In The Finally Screenings, Alden Ford is watching comedy classics that, because he grew up in a cave in Alaska, he’s never seen before. These are his takes on movies everyone else has seen before.
I really prepared myself to hate Beverly Hills Cop.
In my defense, it’s a terrible premise on paper. Cool, black Detroit rookie cop goes vigilante in L.A. and is thwarted by ultra-white, by-the-book Beverly Hills police? That’s a recipe for disaster. Imagine the broad, cliché, racist, fish-out-of-water shitstorm this movie could have been - nay, should have been. Even my friends who have seen it – all of them – were a little lukewarm about it. I either got, “Oh, yeah, yeah, that’s a good one to watch…” or “great movie,” uttered with the guilty lack of conviction of someone who doesn’t believe, or remember, his own opinion.
It is, to be fair, one of the less popular movies I’ve watched - like It’s a Wonderful Life or Star Trek III, it’s a movie everyone saw years ago, and now they stay familiar with it 15 minutes at a time on TBS or TNT while looking for something else. They think they’ve seen it recently because it’s easy to run across, but nobody’s sat down to watch the whole thing since the Broccoli Incident.
But what 15 minutes at a time and a dim memory of watching it in footie pajamas won’t tell you is this: Beverly Hills Cop is a great fucking movie.
I almost feel bad typing that. It just doesn’t seem like it can be true. But it is, friends. I suspect that many of you haven’t watched it in a while, and those of you who have know what I’m talking about. It’s a movie that’s honestly fast, smart, funny and surprisingly untainted by the many factors that should work against it.
First, Eddie Murphy. This is easily one of the best film roles I’ve seen him in. I listened to and memorized his stand-up growing up, I love his SNL characters, and although his late career has been a bit inane, he’s a super talented and very funny guy. But this is Murphy at his most understated, his most connected, and, as far as film roles are concerned, his funniest. There aren’t a lot of movies that try, let alone succeed, in making a character’s laugh a punchline, and yet nearly every scene, and every joke, is punctuated by Axel Foley’s laugh. It’s a ridiculous device, and it shouldn’t work, but it does because we genuinely buy that Foley, and Murphy, are having a great time. He’s small when he needs to be, and broad when he can be. It’s obvious that there’s some heavy use of improvisation in Murphy’s scenes, but it’s so on game and effective that it doesn’t slow the pace as it does in some, ahem, other improv-heavy films I’ve watched for this column. It’s also enlightening for both Eddie Murphy fans and anti-fans - there’s no denying he’s an amazingly gifted comedian, and capable of much more range than most people give him credit for now. He was 22 when he filmed it, for crying out loud!
I think I owe a lot of the pacing credit to the fact that Beverly Hills Cop is, first and foremost, an action film, and it stays true to the genre. We don’t sit in any scene for too long, the dialogue is casual, quick and grounded, and the action is in solid proportion to the screwing around.
Most of the cringeworthy oil-and-water race/culture pitfalls are miraculously avoided, no doubt due in part to the fact that the script was originally written for Mickey Rourke, and later Sylvester Stallone (if Wikipedia is to be believed). Instead, we get a clash of tactics rather than culture, of protocol rather than race. And considering how many 80s comedies are guilty of making a black character one big punchline, that’s no small feat.
But there’s also credit due to Martin Brest, whose direction focuses not on the black guy who tricks the whiteys, but on the substantive character games between people who all want the same thing but need to get it in different ways and for different reasons.
There’s some stuff that doesn’t work so well. It’s a super talky movie, which I don’t have much of a problem with, but the exposition is rushed and complicated while not being particularly deep. And would it have killed them to write more than one song to score the entire film with? More on topic, though, the supporting cast (Reinhold especially) aren’t as deft with their broad comedy as Murphy is, which is disappointing. There are also a couple flat jokes, mostly of the “hilarious cop banter” variety, but they’re harmless in a Magnum, P.I. sort of way. I’ll allow it.
As a side note, I’d like to mention how hilarious it is that Jerry Bruckheimer produced this movie, a fact that I sadly noticed watching the opening credits but would have loved to deduce based on the number of cars that get totaled or blown up for absolutely no reason.
So, against my original assumption but with total conviction, Beverly Hills Cop holds up really well. Much better than I could have expected. And it’s a great example of a fantastic comedian doing some of his best work. Seriously, watch it again. It’s probably better than you remember.
And how great is Bronson Pinchot?