December 3, 1984

An Officer and a Comedian

Written by D.A.

To waste as precious (and expensive) a commodity as Eddie Murphy on something as flat and unprofitable as last summer's "Best Defense" is like spreading caviar on stale Wonder Bread. Beverly Hills Cop is no masterpiece, but it uses Murphy to maximum effect. At its best, the movie is exactly as brazen, charming and mercurial as Murphy himself, which is to say it is unimaginable without him.

Here Murphy plays a new set of variations on the "48 HRS." riffs that won him instant stardom.  His Axel Foley is a brash Detroit cop who, feigning a vacation, travels to lotus land to solve and avenge the murder of an old crony.  Oozing confidence, Axel bluffs his way out of tight jams by masterful impersonations.  Caught snooping around a customs shed, he immediately becomes an officious and demanding U.S. Customs official.  In the call of duty, he is by turns a fast-talking cigarette smuggler from the ghetto, a swish named Ramon afflicted with herpes, and a Rolling Stone reporter in town to do a Michael Jackson interview.

Braggadocio in comedy is usually funny in proportion to the fear it masks.  The terror behind the swagger is a fundamental of Richard Pryor's appeal.  Behind Eddie Murphy's posture of confidence, however, is deeper confidence: the joke in  "Beverly Hills Cop" is his utter and instinctive superiority to the "by the book" cops he works with and outwits out West.  He's so cool even he can't quite believe it.  He's condescending and patronizing to everyone he works with.  But instead of being offended by his swagger one is totally disarmed.  Murphy is the audience's surrogate id, the good bad boy who breaks all the rules and ends up teacher's pet anyway.  Foulmouthed but essentially sexless, a loner whom everyone learns to adore, he's one black superhero who isn't defined by race or class.  He can make a point of his color, but no one else does; he's equally at home in a Detroit ghetto or in a suite in a posh Beverly Hills hotel.

Oddball Cameos: Like "48 HRS.," "Beverly Hills Cop" is a thriller / comedy, but here the comic situations are all anyone really cares about, and the thriller plot is merely perfunctory.  There's no suspense about who the bad guy is, a sinister art dealer / smuggler nicely played by Steven Berkoff; Daniel Petrie Jr.'s screenplay relies all too lazily on convenience and coincidence to resolve the action.  You can't deny the fun this movie provides, but couldn't they have worked a little harder to flesh out the story?  There's no emotional kick in Murphy's triumph because we don't really believe in the depth of his friendship with the dead man (James Russo). And why does the movie make so little use of Beverly Hills itself as a satirical subject?  A street-wise black Detroit cop is set loose in the national capital of conspicuous consumption, and all we get are jokes about the comic gentility of the local police force.

On the other hand, director Martin ("Going in Style") Brest has a marvelous way with the supporting characters, and a great eye for oddball cameos.  Oddest of all is a salesman in the villain's art gallery who goes by the name of Serge and is of godknows-what nationality; as played by a singular actor named Bronson Pinchot, Serge is the most unexpectedly and unusually hilarious bit role within recent memory.  The unknown Pinchot may be one of the few people alive who could steal a scene from Eddie Murphy.  Any movie with both these men is hard to resist.