “brazen assault on one of the most refined caste systems in the world” (Beverly Hills, the LA Lifestyle). De Semlyen echoes McCarthy when he suggests it’s about class: “the blue-collar hero cutting a path through a procession of straight men”.
In contrast, Pauline Kael implies such considerations are all in the mind, as far as the movie is concerned. That Murphy rulez because he decides he does: Murphy comes on as “Mr. Top Dog, Mr. Cool”, and his display of “aggressive one-upmanship through most of the film kills your interest in him as a performer”. Yes, this was an instance where Kael had the knives out, going against the grain of most reviewers. She was unimpressed by is star, who simply “rattles off pitifully undistinguished profanity” instead of jokes, and she further doubted the picture’s internal integrity, pointing to the hotel/Rolling Stone scene where “The reason is simply to get laughs for baiting whitey”. I mean, yes, it is, but it’s note-perfectly done, and more importantly very funny with it. What McCarthy characterised as “an insolent, terribly hip stand-up comedy routine” lodged at the centre of the picture.
Kael’s a killjoy about Murphy’s schtick. That hotel scene, in which Axel poses as a Rolling Stone journo, may be a non sequitur in terms of rationale, but it absolutely makes sense in terms of theme and star intent. Indeed, it’s probably the signature scene in the picture. She also swipes that “there’s no rationale for the mayhem at the end”, as if there ever needed to be for a shootout finale. She’s bang-on in terms of the broader analysis of the movie’s energy, though: “The whole picture is edited and scored as if it were a lollapalooza of laughs”. The Simpson-Bruckheimer formula had seen its first real fruit in the previous year’s Flashdance, packaging movies in a high-gloss manner that lured hopelessly enthusiastic punters. Beverly Hills Cop may not have had the flash, as such, but it was very much tailored to its star’s wattage; the shaggy dog structure is far less disciplined than Brest’s later Midnight Run, caught needing to nurse the looseness of Murphy’s improv and also the demands of its producers in furnishing an all-hits soundtrack.
Certainly, its striking in retrospect that the Detroit urban decay credits montage is disorientatingly juxtaposed with the upbeat Heat Is On. While there’s undoubtedly an investigation for Axel to engage in (not that complex a one admittedly, but straighter cop movies have worked with less), the proceedings are really structured around a series of confrontations/interactions, rather than a driving plot. With fellow (LA) cops. With villains. With local colour. Which is, again, where the soundtrack comes in. Harold Faltermeyer’s Axel F is a work of deceptively simple genius, applying the glue that sustains the picture’s momentum, lends it the illusion of focus, and it’s the only aspect that can keep up with Murphy’s motormouth.
Well, almost. When Bronson Pinchot appears as gallery assistant Serge, it’s all Murphy can do not to corpse. Pinchot’s performance, armed with an extraordinarily undefined accent, is beyond camp, landing instead in some rarefied, stratospheric territory that rightly had him identified as one of the movie’s highlights. Compare his unbound, gleeful frivolity to Damon Wayans’ “Banana Man” cameo, which is simply a crude, mincing stereotype.
It’s worth pausing on this aspect of the picture, though. McCarthy comments on the absence of love interest, and Murphy would late insert a love scene into The Golden Child on the basis that the studio was uncomfortable with a black man being seen to be have sex on screen. But what’s noticeable with many of these ’80s comedies is how “protesting too much” their heroes can be when it comes to their sexual bona fides. Hence Axel’s soon-to-be-deceased best friend (James Russo) confessing “Because I love you, man” – the most intimate moment in the picture, as Mikey gazes longingly at Axel over a manly beer – and Foley referring to his boss’s “little narrow ass”, equally fondly. Axel will later pose as villain Victor Maitland’s (VD-riddled) lover in order to gain an audience with him at a restaurant. When he invites Rosewood (Judge Reinhold) and Taggart (John Ashton) to “be friends”, the safe ground for their truce is a strip club, the most stridently heterosexual domain possible.
Such concerns are absolutely the terrain of this era; Beverly Hills Cop is proudly an empty vessel, and the obsessions it nurses are entirely materialistic, ephemeral ones. Maitland is, of course, smuggling drugs (and some bearer bonds) and the picture’s genesis is the contrast between haves and have nots. Berkoff’s Maitland is a fairly unadorned villain, but he is unmistakably an aesthete, obsessed with appearances and etiquette (the actor said of Murphy “He is the perfect Brechtian… he stands outside his character and works it like a puppeteer”). (As for the Best Original Screenplay Oscar nomination, I can only assume it was an attempt to reflect the material’s popular appeal, rather than being in any way serious)
If Beverly Hills Cop’s delivery adjusts to its star and producers’ demands, the remainder of the proceedings inhabit very much the same universe as Brest’s later Midnight Run. As in, they’re stuffed to the gills with unselfconscious genre characters (with the exception of Pinchot). Most of the support play like they’re in a Walter Hill movie; Hill would quip that a 48 Hrs. sequel had already been made, prior to embarking on the actual one, and it was called Beverly Hills Cop. Ashton is on fine form as by-the-book curmudgeon Taggart (he would subsequently embrace maximum seediness in Midnight Run), while Reinhold, before plastic surgery and believing his own hype got the better of him, is a fresh-faced innocent as Billy, empowered by joys of movie killing and comparing his experiences to the same (“You know the end of Butch Cassidy…”)
What’s surprising is less that Ronny Cox is cast as a nice guy (this was pre-Robocop) than that his traditional angry boss character turns out to be extremely reasonable, even offering to bring Taggart up on charges when the latter first lays into Axel. I have no recognition of Lisa Eilbacher from anything else (although I see she starred in Midnight Caller). My abiding response whenever I see ’80s Jonathan Banks (also 48 Hrs., Gremlins, Otherworld) is to wonder how he got quite so old between this and Day Break?
Beverly Hills Cop was the biggest hit of the year, of course… Almost. It arrived in December and duly whipped Ghostbusters’ titanic tally. However, neither took the crown globally. That would be a little old prequel titled Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. All three of these have ongoing sequel talk, with Indiana Jones and the Fountain of Woke currently shooting and Ghostbusters: Afterlife waiting to prove it just can’t compete without Murray front and centre. As for Beverly Hills Cop IV, it was supposed to begin filming for Netflix after Murphy finished Coming 2 America. Perhaps Eddie had second thoughts in the light of the plandemic. That, and the way his Coming to America sequel sucked.