If you manage to maneuver past the video games and dust blanketed DVD covers in my hoard pile, you’ll find one somewhat organized spot. I call it my Top Shelf, and it’s the place where I put the movies I love and would not part with under any circumstances.
Among these precious treasures is Beverly Hills Cop. As far as precious possessions go, this is a big deal. It’s the movie that solidified Eddie Murphy as an A-list star, expanding his acting chops beyond comedic roles and standup specials. It’s the one with the infamous tailpipe banana and the climactic shootout with drug dealers who wear trench coats and Ray-Bans. Already brilliant scenes are set aflame with Glenn Frey and Patti LaBelle on the soundtrack. In other words, getting rid of Beverly Hills Cop would hurt. It would hurt bad.
However, as part of my self-induced therapy, even the Top Shelf dwellers must face scrutiny. The time has come to give Beverly Hills Cop that same treatment.
Axel Foley (Murphy) is what you’d get if you took Dirty Harry and swapped out the grit for an upbeat, jovial demeanor. He’s a cop who breaks all the rules to get the job done, spending every minute of it chuckling with that classic Eddie Murphy laugh. The opening sequence shows us the headaches Axel causes his always bellowing, cursing Inspector Todd (Gilbert R. Hill). Axel sets up a sting operation by his lonesome to catch some cigarette smugglers, ending in a chase sequence and lots of smashed up property. Needless to say, this does not please Inspector Todd:
We’ve seen this character in a hundred cop movies, and there’s plenty of other familiar sights and sounds to follow. I wonder how many of these are clichés Beverly Hills Cop invented versus how many were already very, very ’80s.
Anyway, after Axel’s epic ass chewing, he returns home to his humble apartment and a best buddy from his bad days, Mikey (James Russo). Mikey is in Detroit after a stay in jail and has brought along some savings bonds he happened to pick up/steal.
Five minutes of screen time later Mikey is dead, victim of a professional hit. Axel wants to solve the case but the boss isn’t having that. Despite being warned that he’s teetering on the edge of being fired, Axel drives his beaten-to-shit Chevy Nova into Beverly Hills, California, home of swimming pools, movie stars, and the truth.
No sooner does Axel arrive than he’s met up with his childhood friend Jenny Summers (Lisa Eilbacher) and made an enemy out of his number one suspect, Victor Maitland (Steven Berkoff). We know Maitland is responsible because he’s That Kind of villain: the man who sits behind his expensive desk with a soulless expression plastered on his features, a Hannibal Lecter accent slithering out in soft, ominous tones. His right-hand bodyguard/enforcer Zack (Jonathan Banks) isn’t the kind of goon who trails behind benevolent philanthropists. Maitland couldn’t be more obvious if his nameplate read ‘CHIEF EXECUTIVE BAD GUY.’
Axel’s initial encounter with Maitland leads our hero, cuffed, to the Beverly Hills Police Department. There we meet Lt. Bogomil (Ronny Cox) and his detectives Sgt. Taggart (John Ashton) and Billy Rosewood (Judge Reinhold.) They are by-the-book straight players to Axel’s loose cannon persona.
Rosewood is the bright-eyed, anxiety-ridden, always-questioning-everything type. Taggart is quieter with a harder edge. Together they’re like a mismatched married couple, with Rosewood acting as a mother hen and Taggart a frustrated stone wall. The scene where Rosewood gets on his partner over consuming too much red meat and caffeine is hilarious and unforgettable. These two are also as green as Maitland’s mansion lawns. The case Axel will draw them into is the most exciting one they’ve pursued in their careers.
Thus begins a fish-out-of-water story that isn’t quite fish-out-of-water upon rewatch. Instead it’s an action buddy comedy about a rebel cop confusing, annoying, and winning over a straight-laced police department. Axel is a renegade out of his element even when operating in Detroit, so a change in locale has nothing to do with his arc.
The scenery is all that perpetuates our hero’s status as a misfit wanderer. Everything we see of Motor City looks like its citizens have occupied modern day Chernobyl. By contrast, Beverly Hills is a wonderland of tall, shiny buildings and expensive cars.
Detroit’s has the appearance of a locker room in a poorly funded high school. By contrast, with its rows of sophisticated computer banks leading up to a gigantic screen, the BHPD’s command center is reminiscent of the NORAD room from WarGames—which isn’t a coincidence because, according to the commentary track, it is the recycled NORAD set from WarGames. One may also wonder why the BHPD needs such an expensive setup if they’re only policing upper echelon players and their very first world problems.
As a fish-out-of-water tale Beverly Hills Cop misses the mark, but as a buddy comedy it’s great. The way Axel’s friendship develops with these golf course caretakers is warm and appealing. The characters play off each other with natural chemistry.
Lest I forget, Murphy is fantastic as Axel Foley. He is able to balance the character’s dual personalities, switching between a spontaneous wisecracker and a man who looks believable with a gun in his hand. Great is he is as Buckwheat, a homeless con artist, an African prince and a fat grandma, Murphy is a natural fit for a cop as well.
The only character who gets the short end is poor Jenny. She’s allowed to tag along and give Axel free rides (I mean in her car) while he pursues his case, but otherwise she’s just there without much input to add.
Fun fact: Jenny was originally Axel’s romantic interest when Sylvester Stallone was attached to the project. When he dropped and Eddie Murphy took over as Axel, the studio dropped the romance angle so as not to alienate audiences. Racism and all that aside, I wonder if Jenny would have amounted to much else if she remained more than a platonic friend.
Beverly Hills Cop isn’t flawless, due to the parts that haven’t aged well over the last 30 years. Clichés abound. Still, damned if this isn’t a blast all the way through, more fun than a theme park ride. It’s the kind of movie where, as the end credits roll, I feel like I’m saying goodbye to good friends. I’ve always taken that as evidence that I’ve had a good time.
Does it stay on the Top Shelf?
Is it a keeper or clutter that needs throwing away?
Are you fucking kidding me?
FINAL GRADE: B