Arguably, Eddie Murphy launched the genre of the “action-comedy” when he accepted his first feature film role alongside Nick Nolte in 48 Hours, directed by Walter Hill who was known, by that point, for darker action movies. The 1982 film enjoyed decent box-office success, and critics were favorable toward both Murphy as a film star and this new fangled form of a buddy action film. The film works overall in this form, but the pair at the center, especially in retrospect (and after a less favorable sequel), are an odd mix and never quite rise to the standards later set by more successful buddy cop films. Still, 48 Hours sufficed enough to spring the SNL favorite onto the silver screen, to which he returned the following summer for one of his most beloved roles in Trading Places.
In 1984, Murphy returned to the action-comedy with Martin Brest’s Beverly Hills Cop, delivering quite possibly his greatest performance to date as Axel Foley, a Detroit cop with a penchant for showy undercover antics and consequently always being on his captain’s bad side. A somewhat fish-out-of-water story, the film follows Foley from the hard boiled streets of Detroit, where law enforcement is more subjective and where his old friend Mikey was recently gunned down by hit-men, to the bright, palm tree lined streets of Beverly Hills. In this superficial paradise of a town, Axel is determined to get to the bottom of his friend’s murder, but in order to do so he must win over the local police and avoid letting his nosiness cost him his job back home.
At the surface, Beverly Hills Cop is a simple mystery plot wrapped in the glossy packaging that makes up everything we want out of a 1980s classic. From the instantly recognizable theme song by Harold Faltermeyer to the wacky antics between Foley and local dopey California cops Rosewood and Taggart and just Eddie Murphy being let loose to his full movie star potentially, basically for the first time, this film sets out to be a feel-good classic of its era. At the same time, the film does a commendable job avoiding the pitfalls of blockbuster comedies back then. The main example being Jenny Summers, another old friend Axel reunites with in Beverly Hills. While her role is not as large as Foley or Rosewood and Taggart, she is portrayed as a strong, successful businesswoman, but most importantly as a friend and an equal to Axel. The lack of sexualization with her character is refreshing to see even 30 years later in modern Hollywood.
Many of the films of that era that are considered beloved seem to be a result of super compatible and well-timed collaborations between filmmakers, writers and actors. The most notable powerhouses of great ’80s cinema are the poignant youth films of John Hughes and the stoner-observational meets child-like adventure of Harold Ramis. Even Eddie Murphy’s other comedies of the time seem to have more of a relationship with one another, all being fish-out-of-water stories in some way, but none with the same bite as Beverly Hills Cop. Murphy has made a name for himself with his ability to embody characters in a unique way, disappearing into them completely in more ways than two. There are good and bad ends of that spectrum, a solid example being Coming to America and then we arrive at, say, The Nutty Professor or Norbit. In Coming to America, he is able to play multiple characters with almost no transparency, including his lead role as Prince Akeem Joffer. Even that being said, there is nothing quite so satisfying as seeing him fiercely take in Axel Foley with a performance that feels more derived from his own personal sensibilities than any other performance of his. Take this scene, one of many unforgettable moments, from his arrival in Beverly Hills:
Now, initially, I would have credited this kind of exchange solely to Murphy’s comedic timing, wit and improvisation. However, Beverly Hills Cop actually has an impressively tight script, for which it received an Academy Award nomination (that used to happen!), and is essentially in constant competition with its lead actor to achieve the ferocity that we see on screen. With a solid script, a one-of-a-kind fresh performance at the heart, and a bold approach to mixing brash humor with the darker parts of society, Beverly Hills Cop holds up tremendously well 30 years later.