I like BEVERLY HILLS COP. It’s a pretty good crime movie. But you’ve never thought of it that way, have you? (Don’t lie, I can see you grinning.) It is, in fact, one of a very odd breed of “silent classics” in tough guy cinema that will never—and I mean, NEVER EVER—be given its proper due for reasons of pedigree, their place in history and, in this case, the stigma attached to it by its own lead actor. This is a weird irony considering that Eddie Murphy is one of the film’s strongest assets, and that his performance here places the character of Axl Foley among some of the true and authentic everyman heroes of popular entertainment. Not bad for a movie which features one of the most annoying pop songs of all time as its main title theme. Then again, it ain’t the music that matters. It’s the meat and potatoes. Pulp cinema, sleeves up. No shit.
Useless Trivia History Lesson Number 1982:
In that particularly garish year of our lord, legendary director Walter Hill came out the gate shooting with his humorous urban crime noir 48HRS and Eddie Murphy was the surprise of the film, paired up with the more established Nick Nolte, who looked to be headed down a hundred and fifty miles of rough road. Though Nolte’s life-grizzled performance in the film is hilarious and underrated, the young Murphy outshone his co-star with constant, clever improvisation and a few key “buzz” scenes . . . and was suddenly the darling of every film critic who could speak English and even a few who couldn’t. This was, essentially, the arrival of a major American movie icon. Because of Eddie Murphy’s show-stealing turn, 48HRS became a film schizophrenic in tone: boldly confrontational and knee-slapping in its buddy-movie deconstruction, but also dead serious, sadistically violent and even disturbing at its core.
BEVERLY HILLS COP was another matter. It was a script developed by the same studio around the same time as 48HRS, set originally to star Sylvester Stallone. The project had started as a “light” cop thriller comedy, but Sly had already taken his stab at rewriting the screenplay, creating a grim, gung-ho crimefighter—the character now known as Marion Cobretti from the later actioner COBRA. That film, directed in 1986 by RAMBO’s George P. Cosmatos would end up as an odd adaptation of a novel called FAIR GAME, gene-spliced with Stallone’s concepts originally intended for the character of Axl Foley, many of which were thrown out when he left the project just three weeks before principal photography began. Sly himself was reportedly gun-shy about doing comedy again after slumming alongside Dolly Parton as a cut-rate country and western singer in RHINESTONE, a film which truly has to be seen to be believed, and Paramount was resisting Stallone’s vision of BEVERLY HILLS COP as a street-tough affair. Regardless of who was right and who was wrong, it’s probably a real good thing old Cobra got his own film eventually and forgot about this one. BEVERLY HILLS COP may not have been the venue for a stoic trigger pumping NYC greaser with a license plate on his silver plated car reading AWSUM and a compunction for such words of wisdom as “hey, dirtbag, you’re a rotten shot” tossed in the mix during .38 caliber hostage negotiations. Or maybe that was Sly’s idea of doing something funny? Really not sure. For such a lovable old mook, he sure is a hard one to figure sometimes.
Stallone walked. Murphy was pressed into service. And the script got a last-minute re-tooling—during which time, director Martin Brest was literally cutting and pasting entire sections together with scissors and glue—to accommodate its less “showy” new star. The problem was that since the studio had insisted on moving forward so quickly, a lot of Stallone’s input into the screenplay remained in some form or another, and the result was a film far more hard-hitting than the studio expected with Eddie Murphy in the lead. It fell upon the powers-that-were to tone down its street-smarts however they could, play up the comedy, downplay the gore and action. A lot of this was done in the editing room. A lot of it was done by adding silly 1980s jukebox music. As a result, BHC is a film moving in several directions at once and achieving a singular effect, even if one has to strain his/her soul in the last half to see the seriousness of the filmmakers’ intent. Fortunately, a lot of that intent remains almost completely intact in the first half, and sets things up so well that it becomes an object lesson:
If you really fucking mean it, people will understand you.
This is the dance that not just the players in Hollywood are forced to do, but most every other commercial artist in any medium is forced to do. The line between what is serious and lasting in its own peculiar way and what must hit all the proper beats in order to sell, sell, sell is inevitably drawn somewhere in the sand. Very few people who deal inside a market where millions of dollars are at stake—or even thousands of dollars—are unaffected by this sort of Handbook approach to crafting the end product. Even fewer people outside the system are educated enough about how it really works to understand the sixth sense and real genius it takes to navigate these waters. I, personally, have dealt with it many, many times. I’m dealing with it on several projects right now. I’ve even refused to deal with it on principle in the past . . . and have, quite literally, starved nearly to death for my high-and-mighty commitment to the power of “important art” over the almighty dollar. But if you are very, very lucky . . . if you play your cards right . . . if you really fucking mean it . . . something special might just shine through all this. You can get away with murder sometimes. You can trick the system.
BEVERLY HILLS COP is a textbook example.
First of all, there’s the character of Axl Foley himself. This is obviously the toned-down version of the more out-there “Marion Cobretti” character, a streetwise hustler cop whom we join in Detroit for an opening sting/action sequence typical of films like this in the eighties (and in other decades, too) . . . but what makes the character work are Murphy’s intelligent decisions as an actor. This is one of his most shaded, dynamic and underrated performances. While the opening chase sequence is silly and contrived, made all the more “lighthearted” by the addition of the upbeat Pointer Sisters disco number “The Neutron Dance”—the subsequent obligatory hero-gets-his-ass-chewed-out-by-the-chief setup at the police station achieves the damn-near impossible: it takes something you simply cannot take as anything more than a series of archetypical clichés dancing in the void and makes them work on their own terms. It should be as laughable as your standard SNL sketch—the kind of sketch that mocks this type of film—but you find yourself laughing with it, not at it. Axl Foley breezes from place to place. We like him. We’re with him . . . not because he’s The Man, or because he cracks jokes, or even because he’s Eddie Murphy . . . but because he’s real.
The following sequences in which Axl is reunited with his ex-con pal are equally clichéd, but again Murphy steps up and delivers . . . alongside James Franco, who hijacks the film for the entire time he’s on screen with his heartbreakingly authentic Mikey, which could be any number of drunken, self-deluded losers wallowing at the wrong end of his life, drowned and suffocating and holding out false hopes. I’ve known this guy many times in my own life. The scene in the bar, where Murphy and Franco’s friendship is most clearly defined slips right under the radar to become one of the most genuine moments ever caught on film in a movie like this. Franco deserved a Best Supporting Actor nomination for his one brilliant turn of phrase, which might have been laughable in other hands, but attains an odd sort of timelessness here: “I love you, man.” It’s stripped down, no bullshit pulp cinema storytelling.
If you’ve seen the film, you know what happens to Franco in the very next scene. He gets killed. And it’s pretty hard stuff. He is beaten, humiliated, and then shot in the back of the head, execution style. (Take note that the actor who plays the assassin here is Jonathan Banks, ironically also the cop who buys it in the white-knuckle opening of 48HRS, and who later played an ill-fated “Mikey” of his own in BREAKING BAD.) This is the sort of thing that usually happens in books by James Elroy, not films starring Eddie Murphy. It’s a powerful scene upon refection. And as the film progresses, that serious tone is carried off as Axl Foley seeks revenge on the men who killed his friend. The very real specter of true-life tragedy, when it is discussed in relation to James Franco’s character, is never handled with anything less than chilling authenticity, as in the sequence when Axl informs his friend Jenny of Mikey’s death at the art gallery. We’re with these people. We feel their pain. We like them because they are real.
And then, of course, there is the humor.
Right this is a comedy, too, remember?
A great deal of the joke stuff is handled well, with quirky, measured dynamics. Some of it falls a little flat. Much of it seems to be left over from Stallone’s version, as in the bit when Murphy is grabbed by six guys in an office building and tossed kicking and screaming through the nearest plate glass window. It’s jarringly out-of-place in an otherwise less muscular scenario, but it works because of Murphy’s abilities to bring it off in a different way. After hitting the pavement outside in a hail of glass, he just sort of sits up and shrugs: “Hey . . .”
Well, what the heck would YOU have said?
By the time we are introduced to the Beverly Hills cops who will become Axl Foley’s allies and foils about midway through the film, some of it has lost a little gravity due to the extra fluff factors . . . but still, Murphy comes off as someone who’s got his shit together. He’s a likeable, resourceful rogue with a consistent, significant character arc—something painfully missing from most of Murphy’s later efforts. There’s a moment towards the end which I have always really liked, in which Foley convinces the eager ivy-league Judge Reinhold to come along on his mad mission to bust the bad guys and avenge his dead buddy. It ends with Murphy smiling and telling the young cop: “Billy, I love you. I just fell in love with you.” This is not only a clever, symmetrical riff on the earlier sequence with James Franco, but the sort of genuine, honest male bonding moment you don’t see a lot in films like this. You understand this guy. You believe in his quest. You want to know more about Axl Foley. When we arrive at the end of the scenario, the gravity drive has been restored and the final shootout is violent, intimate and punchy, carrying a great deal of weight because of the character’s humanity. This also provides suspense, both in the two-gun climax, and in the clever coda, in which cop chief Ronny Cox must go against his principals to cover the desperate off-the-books actions of his men. It’s really kind of brilliant. Because of the careful construction of the film, the bad guys also truly exude a sense of menace and danger whenever they’re on the screen, which helps the tension quotient, and allows the veddy skeddy Steven Berkoff to chew some modest scenery as Victor Maitland, one of his classic 1980s slimeballs. (See also: RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD PART 2, where he gets blown up by Sly.)
Unfortunately, we never did get to know much more about Axl Foley.
At least not in a movie that was any good.
In fact, the continuing adventures of the Beverly Hills Cop turned out to be a rather unique cautionary tale in the annals of the Hollywood film franchise. The first sequel was a victim of its own success, with Murphy returning to the scenario as a conquering hero, far too aware of himself, way too famous, and screaming like a well-dressed robot through a tired reworking of all the same clichéd scenes that almost-didn’t-work the first time. Too much shit blowing up, too many handguns, a script paralyzed by multiple cooks and prime directives from on high. Tony Scott directs stylishly, and the supporting cast gets some nice character moments, but the overall effect of the movie is empty and unsatisfying. Any film in which a mealy mouthed 1980s uber-babe like Bridget Neilson plays hatchet man to to a goofball like Jurgen Prochnow is probably in trouble from frame one, really. (Does anybody think those two people are scary?) Somewhere along the way, the filmmakers just forgot about what made the first film so affecting: The human element, the danger, the real empathy gravitating around compelling characters. This is not an unusual occurrence in sequels, obviously, an enterprise in which many writers are hired, and much Development Hell ensues—but, hey, this is an ongoing series, right? We’ll get it right in the next film, won’t we? Won’t we?
The words “A Film By John Landis” are never a good sign in any motion picture endeavor, never mind the clutch cargo do-or-die part 3 of an already failing film franchise. COP 3 happened a full ten years after the original film’s 1984 debut, when the series was already considered a long-dead proposition . . . and, with Landis driving the bus, the whole thing comes off eerily like watching your loudmouth drunken uncle piss all over an old friend’s corpse at a family reunion. I still can’t watch more than 20 minutes of that damn thing before having to avert my eyes in painful shame. (Not sure if I’ve even really seen COP 3 all the way through, come to think of it.) It’s kind of a non-movie, really. Something you just ignore. After that, with many other projects in the works, Murphy and Company wrote the whole thing off. Nowadays, we often hear odd rumblings of a reboot or a TV series, but it all may be cursed.
Therein lies the true and lasting injustice of the first BEVERLY HILLS COP. It is, at the end of the day, an Eddie Murphy movie—arguably the most famous and branded of all Eddie Murphy movies—and Eddie Murphy don’t really get no respect from most people, do he? So BHC was a lucky shot in the dark? An accidental mutation of sensibilities that just happens to have enough heart and soul for it to work as a pretty good crime movie? It’s a disguised little gem?
Sure, man. All of that.
And I don’t think it was any miracle.
After all . . . if you really fucking mean it . . .