OVERRATED: Beverly Hills Cop (1984)

Beverly Hills Cop (USA, 1984)
Directed by Martin Brest
Starring Eddie Murphy, Judge Reinhold, John Ashton, Lisa Eilbacher

In a piece he wrote for GQ a couple of years ago, Mark Harris opined that much of Hollywood's current malaise stems from the mind-set of the generation running the studios. Hollywood's recent conservative spiral has come about because the people green-lighting film came of age at the dawn of the modern blockbuster. In his words: "the guys who felt the rush of Top Gun... [are] now in [their] forties... And increasingly, it is their taste, their appetite, and the aesthetic of their late-'80s post-adolescence that is shaping movie-making."
 
Whether you agree with Harris or not, his argument would help to explain Hollywood's increasingly obsession with remaking every successful 1980s film. The re-emergence of Fame, Footloose, Red Dawn and a host of others certainly gives the impression that the 1980s was a golden time, with each of these films being classics in their field. But of course, even a cursory glance is enough to debunk this notion - and so it is with Beverly Hills Cop, which now looks really ordinary after 29 years on the beat.
 
Just like Top Gun two years later, Beverly Hills Cop is a classic example of the high-concept film - an idea supposedly invented by Steven Spielberg but most firmly identified with Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer. It is a film whose entire story is contained in its title or tagline - Eddie Murphy is a cop in Beverly Hills. Axel Foley's origins in Detroit have no bearing other than to create a contrast with the other police force; frankly, he could be from Florida and it wouldn't make any difference to the plot or the comic conceit.
 
We could debate the legacy of Simpson and Bruckheimer all day, but their approach does help to explain a lot of the characteristics of Beverly Hills Cop. Harris again puts it best when he says, in the same article: "their movies weren't movies; they were pure product - stitched-together amalgams of amphetamine action beats, star casting, music videos, and... technological adrenaline all designed to distract you from their lack of internal coherence, narrative credibility, or recognizable human qualities."
His comments are echoed by an observation John Landis made at a Q&A session in 2009. Speaking about his involvement in Beverly Hills Cop III, Landis remarked that the first film had a terrible script, and that it was only funny because director Martin Brest allowed Eddie Murphy and Judge Reinhold to improvise most of their dialogue. This might help to explain a lot of the long pauses in between the characters' stories; whenever a big explanation has to take place to their superiors about what happened, the camera just hangs on them for a few seconds, as though Brest was waiting for anything else that was funny.
 
Fittingly, the opening section of the film does owe a lot to Landis. The opening montage is like a blue-collar version of the opening to Trading Places, with the run-down architecture of Detroit and Patti LaBelle's 'New Attitude' taking the place of refined New York City building and Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro. Both the opening chase and the final showdown take heavily after the multi-car pile-ups in The Blues Brothers, though they are executed with much less timing and panache. Had Landis not made such a pig's ear of the third film, you might hazard to say he would have been a safer bet here.
 
Because the film is essentially a star vehicle for Eddie Murphy, it should come as little surprise that the story of Beverly Hills Cop isn't that great. But what's perplexing is that, in the right hands, it could have been. The series of events has more than enough twists and turns in it to make a decent procedural or mystery drama. Don't get me wrong, it's not Chinatown, but it would have been enough to keep people guessing, if only for a while.
Similarly, there is a nice little idea in the character of Axel Foley. Foley is a cop who gets results by going above the law, and the comedy (supposedly) arises from him being put in a place where everyone goes only by the book. Foley's knack of getting results based on his hunches and misdirection could have been explored in more detail, with the consequences of him messing up serving as an emotional anchor. Instead the closest we come to any kind of anchor is Foley's boss Todd, played convincingly by real-life Detroit cop Gil Hall.
 
The central problem with Beverly Hills Cop is that it makes the absolute least of its material. Problems with the original screenplay could have been remedied in the direction, and the improvisation should have worked wonders considering how talented Murphy was as a stand-up. Instead all of Murphy's energy is over-indulged, with Brest not giving him the boundaries or the character direction that Landis gave him in Trading Places. In that film, Murphy was working within set boundaries and doing the best he could. Here, he's given a free reign and so is very hit-and-miss, with none of the bad stuff being cut because the script has nothing to fall back on in the first place.
 
As a result of this lack of discipline from both director and star, the plot of Beverly Hills Cop becomes convoluted to the point where it is almost irrelevant. The audience are spoon-fed all the major plot points through exposition from Foley - or if not through exposition, then through improv that goes on for too long. Eventually we give up trying to find out for ourselves who killed Foley's friend, because if we wait around long enough the film will tell us, and we won't have to think.
At this point you might argue that the majority of 1980s blockbusters were this asinine and patronising, and that I am simply attacking a trend rather than dealing with issues specific to this film. But this line of reasoning can be swiftly dismissed by comparing Beverly Hills Cop with Lethal Weapon. Both have similar conceits of an out-of-control police officer working with people of opposite persuasions to take down a dangerous criminal. But Lethal Weapon is by far the better film, with a funnier script, more character development, and direction from Richard Donner which complements the action rather than just capturing it.
 
Lethal Weapon also has the edge as far as performances are concerned. Whatever you may think of Mel Gibson's personal life or political views, he is brilliant as Martin Riggs, and Danny Glover is a perfect match for him. Murphy is talented, and he is working with some talented people in the form of Ronny Cox of Deliverance fame and Judge Reinhold, who had recently come from Fast Times at Ridgemont High. But other than Gil Hall, none of the supporting cast are strong or convincing enough to reign Murphy in. Even Steven Berkoff, in uptight threatening ham mode, can't provide the counterbalance needed to give the Axel Foley character meaning.
 
On top of this, there is also an uncomfortable homophobic undercurrent in the film. This is most likely a product of the time; Hollywood is notorious for the slow speed at which its attitudes towards different social groups changes. But even with the historical context, the mincing depiction of many male characters is offensive and too blatant to ignore. Such events don't derail the film, but only because there is nothing really to derail in the first place.
 
What we are left with is a film of barely passable mediocrity - 100-odd minutes of disposable action and attempted comedy which don't really hang together and don't amount to much more than escapist diversion. The soundtrack is decent but very repetitive, the cinematography is pretty standard, and the ending meets some of our expectations but doesn't deliver any kind of knock-out punch. It's not a crushing disappointment in the manner of Beowulf or Atlantis: The Lost Empire; both of these films squandered great potential, while this has much less to squander in the first place. Instead it's a film that might induce a chuckle, but mainly leaves us with the resignation that comes from lowered expectations.
 
Beverly Hills Cop is a flat and rather aimless action comedy that hasn't stood the test of time at all well. For all the individual moments where the dialogue sparks or the action becomes engaging, it has none of the driving energy of Lethal Weapon from the story, direction or performances. As an historical document it's still of interest, and Eddie Murphy die-hards will probably enjoy it more. But as a comedy, plain and simple, it's just not funny any more.

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Mark Harris' excellent GQ article, The Day The Movies Died, can be read in full here. John Landis' highly entertaining Q&A from 2009 can be watched from the beginning here; the section involving Beverly Hills Cop begins here.

NEXT REVIEW: The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012)

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