The Beverly Hills Cops: Three Directors, One ‘Stache.
Bo bo boo bobo bo bo, boo bo bo boo bobo bo bo, boo boo boo bobo bo boo boo. If you don’t recognize the tune that I just wrote down then a) you’re prose tone deaf, b) you weren't around in the 80s when it reached #3 on The Billboard Hot 100, c) you have no capacity for joy and happiness in your life, or d) any combination of the above. Well, for those out there that don’t know it, that’s “Axel F.”, the main theme from Beverly Hills Cop, today’s Movember film selection featuring the mustachioed Eddie Murphy at the height of his powers. Joining the cast of Saturday Night Live in 1980, the stand up comedian soon parlayed his success there into a film career making 48 Hours in 1982. When his co-star Nick Nolte proved too sick to host SNL as promotion for the film, Eddie became the first regular cast member to also host the show. His next film was Trading Places with SNL alum Dan Ackroyd, and this pair of hits catapulted Murphy into leading role territory. The result was a string of hits, including The Golden Child and Coming to America, that all began with one Detroit cop taking a trip to Beverly Hills. From there, a franchise and a superstar were born of the 80’s, but in the matter of a decade, Murphy and his character Axel Foley were struggling for survival. Today, I’m going to talk about all three films in the Beverly Hills Cop trilogy, each by a different director, but with one tune, one laugh, and one ’stache that holds them together.
Kicking off to the strains of Glen Frey’s “The Heat Is On”, Beverly Hills Cop gets right into the action as Axel Foley (Eddie Murphy), a loose cannon Detroit cop, hangs off the back of a semi truck when a black market cigarette ring bust goes wrong. From Frey’s “Heat” the soundtrack slides right into The Pointer Sisters’ “Neutron Dance”, and if there was any idea that Murphy’s first solo film was not a time capsule of the era, they are quickly dispelled. Next comes the traditional dressing down from his captain, and then he’s joined by his scallywag childhood friend Michael Tandino (James Russo), an ex-con who is killed in front of Alex before the first evening of their reunion is even complete. The trail of clues leads to a job Michael said he had gotten in Beverly Hills working for a big art dealer named Victor Maitland (Stephen Berkoff), but Alex can’t get on the case. So he takes vacation and goes to Beverly Hills to investigate on his own. Running afoul of the local cops, Alex must convince reluctant detectives Rosewood and Taggert (Judge Reinhold and John Ashton) to help him to bring down Maitland’s smuggling ring. It should also be noted that, in one of my favorite kind of movie moments, Eddie introduced Judge's character as a, "Beverly Hills Cop". When they can say the name of the movie in the movie, and it's still good. Then you know you've really got something.
If film lore is to be believed everyone from Mickey Rourke and James Caan to Sylvester Stallone could have been the Beverly Hills Cop. Sly, who reportedly left two weeks before filming due to a difference over the brand of orange juice to be used in the trailer, mined the script for his film to make another classic flick, Cobra. When the role landed with Eddie Murphy at the last minute, hasty rewrites meant actors were learning lines directly before scenes, and it could have been a disaster. Instead, thanks to the improvisational skills of Murphy, Reinhold, and Aston, it became one of the classic comedies of all time. Watching it now, having seen it probably a dozen or more times over the years, it still seems as fresh as ever. Even the conceits they made up for the film, like the cars being tracked by a GPS system, are things that have come true by now, and it helps make the film feel less dated. Beverly Hills Cop would have been a completely different and much less interesting film, in the hands of a traditional action star as was originally slated.
Director Martin Brest flipped a coin to decide if he was going to direct Beverly Hills Cop, and it has to be one of the best coin tosses in history. If he also decided in the same way to make his 2003 film Gigli, maybe he should not have pressed his luck. Before BHC, Breast had directed Going in Style, with Art Carney and George Burns, a wonderful mix of action, caper hijinx, and comedy, and he was well suited for the Alex Foley’s first adventure. The script was in such shambles many scenes are improvised, and Brest proved up to the job of catching Murphy, as well as the rest of the cast, at the top of their game. With a gross of $234.7 million domestically, beating out Ghostbusters for the top of the box office in ’84, Murphy and Breast were catapulted into another echelon of their professions. Breast would follow up BHC with Midnight Run, another success, before directing Scent of a Woman (one of the world’s most overly praised movies), the boated remake of Death Takes a Holiday, Meet Joe Black, and the aforementioned career killer Gigli. With only a seven film filmography, Breast managed to make one of the best examples of action-comedy ever put to celluloid and one of the most infamously reviled movies of all time. That, my friends, is a stunt that even Axel Foley couldn't pull off.
Murphy next made The Golden Child, which took in a third of Beverly Hills Cop’s revenue. So a return to Axel Foley became inevitable. Beverly Hills Cop II finds an Axel Foley still pulling stunts while on the trail of a credit card fraud ring. When Captain Bogomil (Ronny Cox reprising his role from the first film), is gunned down, Axel tells his superiors he was going deep undercover and heads to the Hills again. Teaming up with Rosewood and Taggert again, who have been taken off the case, the trio goes on the hunt for “The Alphabet Killer”. That whole story line is quickly relegated to the back burner as Foley begins to connect the Captains murder to an embezzlement and firearms ring. The bad guys this time Maxwell Dent (Jurgan Prochnow), his henchwoman Karly Fry (Brigitte Nielsen) and patsy Charles Cain (Dean Stockwell) prove to be a more deceptive and lethal force than art dealer Victor Maitlan, and it gives the film a harder edge than the first. In the film’s climax, the action descends into the type of explosive warehouse showdown that is example two in the Standard Action Film Playbook.
The second Cop film follows the law of diminishing returns. While Murphy was still funny, it was evident that film was not as loose as the first. The action was filmed much sleeker, and director Tony Scott, whose film Top Gun had thoroughly spanked The Golden Child in the 1986 box office, certainly excels in this area more than in the comedy area. There was plenty of shooting and killing, but the laughs seem more canned. So as an action film it excels at points, but mostly by mining traditional action movie tropes, and as a comedy, it doesn't provide as much entertainment. What you do get is more Paul Riser as Foley’s Detroit partner (because what everyone needs is more Paul Riser), several more rounds of “Alex F”, and a movie that just didn't quite repeat the success of the original. Beverly Hills Cop II came in nearly $100 million under the take of the first film, and while it wasn't the runaway hit of the first, it gave Murphy enough clout to make several more films.
The problem was the choice of those films. Starting strong with Coming to America, Murphy appeared in the middling period comedy Harlem Nights with Richard Pryor, and the belated sequel Another 48 Hours before hitting a real downturn with Boomerang and The Distinguished Gentlemen. So in 1994, Murphy came back to the character of Axel Foley, and he brought with him John Landis, a director with which he had made one of Murphy’s best films, Trading Places. This time Axel Foley’s commander, Douglas Todd (Gil Hill, completing a BHC hat trick) is killed, and the mystery leads to, you guessed it, Beverly Hills. That’s where they have giant theme parks, of course, and the clues lead Alex to Wonder World, a Disney-esque Vacation destination. One of the original concepts for the film was “Die Hard in an Amusement Park”, and a watered down version of that is what we get on the screen. The film still tries to provide action, but apart from a daring rescue on an Amusement park ride, there’s little here that isn't predictable and standard.
Even worse, Beverly Hills Cop III walks so close to comedy line of things that it becomes a farce of itself. Really? A George Lucas cameo? Bronson Pinchot is back as Serge and he’s an arms dealer selling a giant gun which also houses a microwave and a boom box? Really? Rosewood is the head of a task force with too long of an acronym? All in all it’s just a frustrating mess that is trying too hard. Earlier drafts of the script called for Foley, Rosewood, and Taggert to travel to London for an adventure which would possibly team them with a Scotland Yard Inspector. While that plot line also sounds like jumping the shark, the idea that Sean Connery’s name was bandied around in connection is enough for me to wish it had happened. Murphy clearly brought Landis in to try and have two shots at reclaiming success, the character and the man in the big chair. In the end, both failed. Axel Foley is a complete cartoon character this time around, and in a symbolic moment at film’s end, Wonder World adds a new character, Axel Fox. Beverly Hills Cop III marked another flop for Murphy bringing in only $42 million coming in 14th for the year.
After Beverly Hills Cop III’s failure, and that of his next picture, Wes Craven’s Vampire in Brooklyn, Murphy turned to kiddie fare with The Nutty Professor, Mulan, and Doctor Doolittle. His stabs at reclaiming an adult audience, Metro, Showtime, I Spy, and so forth, have for the most part fallen on deaf ears. While BHC III is not a perfect film, it’s almost the last moment that the Eddie Murphy that appeared on SNL disappeared into the Disney-fied, Shreck-tastic Eddie we know today. In 2013, Beverly Hills Cop is slated to return, with Eddie, marginally at least. After rejecting dozens of scripts for films, including heavy overtones from Bret Ratner, Murphy is spinning the franchise into a TV property positing himself as the head of the department and Axel’s son Aaron being the star of the show. It sounds bad, and it doesn't at all look like Brandon T. Jackson’s Aaron will be showing off a mustache for all seasons.
The law of diminishing returns is the story of the Beverly Hills Cop trilogy and Eddie Murphy. The further away both of them got from their source, the more they were diluted. By a Detroit mile, or even eight of them, Beverly Hills Cop is the best of the three films, but each of them have their charm, mostly thanks to the performances of Murphy, Reinhold, and John Aston (who only appears in the first two). Beverly Hills Cop is a classic of the action-comedy genre, and while the sequels pale in comparison, they are still solid examples of popcorn movie fare before “blockbuster” titles became the name of the game. There’s very little hoping that either Hollywood or Eddie Murphy will see the error of their ways, but if they care to, they need only to look back to Beverly Hills Cop as an example. One word of warning before I sign off, if you, like me, decide to watch all three of these films in a 24 hour period, don’t be surprised if, when you slip off to dreamland, you find yourself in a world of guffawing laughter, sleek black moustaches, and one song repeating endlessly over and over. Bo bo boo bobo bo bo, boo bo bo boo bobo bo bo, boo boo boo bobo bo boo boo.