Back in 1984, Eddie Murphy was big. To anyone, say, younger than their mid-20s, that might come as a surprise. Modern audiences who know Murphy from films such as Pluto Nash, Daddy Day Care, Norbit and Meet Dave may think his Oscar nominated role in Dreamgirls was a career highlight amongst the dross of his recent comedy efforts. However, it’s a reminder that his earlier work was something special, and that he represented a unique talent who was pure comedy gold.
Beverly Hills Cop had gone through various iterations before Murphy came into the role. The script by newcomer Danilo Bach had sat on the shelf for some years before being picked up and reworked by Dan Petrie. During that time both Mickey Rourke and Sylvester Stallone were attached to star.
Sly reworked the script to incorporate his own idiosyncrasies, making it a more hard-edged, bloody thriller (although elements of this can still be seen in the final cut). His revisions and requirement for more action increased the budget to a point where Paramount was uncomfortable with the direction the film was headed. In a brave move for a studio at that time, (Eddie may have been big, but Sly was huge), they ditched Stallone and went in another direction.
At the same time, producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer, who at the time had seen significant success with Flashdance (in 1983 it was the third highest grossing film in the US), sought Martin Brest to direct. Despite their insistence that it would be an ideal match, Brest remained unconvinced. After several calls, Brest finally decided to make a decision – by flipping a coin. The result, the biggest movie of 1984, the first true starring vehicle for Murphy and a shift in a genre that had in the previous decade predominantly concentrated on hard boiled, vigilante cops (step forward Messrs Eastwood and Bronson).
Although the talent behind the camera was impressive, there is no doubt this was Murphy’s film. There’s hardly a moment when he isn’t on screen – but then nor would we want him to be anywhere else. We had already seen that his screen presence was electric – and roles in 48 Hrs and Trading Placed alongside his Saturday Night Live appearances only increased his popularity. Beverly Hills Cop took his career to the next natural level and made him a genuine film star.
The film’s tight plotting and simple story ensure the audience is catapulted along with Murphy through some great set pieces and classic dialogue (let’s not forget it was, after all, Oscar nominated for Best Screenplay). The film is also a good example of what happens when all the right elements come together, as can be seen in Judge Reinhold and John Ashton’s characters, Detective Billy Rosewood and Sergeant John Taggart. Paired by chance during auditions, the two actors took on an old married couple persona which the producers recognised as something that Murphy could effectively play against.
Their relationship brought a different kind of comedy, more subtle than Murphy’s but just as funny. An example: the scene where they’re trying to get over a wall during the climatic shoot-out demonstrates that Murphy wasn’t the only one capable of improvising. Let’s also not forget Gilbert R Hill’s foul-mouthed and abusive Inspector Todd; his performance was so good that even Murphy looked impressed. Amazingly, he wasn’t even an actor, but a real Detroit cop whom the producers met when scoping locations.
Likewise Bronson Pinchot, who gave an unforgettable performance as the Persian/French/Eastern European accented Serge. He wasn’t even going to make filming as he had pre-booked a holiday. An unforeseen reshuffle in production meant he was back in, and that accent was born.
Perhaps the only weak element were the antagonists. Steven Berkoff’s Victor Maitland accompanied by the ever great ‘there’s not a TV series I haven’t starred in’ Jonathan Banks were certainly short-changed in the character development department. However, what they did have was a script that allowed them to be vicious and cold-blooded (a hallway execution being a particularly good example) in a style that seems missing from modern cop comedies. Which leads me to another point: Beverly Hills Cop is not for children. That may seem obvious, but the adult action/comedy cop film is a genre that has seen little love in the past decade. For every 21 Jump Street there’s a Cop Out, for every Hot Fuzz there’s a The Other Guys. Beverly Hills Cop proved that there was a significant audience who wanted their action and comedy at an adult level – studios, please take note.
There’s one other element that makes Beverly Hills Cop an iconic film: the music. The soundtrack is synonymous with the 80s, with Harold Faltermeyer’s Axel F theme instantly recognisable – and as leitmotifs go, it’s the equal to any of John Williams’ or Jerry Goldsmith’s symphonic themes. Alongside Faltermeyer, classics such as Neutron Dance, Stir It Up and The Heat is On remain just as memorable as the action they score. Rightly, the soundtrack album went on to win a Grammy for Best Original Score and topped the Billboard 200 (spending an impressive 49 weeks in the chart). Simpson and Bruckheimer’s Flashdance proved that a good soundtrack can benefit a movie, but what they learned from Beverley Hills Cop is that it can also be immensely profitable – see Top Gun’s nine Platinum discs for further evidence.
In terms of box office, the film was made for $14 million (in 1984 dollars) and made its budget back in the first weekend. Its sits joint second (first is Titanic) for most weeks at number one (14) and was the highest grossing film of the year. It was also the highest grossing R-rated comedy until The Hangover in 2009, although adjusted for inflation it is the third highest R-rated film ever (behind The Exorcist and The Godfather).
Apart from proving that Murphy was a bankable star, Beverley Hill Cop’s legacy is tough to pin down. You could argue that it re-envisaged and perhaps re-energised the action cop film. However, when looking at the box office for films directly influenced by that formula, none really shine; perhaps Stake Out and Jumpin’ Jack Flash were moulded in a similar fashion, but reached nowhere near the success of Beverly Hills Cop. The Lethal Weapon franchise also mixed adult comedy with serious, hard-edged action (with additional, dark drama undertones) and was likely the most direct beneficiary, although that exploited more of the buddy-cop formula than focusing on just one star.
Murphy himself went bigger, although not necessarily better. The Golden Child, Coming To America and Beverly Hills Cop 2 were all top ten hits in their respective years, but there was a growing feeling that his shtick was growing a little old. Once Boomerang hit in 1992, his star was already falling, although his second life as a more family orientated comedian was just around the corner.
Judge Reinhold and John Ashton had, surprisingly, limited success. Reinhold would make Vice Versa and then became a prolific B-movie actor, whilst Ashton went on to make the excellent Midnight Run but then, like Reinhold, largely found work in TV movies and series – a real shame, as both were eminently watchable. But who knows, if the ever rumoured Beverly Hills Cop 4 gets off the ground, then maybe they can be reintroduced to a mainstream audience once again.
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