Brest: Beverly Hills Cop (1984)
Beverly Hills Cop is a strange film to experience forty years later. At the time, it was clearly a phenomenon – breaking box office records, providing Eddie Murphy with one of his most iconic roles, and pioneering a new brand of slick action-comedy. Yet it feels far less singular in retrospect, partly because it paved the way for so many others films that it no longer feels original, and partly because Tony Scott’s sequel, Beverly Hills Cop II, was so much more vibrant. For all that Beverly Hills Cop was an event on its own terms, it now feels more like a prologue, since the franchise as a whole only really came into its own, and discovered what it was meant to be, with Scott’s direction. In that sense, Beverly Hills Cop is the blueprint for a new kind of blockbuster that this first film can’t quite grasp or inhabit in any sustained way.
In part, that’s due to the disconnect between director and producers. Beverly Hills Cop was the second collaboration between Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer, after Flashdance, and their first action-comedy collaboration. Over the next decade, they’d perfect a new kind of action-comedy formula that was light years away from Martin Brest’s more introspective comic style. In effect, Simpson and Bruckheimer invented a formula that didn’t need style – just speed, which Scott provided so emphatically in the sequel that he turned it into a style of his own. Watching Brest try to interpret this new cinematic slickness is a bit like watching a clash between the pre-blockbuster and blockbuster world. Time and again, he tries to inject introspection and idiosyncrasy into a franchise outlook that isn’t interested or invested in it.
To some extent, Daniel Petrie Jr.’s screenplay anticipates this clash between Brest and Bruckheimer, between old and new Hollywood. Eddie Murphy plays Axel Foley, a street-smart cop who moves from Detroit from Los Angeles to investigate the murder of one of his friends. On the surface, the film contrasts the industrial cityscape of Detroit with the post-industrial simulacra of Los Angeles. We start with a montage of automobile assembly lines, and move to a chase that captures the Motor City in all its industrial glory. By contrast, when Axel arrives in Los Angeles, he starts his investigation at a postmodern art gallery, evoking a new image regime that is all surface, no depth. The first person he meets is Serge, a gay curator played by Bronson Pinchot, who couldn’t be more different from the automobile workers of Detroit.
Yet this distinction between Detroit and Los Angeles quickly fades away. To some extent, that’s because Brest shoots Detroit as if it is already Los Angeles, relying on wide highway scenes to get the opening chase going. But it’s mainly because of Harold Faltermeyer’s iconic synth score, which flattens space into a series of montage sequences that don’t discriminate between specific places. As much as the film wants to present Axel as an aleatory presence in Beverly Hills, the real aleatory impact here comes from “Axel F.,” his synth motif, which ripples out across Brest’s mise-en-scenes like a missive from a slick cinematic future. These synth riffs are the core of the film, to the point where the tone vanishes without them, and yet Brest is unable (or unwilling) to collapse the film into them either. By contrast, Scott reduces Axel to “Axel F.” and presents him as a synth riff from the very start of his sequel, which then plays out as one sustained montage sequence. Brest can never go that far, and tries to tell a more conventional story between (and in spite of) the Simpson-Bruckheimer montage imperative.
While these montage beats are peppy, then, the film as a whole is quite inert, since Brest never truly leans into the slickness, but is unable to escape it either. When the music isn’t playing, the action is sluggish, laboured and tedious, with every joke telegraphed, emphasised and repeated ad nauseum. Again, Scott remedies this, fusing musical riffs with comic riffs, and collapsing Murphy both into the score and into his own stand-up routines. Brest, however, wants to give Murphy room to thrive as a more naturalistic actor, which turns out to be a pretty poor choice, since he isn’t suited to the kind of casual languor needed for this brand of action-comedy. Most of his scenes feel written by committee, or by algorithm, not unlike the most generic MCU releases, while the endless shot-reverse shot formulations make it impossible to approach Murphy outside of the film’s slick yet bland version of his personae.
It doesn’t help, either, that there are no real stakes in the film. You never feel invested in Axel’s investigation because you never get to know his friend (and it’s clear that he’s not going to be harmed). You also never feel invested in the fish-out-of-water narrative, since Axel never seemed to fit into Detroit, meaning his shift to Beverly Hills isn’t all that jarring. In fact, as Scott will go on to emphasise, Axel, and Murphy, work best as embodiments of Los Angeles. Yet Brest never takes that route here, instead presenting Murphy as a kind of everyman who fits in everywhere and nowhere, begging the question of why we shifted to LA to begin with. Again, the montage does the heavy lifting, propelling us through these various implausibilities and keeping us buoyant, but Brest never quite identifies himself with this propulsive power.
The closest Brest comes is a grudging concession to sheer excess, extravagant spectacle that doesn’t make sense except as a component of a montage sequence. For the most part, these spectacles involve redundant destruction and revolve around spaces that become as expendable and interchangeable as the individual components in a montage sequence. In the early car chase, for example, the drivers seem to go out of their way to crash into parked cars, for no obvious reason, except that it must have driven up the blockbuster budget, which becomes a kind of indirect spectacle in itself. When Axel arrives in Los Angeles, Victor Maitland, an organised criminal played by Steven Berkoff, makes his henchmen throw Axel out his own front window, even though he’s the one who’ll have to pay to replace the glass. And when Axel confronts another criminal, Zack, played by Jonathan Banks, at a wealthy country club, he flings him across a full table of food, but is somehow permitted to remain in the restaurant, whose owners seem to endorse the redundant destruction that runs throughout all of these scenes.
These destructive moments also tend to coincide with Murphy’s strongest moments. Despite a few moments of overt jive, he hasn’t quite crystallised his comic signature as he does in the sequel – he’s not really funny, but he has good buoyancy, and becomes a kind of propulsive montage principle in himself, albeit a low-level propulsion that often makes this feel more like a hang-out film than a full-blown action comedy. Presumably because Murphy improvised so much of his role, Axel is also most endearing when he’s improvising, exuding a low-level cockiness that he’s going to get his story straight no matter how implausible it might seem. This supreme smoothness means he never quite feels like a cop or a criminal so much as a vision of what it takes to fluidly navigate the very cusp of law enforcement as a black man. His verbal dexterity is most disarming when he’s poised between white cops and black men, talking his way out of one situation after another without ever fully identifying with either party, drawing on jive even as he pokes fun at men who play the “black card” to get their way.
As so often occurs in 80s films, this alliance between white and black men needs another identity group to “other,” producing a pervasive paranoia about gay men. I also wondered whether Murphy’s supreme smoothness had to be clearly delineated from gay cruisiness in the early 80s. In any case, the film is full of gayface, starting with Pinchot’s character, and moving through a series of Murphy impersonations and gay punching-bags that only just fall short of overt hate speech, as if the great joke of it all were the absurdity of being on the verge of an era where it was no longer completely alright to make fun of gay men. Alternatively, it feels like tropes and personae that Murphy might have worked seamlessly into his routine even five years before are now, in the early 80s, more explicitly coded as homophobia, meaning the film has to tread a delicate line to prevent hatred from rupturing its relaxed smoothness.
These jokes get annoying quickly – how many times does Petrie need to include a gay character just to smirk at them? – so it’s no surprise that Scott also discarded this part of the original Beverly Hills Cop formula. In the closing scenes, you start to see a hint of the energy of the sequel, but it all vanishes into so many uncoordinated car crashes and shoot-em-up sequences. The future, then, is embedded in Beverly Hills Cop, but Brest wasn’t the director to draw it out. Maybe 1984 wasn’t the right time either – there’s a huge difference, after all, between the early and mid-80s. By the time Scott took over the reins, and with the weight of Top Gun behind him, the time was just right for this odd early blueprint to come into its own.
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