Hollywood Century, 1984: In which you got action in my comedy! You got comedy on my action!
We can say any number of nasty things about the American cinema of the 1980s - that it's coldly regressive politically, that it's corporatised to within an inch of its life, that it's formulaic to a degree found nowhere else in the history of the American film industry - but there's one thing that I have to give to the decade: the movie music was fuckin' boss. I would defend that down to my last breath. Allow me to prove it with one of the Holiest of Holies of synthpop film music.
That's "Axel F", composed by Harold Faltermeyer, which I'd encourage you to keep listening to as you read this review: I was listening to it while I wrote it, after all. It's the main repeating motif in the score of Beverly Hills Cop, the highest-grossing film of 1984, and I think it's not least among the reasons the film did so well that it had that insanely earwormy theme reminding everybody that the film existed. For "Axel F" is iconic, if any piece of film music composed by a person not named John Williams has ever been iconic; it is a miraculous distillation of the audio landscape of the mid-1980s into one electronic burst. And in this, it is a wonderful fit for a movie that is, itself, about as perfect an encapsulation of the '80s in American pop culture as the movies gave us. It is, in fact, maybe the perfect '80s movie: Eddie Murphy, synth music, that characteristic '80s-style action/comedy structure where the film steadily cedes ground and becomes more violent and action heavy, less comedic, as it goes along. There's a crabby black cop who's the boss, a goofy sidekick cop (played by Judge Reinhold a man whose career screams "quintessence of the '80s" if anybody's did), a cocaine-smuggling plot, Southern California rather lazily playing itself. It was produced by Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer, the two men who essentially invented the '80s out of whole cloth, between this and Flashdance in '83, and Top Gun in '86. Culturally, narratively, stylistically, soncially, it might well be the single most '80s film I can name. And since it is so much of its moment, I am pleased that it was recognised as the Zeitgeist incarnate by audiences who devoured it to a staggering box office sum: even without adjusting for inflation, its $234 million domestic take is damned impressive for an R-rated cop movie; if we go ahead and make that adjustment, and find that Beverly Hills Cop made the equivalent of more than half a billion dollars at the U.S. box office, we abandon "impressive" and enter the realm of pure fantasy.
The film stars Murphy as Axel Foley, introduced to us in one of those sequences common to the '80s cop picture where it seems like he's actually a criminal, but is really just an undercover loose cannon whose unhinged, anti-authority techniques put him at odds with his grumbling, increasingly impatient boss, Inspector Todd (Gilbert R. Hill). It was an ossified character type before Murphy stepped into Foley's shoes, but Beverly Hills Cop brought the archetype to a new place of comic bluster and frivolity - this wasn't the first action-comedy any more than it was the first film with an out-of-control cop, but its the films whose success most especially triggered the explosion of a very particular kind of action-comedy in the 1980s, the kind that takes a perfectly straightforward crime movie scenario and drops a stand-up comic into it. Literally, in the case of this movie, though I mean something more figuratively in the case of e.g. Lethal Weapon, or any other film in the wake of BHC where the protagonist seems far more interested in proving that he's clever to an audience he always seems slightly aware of, rather than stopping the drug smugglers (and it's always drug smugglers, seemingly - they say to write what you know, and Hollywood in the '80s did, it is true, know cocaine awfully well).
So Foley, a crazy and not terribly effective Detroit cop, is visited one day by an old ex-con friend, and that old friend ends up dead almost immediately. He left just enough clues for Foley to track him back to Beverly Hills, CA, where the film is actually much less of a culture-clash comedy than you might think, or even less than it thinks, really. The thing is, in Murphy's hands, Foley is too unflappable and too quick not to be the smartest person in every room; while he might cause issues for the Beverly Hills Police Department, they're no different, in effect, from the issues he was already causing in Detroit. And while he's amused by the idiotic indulgences of Beverly Hills life, he's never really confused by it, and he only ever uses it as a pretext for his patter-heavy jokes.
Already, so Foley ends up in Beverly Hills. Local head cop Lt. Bogomil (Ronny Cox) instantly takes a disliking to the brash motormouth, and he sics a pair of earnest but bumbling detectives to keep an eye on Foley, Taggart (John Ashton) and Rosewood (Judge Reinhold). These men provide little more than an inconvenience, and quickly turn into allies, all through Foley's sheer force of charismatic will; meanwhile, he meets up with his old friend Jenny Summers (Lisa Eilbacher), who helps him track the murder back to respected businessman Victor Maitland (Steven Berkoff) - it's always a respected businessman who gets involved with the drug smuggling, which perhaps serves as a giant but cryptic industry-wide cry for help. The incidental details of how Foley cracks the case are entirely uninteresting: the film itself seems angry to have to pay attention to its plot as the second act begins to shade into the third. Nobody looking for a snugly-plotted cop story, or an energetic action movie, would walk away from Beverly Hills Cop feeling well-used: it is a film that exists almost exclusively to let Murphy blast off, while the rest of the film simply stands back and watches admiringly. That is, in fact, literally what Reinhold's entire performance consists of: standing to the side and looking amused while Murphy riffs. Though it's Ashton who spends an entire scene rubbing the bridge of his nose with his hands in a completely ineffective attempt to make it look like he's not breaking character and laughing.
The credited director is Martin Brest and the credited writers are Daniel Petrie, Jr. and Danilo Bach, but the film's authors are truly Murphy and Simpson/Bruckheimer. The latter pair bring to the film its slickness, it's cool, its aggressively superficial visuals, which have just enough grain to feel "urban", but enough flashy colors in the clothes, the cars, and the sets to feel like pure popcorn movie fantasy (I mean, technically cinematographer Bruce Surtees and production designer Angelo Graham and art director James J. Murakami and costume designer Tom Bronson are responsible for all that, but Simpson/Bruckheimer films all look alike (except for the ones directed by Tony Scott, which look even moreso), no matter what individual artisans put them together). They are among the most conspicuously produced films ever made; it is thanks to them, I am sure, that we can enjoy that Faltermeyer score, which texturally resembles the work of Simpson/Bruckheimer's favorite, Giorgio Moroder, only with a little bit more funk to it. And the producers are the people who made the film such a safe crowd-pleaser, for something violent and vulgar enough to crawl up to an R-rating. Impressively, the filmmakers have managed to make a film, in the '80s, about an African-American cop being mistrusted and initially abused by California cops, and they conspicuously endeavored to make it specifically not about race: giving Foley a black boss starts us off by letting us know that his superiors' impatience has nothing todo with race, and the one time that Foley ever makes a point of identifying his skin color as different from the glossy white people all throughout Beverly Hills (dropping an N-bomb in the process) is in a moment that he's deliberately being sincere. The film thus lets its audience, of all backgrounds, off the hook for thinking about race at all; for if Simpson and Bruckheimer were great at anything, it was cultivating and riding the wave of studied apoliticism of America in the '80s. Race in Beverly Hills Cop, Cold War militarism in Top Gun; no issue was so tense and contentious that the producers couldn't pridefully ignore it in the most overt possible way.
The other author is of course Murphy himself, a stand-up who graduated up to Saturday Night Live before becoming one of the biggest success stories at the movies of any of that show's veterans (I'm inclined to say that only Bill Murray and Chevy Chase ever had a career close to the same league, and Murphy still left them both in the dust, box-office wise). You don't need to have it confirmed - though it has been, often - to know that a lot of what Murphy says in the film was improv, and if anything of significant size was actually in the shooting script, it was heavily transmuted by Murphy's characteristic delivery in his quick-talking conman style, interrupted here and there by moments of "why are you so dumb" sincerity. The attitude, the comic register, and even the film's pacing all take their cues from Murphy's performance, a star turn of the old school in which he bends the film around himself rather than doing anything at all to vanish into it.
If that sounds like a criticism, I certainly don't mean for it to. Beverly Hills Cop is by no means great cinema - I'd be hard-pressed to name a single frame of the film that stands out as being artistically inspired in any way - but it is a great popcorn movie.The whole thing has been shaped to allow us to enjoy Eddie Murphy being cunning, then outraged, then wheedling, then cunning again; well, Murphy rises to the occasion, doing the best work of his film career. Which is not to say that Axel Foley is a great performance; it's hardly a performance at all. But Murphy is channeling his instincts and persona as a comedian into a cinematic character caught in a dramatic structure better than he ever did at any other time in any other movie. And while he's riffing and joking and having a delightful time making everybody else onscreen dance his dance, the rest of the film - its music and its cinematography and its sideways glances at lifestyle porn - consistently but without hectoring remind us that all this is super-cool and slick and hip. It's mindless as all hell, of course, but mindless in a really accomplished and enjoyable way, and it has since graduated to the point where its junkiest surface-level elements have ceased to feel tawdry and become delightful signifiers of a bygone era. I truly do not know if it's now regarded as a classic, and I would have no desire to argue that it should be: it's not, it's just a spectacularly fizzy bit of empty fun from some of the people who made the most committed empty fun ever filmed. But it is, for 105 minutes, completely enjoyable and untroubling without also being anesthetising, and that's really the best that most '80s blockbusters ever aimed for.
Elsewhere in American cinema in 1984
-In an attempt to make movies for non-child audiences without tarnishing its brand name, Disney establishes Touchstone Pictures, whose first release is Ron Howard's mermaid comedy Splash
-David Lynch and Dino De Laurentiis make an unholy deal that puts the former in the director's chair of Dune; it's hard to say who ends up worse off
-The slasher film finally comes to a close with Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter, before being immediately revived by A Nightmare on Elm Street
Elsewhere in world cinema in 1984
-After a decade in abeyance, Japan's legendary monster Godzilla is brought back for a new era
-German director Wim Wenders takes French money to make a haunting study of American iconography in Paris, Texas
-Danish misery porngrapher Lars von Trier makes The Element of Crime, the film that puts him on the international map