James Clay // Film Critic
BEVERLY HILLS COP TRILOGY
The BEVERLY HILLS COP trilogy holds up like about as well as a banana in a tailpipe. The film that more or less made Eddie Murphy a household name was the highest-grossing film of 1984. Unfortunately, the history behind the series is far more engaging than the content itself.
As the wiseass Detroit detective Axel Foley, who finds himself stuck in the center of an unbearably white Beverly Hills police precinct, Murphy became a leading man who was unlike anybody working in Hollywood. The film almost had a meta-textual commentary for the life the burgeoning star was experiencing. The original film was produced by Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer, who took this high concept and simplified it by throwing Murphy into fish-out-of-water scenarios. The fun for the audience was watching Murphy improvise antics and kick a little butt along the way.
The trilogy saw Murphy start to second guess his creative decisions, something that has followed him around throughout his entire career. Maybe it was ego, perhaps it was a lack of confidence, or it could be that he drained every ounce of creative juice from the series. But truth be told, Murphy often suffered from misguided execution on his projects. Much like Tom Cruise’s MISSION IMPOSSIBLE series, each film in the BEVERLY HILLS COP series enlisted a different director who would put their spin on Ethan Hunt (or Axel Foley, respectively). Murphy laid this groundwork for megastars like himself and Cruise to act as creative directors where no demand seemed out of reach.
None of the films offer up a satisfying story, quality action (minus a few set pieces here and there), or many memorable laughs that have remained in the public consciousness. That said, it was Murphy’s brand of Hollywood hero that ushered in filmmakers like Michael Bay and stars such as Will Smith to gain the upper hand on the studio system.
BEVERLY HILLS COP (1984)
Dir. Martin Brest
This is a film that has reached legendary status – an anomaly that ushered in a whole new type of easily consumable filmmaking that audiences flocked towards for decades to come. The word we’re looking for is “groundbreaking.” However, the content (at its core) is painfully lifeless and confusing. It seems that this was almost a trial run for director Martin Brest, who expertly blended the ’80s action-comedy motif with his film MIDNIGHT RUN a few years later.
To his credit, Brest treated this material as a gritty crime caper with a dash of comedy. That approach propelled the momentum forward as the story faltered.
Story: When hotshot Detroit cop Axel Foley’s friend is killed, he’s led on a trail to Beverly Hills, California, where he attempts to uncover the truth behind the murder.
It’s pretty uninspiring, but that was never the point with this trilogy. Brest uses scrappy action scenes and unrefined cinematography to create a genuine aesthetic that belongs more in line with B-level canon films than major studio fare.
Murphy plays Foley as an immature cop who defies authority and seemingly has his own methods for how to conduct police work. While this is a standard trope in most gritty crime films, it was Murphy’s personality alone that made this such a huge hit. He tapped into something America was craving. This was a time before blockbusters dominated. It was the cultural context that looms large over BEVERLY HILLS COP’s reputation rather than the DNA of the film itself. Murphy was now at a point where he was in full control, and he never let it go.
BEVERLY HILLS COP II (1987)
Dir. Tony Scott
By far the most visually stylish of the franchise (which 100 percent of the credit goes to the late director Tony Scott), BEVERLY HILLS COP II had Murphy’s ego come completely unhinged. As the original Oscar-nominated song “Shakedown” by Bob Seger plays over the opening credits, we’re reintroduced to Axel Foley who’s all grown-up and driving a Ferrari – donning a slick suit and exuding confidence that Murphy was, at this point, feeling himself. It was apparent Scott’s film wasn’t going to waste any time bringing the audience along for a movie that was far too eager to show its daring sensibilities.
By never reaching the point of being self-aware, Foley’s second trip to the Left Coast has countless over-saturated shots of sunsets, beaches and young women playing volleyball in scantily clad attire. Scott is one of the most distinct action directors from the past 40 years, but his collaboration with Murphy was one littered with turmoil.
At the time of release, Murphy outwardly said how much he despised the film (a comment which he took back), and his newfound sense of self comes off as patting himself on the back. Much like the original charting where Murphy was in his career, it’s far more rewarding than the film itself.
BEVERLY HILLS COP II is not without its merits, namely in the appearance of its side characters – including ROBOCOP baddie Ronny Cox (who declined to come back for BHC3), central villain Jurgen Prochnow, an utterly striking Brigitte Nielsen and Robert Ridgley (whose the last role was in Paul Thomas Anderson’s BOOGIE NIGHTS). Strange and out of focus, Scott’s misstep leaned far too heavily into action without ever questioning its comedic identity.
BEVERLY HILLS COP III (1994)
Dir. John Landis
This marked the third and final time Murphy would collaborate with John Landis, who had a controversial reputation of his own. Lifeless and void of any style for substance, BEVERLY HILLS COP sees Murphy damn-near sleepwalking through every scene after the opening car chase. This is the same team that brought Murphy’s best comedy COMING TO AMERICA to life only six years prior.
It was rumored that Murphy refused to lean into the comedic aspects of the film because Foley wasn’t a kid anymore. This idea on paper makes sense: It had been ten years since the original, Murphy was now well into his 30s, and performing the same schtick must not have been challenging.
Only by the sheer imagination of its scriptwriter (Steven E. de Souza) was the creative team behind the project able to get Axel Foley from Detroit back to the 90210 zip code. Once again, looking at this entry through the lens of modern Hollywood history is far more exciting than the film itself.
Filled with countless pointless cameos (from film directors such as George Luca and Joe Dante) and dance numbers that cause the film to grind to a halt, it was apparent that the Landis and Murphy collaboration was reaching its natural conclusion. There’s no laughter, no joy – only a glaring reminder that movies are nothing but products by our corporate overlords. It was the beginning of the end for Murphy as an adult entertainer.
BEVERLY HILLS COP trilogy is now available on Blu-ray through Paramount.