REALLY RUBBISH: Beverly Hills Cop III (1994)

Beverly Hills Cop III (USA, 1994)
Directed by John Landis
Starring Eddie Murphy, Timothy Carhart, Judge Reinhold, Héctor Elizondo

I've spoken at grat length in my film reviews about the disappointing nature of threequels. Most of the time the disappointment comes from the first film or two films being really good and the third one falling short - but with Beverly Hills Cop the bar wasn't all that high to begin with. Nonetheless, Beverly Hills Cop III is the weakest instalment in the trilogy, with both John Landis and Eddie Murphy on autopilot and neither really wanting to be there.
 
As a film enthusiast, you're always looking to find the best in any given film. If a film is not great, you praise the bits that are good. If none of it is good, you argue that it's not memorably bad. If it is memorably bad, you put the case that it's so-bad-it's-good. And if it's offensively terrible (or terribly offensive), you try and argue that such offense could have some perverse cultural value. From this point of view the hardest films to defend - and the hardest to review - are those which are bad in a boring way, and Beverly Hills Cop III is a very bad, very boring film.
 
Considering how much I have criticised Simpson and Bruckheimer, it is ironic that the emptiest film in the series should be the one in which they had the least involvement. The high-concept duo left the project in the late-1980s, feeling that the story (as it was then) was too similar to that of Ridley Scott's thriller Black Rain. By the time Steven E. de Souza came on board, the film was being pitched as "Die Hard in a theme park", which was itself watered down as the budget was cut and Joel Silver jumped ship. The inertia that dogged the film's production is all too evident on screen, with both director and cast having a load of props but no idea how or why they should use them.
 
You could make the observation at this point that the Beverly Hills Cop trilogy is one of progressive narrative disengagement. The first film had good potential in its plot and a decent comic conceit, but it never really made the most of either and came out a little undercooked. BHC II rehashed the plot but gave even less credit to the audience's intelligence, resulting in a film that was flashy, asinine and dull. BHC III is arguably the most cynical, since there is no effort put into any part of its creative vision: it just sits there unwanted for 100 minutes, boring and depressing us, and then it's gone.
 
Despite its incredibly cynical nature, however, it's very hard to get angry at BHC III. You want to summon up a ball of rage against it, denounce the system that produced it, or John Landis for directing it, or Eddie Murphy was thinking it was a good script. But there is nothing in the film that could produce such a reaction, no matter how hard we try. Even with the re-emergence of Serge, one of the most annoying and offensive aspects of the first film, this is ultimately too boring and goofy to induce anger.
 
There are many bad films that induce anger because they squander great potential - The Millionairess and Atlantis being prime examples. But BHC III has very little potential to start with, and so when that potential isn't fulfilled upon, it almost plays to our expectations. Both Murphy and Landis' reputations for quality had taken hits by this juncture, leading us to revise our expectations downwards and hope for something serviceable. When we don't even get that, the stakes are too low to generate anything more than a mild twinge of disappointment.
 
Putting aside the lengthy production problems, much of the failure of BHC III can be blamed on Eddie Murphy. Landis took the gig knowing that the script wasn't any good, on the grounds that Martin Brest had got around the same problem by letting Murphy improvise. But when Landis tried to feed Murphy shtick or give him room to move, Murphy refused to say the lines or do anything funny. If Bronson Pinchot is to be believed, Murphy was very jealous of the success enjoyed by Wesley Snipes and Denzel Washington in straight roles, and tried to steer away from anything that made Axel Foley a "wiseass" (i.e. pretty much everything). Some of Pinchot's longer scenes were shot with just Landis, which might explain why so many of the jokes fall flat.
 
Because Murphy is so unwilling to play ball, all of the moments in BHC III that could have been funny take on an odd and awkward feeling. The lengthy final set-piece on the Wonderworld rides feels like it was originally written as a big comic finale - perhaps along the lines of The Pink Panther Strikes Again, where every aspect of a building is used to source a joke or generate tension. But with Murphy missing all his cues, the other actors seem unsure of how to play the scenes, and the film increasingly feels like a comedy which is trying to escape itself.
 
Throughout the film there are little glimpses of Landis' comedic pedigree, but all these moments are so out of context that they almost feel like a pastiche. There's an early musical number, with the car-jackers dancing around to Diana Ross and the Supremes, but that's surrounded by attempts at serious build-up, including the killing-off of Foley's boss. The disintegration of Murphy's car in the ensuing chase might have worked in The Blues Brothers (or the Pink Panther series), but here it feels bizarre and unnecessary. The film continually fails at comedy, either by pulling up short of its punch lines or having no sense of timing.
 
At the very least, you would expect Landis to have made more of the theme park setting. Even if the physical or situational comedy fell flat, you could argue that there would be some value in a comedy which tried to poke fun at the corporate paranoia of Disney and the like. But as with its big set-pieces, the more dialogue-driven scenes are void of ambition; the satire is bald if not completely non-existent, and there are episodes of Scooby Doo with greater tension as to the identity of the villain.
 
The only other characteristic of BHC III that is becoming of Landis is the abundance of cameos. In my review of Burke & Hare, I praised Landis for his restraint in this regard, only bringing people in for a good knowing laugh - whether it's Jenny Agutter playing a hammy actress, or Michael Winner going off a cliff in a stagecoach. His use of cameos here is far more akin to Into The Night, with a host of famous film faces turning up for little to no good reason. The most obvious and awkward of these is George Lucas, whom Murphy forces off the ferris wheel just before he saves the children.
 
This brings us on nicely (or rather not) to the issue of exploitation. Not only is the film's satire of the Disney culture incredibly bald, but it often falls into the opposite trap and becomes as blatantly manipulative as the theme parks itself. The entire action scene involving Murphy saving the children is a shameless attempt to engender empathy with his character - empathy that is never justified at any other point before or after. Likewise Theresa Randle's character gets nothing to do except be put in situations where Axel can save her or hit on her. While she's by no means the worst example of a damsel in distress in fiction, it's still a very cheap trick.
 
The performances in BHC III are all immensely lacklustre. Murphy sets the tone, looking either bored or frustrated and giving the distinct impression that he has fallen out of love with the character. Judge Reinhold is largely phoning it in, making very little of Billy's new powers and having no-one to bounce off (both Ronny Cox and John Ashton declined to appear). Timothy Carhart makes the very least of his villain, hitting most of the beats he needs to but not leaving any lasting impression. Even Alan Young, most famous for voicing Scrooge McDuck in DuckTales, doesn't particularly register: he does the minimum that is required, and then leaves as soon as he can.
 
Beverly Hills Cop III is a boring and depressing end to a franchise that barely got off the ground in the first place. With both its star and director working against their strengths and no effort being expended on the script, the film trudges and slumps from one failed joke to the next before eventually collapsing in a sorry heap. Ultimately it's too boring to get too angry about, but it remains a low point in the careers of all involved.

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