Friday, May 28, 2021

Defending (Not Defunding) the Police in “Beverly Hills Cop”

We’ve just passed the one-year anniversary of the death of George Floyd. Floyd’s murder under the knee of a Minneapolis cop has rightly led to impassioned public discourse about the role of policing in African-American communities. It’s no accident, at this particular moment in history, that so many of our major recent films – like Judas and the Black Messiah – have had something to say about the fraught connection between law enforcement and America’s Black citizenry. On television, such powerful shows as 2019’s When They See Us miniseries have zeroed in on the police role in demonizing innocent people of color.

 But on the anniversary of Floyd’s death I yearned to watch something a bit lighter. Which is how I happened to queue up my TV to an oldie, 1984’s Beverly Hills Cop. The film has everything to do with the outrageous charms of Eddie Murphy, in the leading role of Axel Foley. But this was not a case (like Coming to America) of the film being a Murphy product from the start. It began as an action thriller that at one time was supposed to star Mickey Rourke. When Sylvester Stallone came aboard, the blood quotient was ramped up, and so was the budget. But then producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer made a major pivot to Eddie Murphy, who’d done well with comedies like 48 Hours and Trading Places. Suddenly the script’s renegade cop was not only a brilliant but independent-minded detective but also a major wise-ass, with a foul-mouthed quip for every occasion. The end result is an undercover police officer from a grungy Detroit precinct who shows up in Beverly Hills, supposedly on vacation but really to search (over the objections of his superiors) for the man behind the killing of a childhood buddy.

 Beverly Hills plays itself, in all of its SoCal patrician glory. As someone who grew up in neighboring West L.A., just over the city line, I can attest to the authenticity of the Spanish-inflected civic buildings, the swanky boutiques, and the hordes of well-tanned sidewalk strollers, all of them dressed to impress. (It’s amusing, though, to see Foley enter the Beverly Wilshire Hotel—a distinguished hostelry in the heart of Beverly Hills—and then cross the lobby of Downtown L.A.’s equally historic Biltmore, where he cons a desk clerk into giving him a suite for the price of a single room.)

 Critics as well as audiences loved Murphy’s live-wire performance. In Time magazine, critic Richard Schickel wrote that Murphy “exuded the kind of cheeky, cocky charm that has been missing from the screen since [Jimmy] Cagney was a pup, snarling his way out of the ghetto."  Cagney, of course, scored big in the 1930s as an overgrown dead-end kid, one whose bravado exceeded even his talent for larceny. Murphy may be on the right side of the law, but he violates local rules and mores at every turn. In the oh-so-polite Beverly Hills police station, he pummels codes of conduct non-stop. As Schickel notes, he’s “ghetto” in his sassy rejection of the status quo . . . but there’s absolutely no overt racism to be seen in the way he’s approached either by fellow cops or civilians. Some of them may not like him much, but no one says (or even THINKS) the “N word.” And by the ending, of course, everyone but the bad guys is thoroughly on his side. Welcome to Neverneverland!

 A word in passing on Eddy Donno, whose spectacular driving in the film won him a Stuntman Award. Well-deserved, and a big step up from his Roger Corman days.  

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