In a decade known for absurdly swole action heroes recklessly turning nameless bad guys into human doughnuts with enough firepower to overthrow Cuba, Beverly Hills Cop always stood somewhat apart as a breath of fresh air. Instead of featuring a leading man who made up for his monosyllabic nature with a fearsome bodycount, Beverly Hills Cop went a different route, harnessing the motor-mouthed smartarsery of stand up sensation Eddie Murphy as a cop who’s primary weapons is his fox-like guile and near-superhiman ability to bullshit his way through any situation.
If you need any affirmation about exactly how savvy this concept was, just remember that Sylvester Stallone was originally offered the role of Alex Foley but tried to rewrite the comedy into a far more violent tale into a project that eventually became the deliriously brutal (and noticably inferior) Cobra.
Alex Foley is a cop in the crumbling cities of Detroit whose tactics of simply bludgeoning criminals into a state of confusion with his rapid-fire mouth often skirt dangerously on the edges of the law, but usually score results almost as much as it causes his Captain to have a full-on meltdown whevever he fucks up. However, when ex-con friend of his from childhood visits, he’s promptly killed while in Foley’s company due to some dodgy deals he’s been doing with some stolen German barer bonds from his even dodger bosses and so Axel, in the form of a “vaction” decides to find out exactly who these bosses are by driving his crappy blue Chevy Nova to the glittering streets of Beverly Hills and doing some personal investigating of his own.
Employing his quick wits by conning his way into a snazzy room at a posh hotel (quite the feat for a young black man dressed in a t-shirt and a hoodie in 1984), he quickly reconnects with another childhood friend, Jenny Summers and through her finds out that at the head of all this is art gallery owner – slash – smuggler, Victor Maitland, a vaguely reptilian criminal with all the warmth of a lizard encased within an iced up refrigerator.
However, apart from the fact that he’s off duty and waaaay out of his jurisdiction, Axel’s main obstacle to bringing the incredibly well connected Maitland to justice is the Beverley Hills PD and the straight-as-an-arrow Lieutenant Bogomil who won’t budge from doing things strictly by the book. Assigning grumpy John Taggart and the childlike Billy Rosewood to keep an eye on Foley’s freewheeling antics, the two long suffering detectives first find themselves victims of his wacky, but good natured pranks, but as Foley gradually gets closer to what Maitland is truly up to, he’ll need to win the Precinct over to his brazen ways if he’s ever going to bring the bad guys down.
While I’m an admitted fan of the massacre-happy, murderthons a lot of people think of when they picture an 80’s action film, there’s something undeniably appealing about a guy a fraction of the size of Arnold Schwarzenegger still bringing down the bad guys thanks to quick wits and a quicker mouth and there was literally no one on this earth more primed to flesh out Alex Foley than Eddie Murphy. Fresh from an eye-opening turn as the similarly loquacious Reggie Hammond in Walter Hill’s brutal 48 Hours, super-producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer essentially ground down those rough edges and highlighted that superstar potential Murphy had shown in his smash hit stand up, Delirious, to give the cops and robbers genre a charismatic overhaul.
Not to understate things, but Foley IS the movie. The plot, essentially a cop-on-the-edge-looking-for-revenge type scenario that seen more mileage that Foley’s car, is given an impressive overhaul solely by the impressive workout given to Murphy’s brand of livewire comedy as he charms, cons and bullshits his way through all manner of scenarios that allows him to satisfyingly stick it to snooty hotel owners, tight-ass cops and cold-eyed villains. Whether impressively slapping down the race card in order to grift himself a hotel room well outside his price range or talking his way into a warehouse records room on sheer balls and bluster alone, Foley may be two steps short of an actual con man, but he’s an exceedingly likable one and nothing he does actually comes across as mean spirited or particularly cruel thanks to a weapons grade cheeky grin and the affable, ironic donkey bray of a laugh.
In comparison, most of the other characters, such as Stephen Berkoff’s icy villain, Ronny Cox’s honourable Bogomil and Lisa Eilbacher’s romantic lead are only there to scowl disapprovingly while Alex recklessly mouths off, but the movie is wise not to make it entirely Eddie Murphy’s show thanks to some endearing foils in the shape of John Aston’s craggy, frustrated Taggart and Judge Reinhold’s winningly innocent Billy Rosewood who also add a Laurel And Hardy style double act to mix things up.
Elsewhere, things are about as 80’s as it can get as it lightly glosses over the class divide by playing Glenn Frey’s “The Heat Is On” a full volume or baffling us with Bronson Pinchot’s flamboyantly accented gallery worker Serge (“Achmed Foley is here to see her “), but of course this also means that some of the aspects of the flick have inevitably aged somewhat questionably over the years. There’s obviously the regrettable gay jokes that come hand in hand with almost any R-Rated, 80’s American comedy and there’s something noticably bizarre these days about a black detective urging white police officers in Los Angeles to continuously flaunt the law in order to speed up the arrest they so desperately want, but again, it’s more misguided than mean spirited.
Finally, all but cementing the film’s prestige alongside Martin Breast’s slick direction is the legendary, catchy and oft copied “Axel’s Theme” courtesy of composer Harold Faltermeyer that, alongside Murphy’s undeniable chutzpah, wraps the grinning lead in an insidiously humable suit of armour that perfectly backs him up while he’s sticking bananas in a car’s tailpipe in order to foil a tail. Frankly, it’s impossible to hate the guy (although Beverly Hills Cop III somewhat disproved that theory) and the role of the fast-talking, black cop was copied into infinity by such films as Bad Boys (also a Simpson and Bruckheimer production), Rush Hour and many more which is hardly suprising as Foley turned out to be the perfect conduit for Murphy’s particular brand of humour, even more than Donkey from Shrek – that’s right, I said it.
One of the most impressive star making turns in all of action/comedy history, Beverly Hills Cop’s dedication to chuckles over chokeholds and laughs over lethal behaviour still means that Axel Foley’s debut, honking laugh and all, is still top of the cops.