Starring Eddie Murphy, Judge Reinhold, John Ashton, Ronny Cox, Steven Berkoff, Jonathan Banks
Directed by Martin Brest
Written by Daniel Petrie, Jr.
I’ve been watching action movies for most of my life, probably because action and its various subgenres – Action-Adventure, Sci Fi/Fantasy Epic, Superhero – are the sort of movies my dad likes. I have vague memories of so many car chases, so many missions to Vietnam, so many roundhouse kicks to the face, that the filmographies of Norris, Seagal, and Van Damme all kind of blur together for me. I remember them, though, with nostalgic affection in disproportion to their probable worth as films. And as a result, I return to the action genre over and over again, looking for something I can just barely remember, that feeling I had as a kid watching action movies on TBS in the afternoon with my dad and my brother.
I include this preface to say that I have opinions about action movies, formed over 20+ years of knockout punches, broken tables, and cars that explode when you shoot them. Action often asks you to turn your brain off and just coast on adrenaline and sexy, sexy violence, but, as you might have gathered from my Skyfall review, I expect more from my entertainment. Speaking as someone who has watched Samurai Cop twice, I can say that my expectations aren’t exactly excessive or consistently applied, but they exist. I can’t turn my brain off, at least not all the way.
So, Beverly Hills Cop disappointed me. It’s an 80’s classic, Eddie Murphy’s first solo starring role after partnering with older white guys in the much more entertaining 48 Hours and Trading Places, and it went on to be a box office success and spin-off two sequels, the first of which I remember being kind of fun even though it lacked a cameo by Bronson Pinchot. Axel Foley is a street-smart Detroit cop trying to take down a powerful drug kingpin who murdered his friend, while teaching the suits in the Beverly Hills Police Department how to do real policework. The comedy bits are pretty good, and you probably got the theme song stuck in your head as soon as you read the title of this review. It’s one of those 80’s action movies that you either saw years ago and loved or have a vague awareness of but no intention of seeing.
I don’t think there’s much productive I can say about a thirty year old film I didn’t particularly like, and if you liked it, I don’t have a particular interest in changing your mind, so instead of talking about what was wrong with Beverly Hills Cop, I’m going to talk about action movies I do like, and why I like them better. It’s probably not completely fair to compare an action movie from 1984 to movies made years later, but that’s the nature of culture and narrative art. We learn from the mistakes of those who went before us. You, of course, may not have the same expectations or value the same things that I do in action films. That, of course, is fine. Feel free to give your own take in the comments.
A lot of cops we see in action movies would, in real life, be terrible police. Damn protocol, the president has been kidnapped by NINJAS, and all these RULES are just standing in the way. So they do things that would ordinarily get them fired or killed, causing massive property damage, and they get away with it, because the bad guy gets dead. We can forgive that sort of break from reality, if it’s done well. If it’s not done well, the “hero” winds up looking like an invincible jerk and the plot fails to have any real tension. Take another 80’s action movie, Lethal Weapon. Mel Gibson’s Martin Riggs is the loose cannon to Murtaugh’s By the Book, but he’s really more than that. He’s not fearless of failure or death because he’s Just That Good; he is outright suicidal, and his partner, notably, is not okay with this. This is what makes Riggs interesting, as he and Murtaugh fight it out with each other, take insane risks, and are generally mauled by the plot. Lethal Weapon hasn’t aged as well as it might have, in some ways, but when Riggs and Murtaugh are captured toward the end of the film, it’s brutal and tense in a way that the same scene in Beverly Hills Cop couldn’t manage. Murtaugh and Riggs are allowed to feel pain and terror, which makes them much more interesting characters to watch.
While we’re on the subject of buddy cops, let’s talk about a more recent film: Rush Hour. Chris Tucker as Detective Carter clearly owes a great deal to Eddie Murphy as Axel Foley. They both insist they work better alone, they both talk fast to get out of trouble, they both engage in unsanctioned undercover work. In fact, Carter’s undercover sting at the beginning of Rush Hour is so thematically similar to Foley’s entrance into Beverly Hills Cop that I have to believe the writers did it deliberately. Carter has all of these Foley qualities, including thinking of himself as a great cop, but everyone else – his partner, his department, the FBI, Inspector Lee – all think he’s a self-serving jerk. Like in Lethal Weapon, this creates tension, both as the hyper-competent Lee deals with a glory-seeking partner who is crooked and cocky, and as Carter starts to figure out how to actually be the good cop he always believed he was by right. I know some people roll their eyes at the idea of expecting character development from action movies, but I think it’s what gives the good ones their punch. Not every action star has to grow as a person by the time he walks away from the explosion, but I do think making us care about the protagonists as people ups the stakes in a way that no amount of fight choreography and pyrotechnics can.
Really, I think that’s one of the things that makes Die Hard my favorite action movie. Other than being clever, well-written, and funny, influencing action movies for the next decade, and making Bruce Willis an action star, it’s great because of the character of John McClane. He’s a cop, sure, but otherwise he’s just a guy, who hates to fly and misses his wife after the divorce. The thing I think most subsequent films lost track of is the essential vulnerability of John McClane. He’s cavalier and badass when taunting the villain, but he’s also scared and tired and hurting and just wants to go home. Half the guys he kills are killed in a complete panic, and he spends most of the movie trying to get somebody to come help so he can hide. John McClane doesn’t want to be a hero! Heroes get dead, and John McClane doesn’t want to die. That’s what makes him heroic, and that’s what makes Die Hard great in a way that so many other action movies have tried and failed to match.
The appeal of violence as entertainment has diminished for me lately; violence and death feel much more real to me as an adult, I suppose. Action movies are, by their nature, full of violence, although that can certainly span a spectrum from the sparking blows of the Power Rangers to Django Unchained’s thousands of blood squibs in terms of the graphic nature of that violence. Good action movies find a way to deal with that violence in a way that doesn’t trivialize it. Tarantino movies are so cartoonishly violent that they can be interpreted as a meta-commentary on violence in film, while the violence in Saving Private Ryan or HBO series like Rome or Game of Thrones is gory and visceral on purpose, fully intending that the audience should feel squeamish and uncomfortable. Although it’s a TV series and not really in the same genre as the movies I’ve been discussing, I think Breaking Bad is a great example of non-trivialized violence. That show explodes into violence pretty regularly, and it can have, at times, thrilling action sequences. But the deaths in those scenes are grim, and felt by the victim, the killer, and the viewer. Walter White, Jesse Pinkman, and even hyper-masculine DEA agent Hank Schrader are not left unscathed by either the violence they do or the violence done to them by others. I’ve enjoyed my share of movies in which the heroes are called to dispatch mobs of faceless goons with gun and sword, but those types of stories have to work that much harder to get me invested in the action. Breaking Bad, when it chooses to be violent, is like an action movie in which I actually care about the people participating in the shootout, and that makes it more satisfying.
Beverly Hills Cop struggled to hold my attention largely because it lacked these qualities. I should point out that I think the problems are primarily the fault of the script, which just doesn’t demand much from its neophyte action star. The studio wanted to capitalize on Murphy’s popularity, and Murphy wanted to break into a new kind of role. The result is a weak film that takes few risks and offers its star no challenges. The opportunity was there to emphasize the personal nature of Foley’s quest for justice, or the challenges he faces trying to win over the predominantly white cops in Beverly Hills. They placed Foley in a hostile city, in which everyone from the police to the mayor opposes him, but the filmmakers never really let us feel him struggle. I guess in the end that’s what I expect from action movies. It’s not about the explosions, the gunplay, the obligatory romance subplot; action for me is about revealing character through struggle. At their best, action films give us heroes we cheer not because they killed someone evil, but because they faced evil, and danger, and death, and they won. That kind of film is worth leaving your brain turned on.