Abe Beame never watched Judge Reinhold’s daytime TV court show.
The Eddie Murphy Project revisits Eddie’s great works from the 80s and 90s, to pinpoint their place in culture, –the footprint they left, their performance in context to Eddie’s personal evolution as a black man who became the world’s biggest movie star in Reagan America. This entry concerns Beverly Hills Cop. Previously: 48 HRS.
It’s easy to look at the Beverly Hills Cop series as a spin-off of 48 HRS. Axel Foley was a former small-time crook (much like Reggie Hammond, his character from 48), surviving off his wits and grit in the streets of Detroit. He eventually made good, taking the corner hustle to the precinct. The series operated with the fine balance of urban humor and action that made 48 HRS a revelation. But this easy reduction is unfair to the series. The mode the BHC franchise created, and its exploration of the Eddie Murphy character, pushed “Action-Comedy” as well as Murphy himself further than 48 HRS. ever did. It’s why today, if you were pressed to identify Murphy’s iconic role, you’d name Foley.
In terms of plotting, the films in the BHC trilogy follow nearly identical beats: A dear friend of Axel Foley’s is either hurt or killed at the outset, sending Axel on a mission for truth and justice to the deified 90210 area code. Using his shrewd detective skills, Axel bluffs and guts his way to justice. But the films are far more interesting than their arcs. They are heavily loaded, subversive deconstructions of their classic detective narrative. Let’s start with this basic tenet and build out. The main source of tension in these films is not between Axel and the chief villain, but Axel and the institution.
This convention is not particularly novel. In noirs, it was a sturdy go-to for an ancillary source of danger stopping the private dick from getting his man or woman. Think of plot elements like the slowly merging walls of a trash compactor threatening our hero. The institution served as one of the walls. The threat of impeding the protagonist from his mission via intimidation, assault or arrest is always looming as the detective has to compromise morals and break rules to get to the truth. The law serves as another ball in the air to keep the reader, or viewer, off the scent. The innovation of the BHC series is to reduce all other plot machinations to the peripheral. Other cops are the only real wall.
In each film, the villain is revealed in the opening frames. The audience always knows who’s responsible for harming the person that Axel cares about. The “Who” is essentially non-existent. These films waste no time on red herrings or misdirection, Axel is a heat-seking missile whose trajectory never wavers. The “Why” is an element in the plot, Axel needs something to do to prove his superiority, but the series’ authors, Daniel Petrie Jr. and Danilo Bach, dedicate little time or energy to making us guess what’s up. The plot is force fed rather than unspooled and entirely besides the point. We’re not here because Axel absolutely has to find out who or what is behind a series of well orchestrated robberies in Beverly Hills. We’re here to see him exact vengeance on the cold-hearted bitch who shot his friend.
This is crucial because what’s left is a fish-out-of-water comedy of manners. “Detroit” is a stand-in for the truth-to-power pragmatist who has to navigate the procedure and politics of an institution hamstrung by bureaucracy and politics. Foley is the iconoclast who worships at the alter of gut and “instinct” — code words that allow him to operate on his feet, acting impetuously and at times dangerously. And he’s almost always rewarded for it.
The bad guys in the trilogy hide in plain site. They sit on conservancy boards and own powerful businesses. They inhabit the upper echelon of Californian society and as a result are often free from hard inspection by the precincts they indirectly own. A high-powered art dealer is a drug smuggler, a gun range for the wealth is housing a sophisticated gang of thieves, a Disney-esque theme park is a front for a counterfeit bills operation. This concept descends from Chandler, Hammett and Polanski. We’re investigating a society corrupted from the top down. There’s no one but the detective, out of step with the times in thought as well as deed, to cut through the red tape and expose the scandal.
So the movies can be broken down to Eddie Murphy gaming the system. Let’s stop beating around the bush and call the system, represented by Beverly Hills, white. There are few black characters with speaking parts with the exception of Axel’s ass-kicking Lieutenant in Detroit, the only character immune to Foley’s charms (Chris Rock plays an immaterial valet in part two, part three is a minor improvement in terms of diversity).
Axel’s approach to detective work is bluffing and scamming his way behind the curtain, to the truth. In doing so, his character finds uncertainty and hesitancy and exploits it. It’s a way for Eddie Murphy to showcase bluster and accents. It’s a high-level character workshop, but it’s also telling. Dave Chappelle invented an iconic “White Person Voice,” overly enunciated, distressed and stabbing at authoritative to stave off fear. The kernel of that idea owes this franchise a great debt.
Eddie Murphy’s go-to character is a con man who takes control of situations with absolute commitment, a carnivorous master bullshitter who creates blood in the water to attack when there is none. With no make up or prosthetics, he can instantly become a building inspector, a black market profiteer, a psychic from St. Croix, a reporter from Rolling Stone or a U.S. Customs agent. He hides his strings by being faster than his mark, and crucially, by being willing to raise volume and intensity, cutting to the marrow of delicate situations, engaging his targets in a game of social chicken he always wins. In this way, Axel is a trickster figure, preying on the white guilt and redundancies of an antiquated system to get what he wants. He’s operating in a real world while his foils operate in a world of cues and appearances.
The Beverly Hills Cop trilogy made $735 million dollars over the course of a decade. It’s the franchise Eddie Murphy made his career on without a mask or cape. Each installment was helmed by a different director (part two: Tony Scott! Part three: John Landis!). There is a fourth installment slated for 2016 directed, of course, by Brett Ratner. And yet, the tone of each movie is remarkably consistent. The three films in this franchise provide us with the clearest image of Eddie Murphy, the comedic actor. A devil-may-care charlatan trespassing in the realm of high society, unconcerned with his lack of invitation. Armed with this character, without slumming in outright parody, Beverly Hills Cop remixed the detective.