It’s been 25 years since I first watched Beverly Hills Cop with critical eyes. The passage of time has not been kind to it.
Back in the summer of 1992, a rough first draft was written immediately after a Beta screening for a rightfully unpublished collection of poorly conceived reviews humbly titled The Movie Critic: Book One. At the time, I felt the movie was average. I praised Eddie Murphy’s performance but disliked the weak villain and the numerous cop movie cliches. Curiously, I even panned Harold Faltermeyer’s memorable score. I called it “unexciting” and that it didn’t “match what’s happening on the screen”.
That last observation (which honestly doesn’t sound all that sincere since the review was written fast without much forethought and left unrevised) was obviously, indisputably wrong. The best thing about Beverly Hills Cop is, in fact, the music and not just Faltermeyer’s electronic contributions. From Glenn Frey’s The Heat Is On during the opening titles to a reprise of Patti LaBelle’s Stir It Up during the closing ones, there isn’t a single bad music cue. It all works.
But this isn’t a feature-length music video, as much as it seems like one at times. No, it’s supposed to be a cop comedy. But sadly, it’s not a very good one. What I once felt was just so-so is now rather terrible. It turns out the teenage me went too easy on this disappointing, unoriginal mess.
Murphy plays Axel Foley, a reckless Detroit detective who has a natural talent for pissing off authority. After a foolish, unauthorized sting operation involving would-be cigarette smugglers goes completely haywire, he gets the first of many reprimands which grow tiresome over time.
After parking his decrepit Chevy Nova outside his apartment building that same day, he finds his old friend Mikey (James Russo) already inside eating his food. Newly released from prison, they catch up over drinks and pool. It must be said that their repartee feels very forced. Like his friend, we learn that Foley was once on the other side of the law. They used to steal cars together. Mikey could’ve implicated his childhood friend over one such incident but never did.
Foley’s pal had a job working security for a Beverly Hills art dealer named Victor Maitland (Steven Berkoff), a typical foreign villain of the 80s who always looks suspicious because of his resting bitch face and European accent. (He also has a very distracting bump on his forehead. It looks like a zit that needs to be popped.) Of course, the art business is a front for his real scheme, smuggling cocaine. Mikey makes the mistake of stealing a bunch of German money from his boss which catches up to him once the old, now drunken friends arrive back at Foley’s apartment.
Confronted by a couple of Victor’s goons about the stolen Deutsche Marks, Foley’s pal gets beaten and popped. Foley can’t do anything about it because moments before the hit, he gets knocked out from behind. Considering how this movie ends, they should’ve shot him, too.
After another scolding from his superior (because he refuses to get checked out at the hospital and wants to investigate his friend’s homicide), Foley is granted a vacation to Beverly Hills where he hopes to get some answers without being constantly hassled.
Fat chance of that. After his first confrontation with Victor who is not a very good liar (or much of a villain in his limited screen time), he gets thrown through a glass window (a baffling moment) and arrested by the local police. Immediately and inevitably, he butts heads with his ill-equipped interrogators, Taggart (John Ashton) and Rosewood (Judge Reinhold) who are so straight they don’t even drink on the job. (Also inevitable is how they will all eventually find themselves on common ground.)
After Taggart loses his temper and punches Foley in the stomach, their boss (the great Ronny Cox in a role that is very much beneath him) asks if their Detroit visitor will press charges. In one of the few real moments of this very formulaic story, Foley admits, “Where I come from, cops don’t charge other cops.” So true. Just ask Black Lives Matter.
Taggart and Rosewood are ordered to tail Foley wherever he goes (Cox is concerned about his obsession with Victor), a simple task made difficult because they’re frequently and easily outsmarted. (Even their replacements can’t do this without running into problems.) Before we suffer through all of that unfunny nonsense (stuffing bananas in a tailpipe?), Foley reconnects with another old friend, Jenny (lovely Lisa Eilbacher), who runs a gallery owned by Victor, and informs her about the demise of their mutual childhood chum. Stunned by the news, she ultimately helps him get into the warehouse Mikey worked at where the drugs are being hidden. The lack of tight security there is rather alarming. Our hero walks right in undetected.
Eventually spotted by a security guard, Foley absurdly pretends to be some kind of outraged customs inspector which allows him to get a closer look at the operation. It seems highly unlikely he would get away with this in the real world. Truthfully, you could say that about a lot of his scenes in this movie. Whenever Foley assumes a different persona (fast-talking cigarette smuggler trying to implicate real ones, pissed off customs inspector surreptiously seeking evidence of drug smuggling, outraged Rolling Stone reporter trying to get a room in a fancy hotel, effeminate herpes sufferer trying to get into a private club lunch), you see right through the charade. One wonders why none of the other characters do.
Because Beverly Hills Cop is much more interested in Eddie Murphy’s famously phony laugh (which I now find grating) and sometimes improvisational dialogue (which is often high energy but rarely humourous now), the double revenge plot is almost besides the point. It’s clear where we’re headed (even though it takes too long to get there) and there’s no suspense about the outcome.
Victor Maitland could’ve easily been a Bond villain considering how inept he is at doing the obvious thing. When Foley and Jenny get caught opening up a shipment crate finding those bags of cocaine hidden under some coffee grounds (a practice done to throw off sniffing guard dogs), instead of an immediate double execution, Victor has Jenny kidnapped to his gated mansion and leaves behind his punch happy goons to beat on Foley, one of whom admits to killing Mikey (guess what happens to him). Despite taking his sweet-ass time to intervene, a hesitant Rosewood, now an ally who Foley orders to wait outside in a parked car, is still able to avert disaster in plenty of time.
That leads to the most proposterous sequence in the film, the big final shoot-out at Victor’s sprawling residence. While Victor’s goons rain down machine gun fire without once connecting with their targets, they’re somehow easily picked off by one shot from a six-shooter or a pistol.
Beverly Hills Cop was a major turning point for Eddie Murphy. Already a breakout star for years on Saturday Night Live, this film, his fourth, would convince him to leave the show for good and never look back. A huge moneymaker at the time, it somehow also convinced critics it was worthy of significant praise.
It isn’t. 33 years after its initial theatrical release, beyond the music and the three times I laughed, there’s not much else to like about it. (Yeah, it’s fun seeing a truck plow into shit but aren’t a lot of those cars owned by poor black folks who can’t afford to replace them?) Murphy’s performance is all over the place and rarely convincing. (Roger Ebert, a rare dissenter, correctly noted in 1984 that he isn’t an action hero.) Ashton & Reinhold are never funny. The villain is overly generic and remarkably vulnerable despite his wealth and social standing. He has so much to lose upon exposure and yet his security detail is easily beatable. It’s simply not believable that no one in Beverly Hills, not even the police force, would only see him as an outstanding citizen with nothing to hide. He’s not exactly charming.
It’s weird that Axel Foley, a black man in a predominantly African American city, doesn’t appear to have any black friends. Both Mikey and Jenny are white. And it’s also odd that he doesn’t encounter any racism in the film. (Most of the strange looks he gets from the Beverly Hills rich is for his broken down car making them more classist than anything else.) In the scene set in that fancy Beverly Hills hotel (where a room for one costs you over 200 dollars a night), he’s refused not because of his dark pigmentation but because he hasn’t made a reservation. It’s only because he causes an embarrassing scene that they manage to somehow find him something.
Ebert was right. That scene in itself isn’t funny for a whole lot of reasons. And yet overall, he gave this movie two and a half stars out of four. If you ask me, he gave it one star too many.
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Sunday, April 2, 2017