Sunday, June 5, 2022

The real Beverly Hills cop was the friends we made along the way


BEVERLY HILLS COP II

1987
Directed by Tony Scott
Written by Eddie Murphy, Robert D. Wachs, Larry Ferguson and Warren Skaaren

Spoilers: moderate


In 1984, Eddie Murphy was a burgeoning talent, having long since established himself as one of the all-time best practitioners of one of the all-time lowest human art forms, stand-up comedy.  He was a pretty big movie star by then, too, on the basis of his participation as the co-lead in Walter Hill's cops-and-robbers-and-race-in-America movie, 48 Hrs., one of 1982's surprise big hits.  Afterward, Murphy did a comedy with another SNL alum, Dan Akroyd, Trading Places; he took a lot of money to be inserted via reshoots into a Dudley Moore dud called Best Defense.  At this juncture, producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer, in pursuit of their aim of defining what "the 1980s" were going to be, tapped Murphy as the lead of another cops-and-robbers (and rather-less-race-in-America) movie called Beverly Hills Cop.  And after that he was a huge movie star.

Simpson had had the idea for this movie ages previously, though once Murphy came aboard, it was rebuilt for him, essentially an expansion of the Confederate bar scene in 48 Hrs. into an entire feature, recalibrated to involve more bamboozling and less naked aggression, and effected by the expedient of giving Reggie Hammond a real badge, as a real cop, and calling him Axel Foley.  It saw Axel sent off on a personal mission of justice from his hometown of Detroit to the far-flung Californian paradise of Beverly Hills, and the idea is he's a "fish-out-of-water," though he's more like a self-amused shark who found his way into a goldfish pond.  It's a fantastic little action-comedy, and was a big, big hit, though as this is not a Beverly Hill Cop review, allow me to be slightly reductive about it for now (but only slightly), and say that it achieved this great success by establishing Axel Foley as one of the most charismatic characters of the 1980s by way of the film's two chief points of recommendation: Murphy's fast-talking, easy-going charm and the iconic earworm that followed him across Southern California, Harold Faltermeyer's superb character theme melody, "Axel F," which you are undoubtedly now hearing in your head, if you are not, in fact, humming it out loud.  Dum-dum, dum-da-da-dum-dum.  Faltermeyer and "Axel F" alike return for the sequel.  Fear not.

For in 1987, Simpson & Bruckheimer decided they could exploit Beverly Hills Cop's success with a sequel, but they also decided they could do better, recognizing that they'd produced a very fine cop comedy with good vibes to spare, but merely an adequate cop actioner.  Beverly Hills Cop was directed by Martin Brest, whose legacy would probably be more secure if I could describe him as a "nobody"Scent of a Woman was, I think, a reasonably big deal, but his career imploded so badly with Meet Joe Black and Gigli that he turned into a recluse.  He was, whatever else, not really an action guy.  However, Simpson & Bruckheimer had in their fold the director of the previous year's best action film and its box office champion, and hot off of Top Gun they gave their sequel to Tony Scott, which seems quietly historic to me, one of those turning points.  It effectively determined the course of the remainder of Scott's career to an enormous degree, and maybe even an unfortunate degree: there would never be another Hunger in Scott's filmography, and I honestly do think that's a sin; and you'll look at me like I'm a madperson for saying it with Days of Thunder around the corner, but I'm not sure there would ever truly be another Top Gun; but there would definitely be more Beverly Hills Cop IIs.  Happily, even if this was where Scott retreated from mystic impressionism into mere stylishness, Beverly Hills Cop II itself is an excellent extension of Scott's skills into (comparatively) more grounded territory.

There was some risk here: Scott was not obviously a comedy guy, and while this seems to escape many commentators (it may have eluded Simpson & Bruckheimer when they hired Scott), Top Gun is also not an "action" movie in the usual sense of the term, that is, "a movie about people firing guns at one other," and practically nothing about Top Gun's aerial combat with giant machinery really indicates that Scott was going to be good at personal, human-scaled violence.  But, miraculously, Beverly Hills Cop II loses very little as a comedyit's hard to quantify such things, but if it's maybe less thoroughgoingly funny than it's predecessor, it's still got bigger individual laughs, and, somehow (with salient exceptions) even better vibesand it gains everything as action cinema.  Not even just action cinema.  Yeah, if I'm feeling jerkish, I could say that the most effective stylistic gesture in the whole Beverly Hills Cop trilogy was the first film's opening sequence that tours Detroit and contrasts it against your idea of what the film's going to be about, particularly in its title card drop, with "Beverly Hills" coming first and sitting there against the incongruous rust belt squalor for several seconds in a font that briefly tricks your brain into thinking the movie is telling you we're already in Beverly Hills.  But that's a really minor bit of cleverness, and otherwise, BHC2 has done more cinema in its first three minutes than Beverly Hills Cop did in its entire runtime.  (And it's done more cinema than John Landis's Beverly Hills Cop III would do in its entire runtime in two minutes, but that's not important.)


The first thing we see is the Paramount mountain-and-sunset logo (the modern-day one that opens the blu-ray presentation is emphatically "Tony Scott" in its own right, and I do not believe that to be a coincidence), but the movie has, in fact, already started in earnest, with the motif that Faltermeyer came up with for the very Scottiest aspect of this Tony Scott film, the crime sequences that knife in and out of the narrative and provide Axel his mission.  The first shot of the actual film is Beverly Hills inevitably smothered in one of Scott's smog-alert orange filters.  The first important narrative image is Brigitte Nielsen's imperious face under her severe mid-80s icequeen haircut.  The second important narrative image is Brigitte Nielsen's crotch, and I don't know which came first, this shot or Scott's affair with her, but in either case, Scott's thing for very tall, very cool blondes (Catherine Denevue, Kelly McGillis) and dressing them up while he (presumably) clapped like a happy seal must reach its apex here.  My point is Scott is totally hard, but it's a loving hard-on at least, so that Nielsen's physicality is a key structural element of the film's aesthetic, appearing in a whole wardrobe's worth of strikingly immaculate outfits and under a variety of wigs, each a different flavor of classy, cruel dominatrix.  The first thing she does, anyway, is put a man on his knees, and tell him what to do.  Nielsen (her character's name is eventually clarified to be Karla Fry) is leading a daring but meticulously-planned robbery of a jewelry store, and Faltermeyer's metronymic theme, not to mention Scott's staccato editing that makes every shot feel like an insert shot, underlines the clockwork perfection of the heist as she cries out the time remaining.  (The bad part is that BHC2 can, perhaps, be accused of leading with its best action scene, though not to nearly the same extent that Beverly Hills Cop's opening truck chase demolition derby is unambiguously its best action scene.)  This, it shall turn out, is but the first in a series of crimes that border on the supervillainous; and when Karla's time runs, she leaves a rose and an encrypted note, labeled "A," promising that this reign of terror is just beginning.

That sends us back to Detroit, where in case you were worried there were too many ladies' crotches in this movie and not enough dudes', our reintroduction to our hero is by way of his briefs-bound package and the credit "in association with Eddie Murphy Productions" pasted over his junk.  (Okay, the first thing we see of Axel is just his hand, in a wonderfully unstressed joke that it took three viewings before I even noticed, where it turns out that he "feeds" his fish by just dropping an entire slice of bread in the tank.)  Well, Axel's doing what Axel does (seat-of-his-pants undercover work), but that needs to be put on pause indefinitely when Karla executes her "B" crime, which is the attempted assassination of Axel's old Beverly Hills friend, police captain Andrew Bogomil (Ronny Cox).  Axel is apprised of this awful turn by the most unnecessary "KPLOT TV" news announcement I've ever seenas soon as Axel sees the crime reported live on Detroit television, he's on the phone with his other old Beverly Hills friends, John Taggart (John Ashton) and Billy Rosewood (Judge Reinhold), and, like, the script could've just had them call himand, almost immediately, Axel bounces back out to California.  Things have changed in Beverly Hills in his absenceTaggart and Rosewood are hanging onto their jobs by a thread, and unfortunately the whole "well-programmed law-enforcement robots for a utopian outpost" impression that the Beverly Hills P.D. gave off in the first film, and which drove a non-trivial part of its comedy, has given way to a drearily ordinary department run by a proverbial angry dickhead chief (Allen Garfield), not unlike Axel's own angry dickhead chief back in Detroit (Gil Hill), only less competent and without the excuse of having an Axel Foley to deal with to explain his behavior.  Nevertheless, it takes Axel little effort to persuade his old partners to help him get justice for Bogomil and solve this "Alphabet" case.

It is, of course, more than reminiscent of Beverly Hills Cop; it's pretty much exactly the same plot as Beverly Hills Cop, something underscored, I think intentionally, by the otherwise-arbitrary choice to make the big bad yet another Evil German (J├╝rgen Prochnow).  But it winds up feeling terrifically distinct, not solely because it's an action-comedy that actually has real action sequences, but because Beverly Hills Cop already did the hard work of setting up the dynamic that BHC2 can simply slide itself into from the outset.


It's not a flawless continuation, admittedly, even aside from completely changing the atmosphere of the BHPD (and as far as quibbles with style goes, I like the one idea Scott and his cinematographer Jeffrey Kimball came up with to film police stations, a bunch of shafts of orange light streaking through neo-noir Venetian blinds, but I sure do wish they'd come up with more than just the one idea, especially given that a later development requires Scott to cross-cut between the Detroit and Beverly Hills P.D.'s and if you weren't watching carefully you would probably assume that the BHPD were calling Axel's Detroit partner (Paul Reiser) from an office down the hall).  Murphy gets a story credit in addition to producer and starpossibly simply the result of even heavier improv (for the record, Murphy doesn't even like BHC2 much, regarding it as "the most successful mediocre picture in history," and I guess he'd know from unsuccessful mediocre pictures)and the greater latitude this afforded Murphy is a mixed bag.  For starters, he's working bluer (I prefer to pretend, against all evidence including the inflection of Murphy's voice, that Murphy and Scott actually meant "big bitch" as a term of endearment for Nielsen), and while the veil between "Eddie Murphy, comedian" and "Axel Foley, movie character" is a thin one, it's supposed to be a real one.  (The insert shot of our man getting up on tippy-toes to address Karla is "Axel Foley"; "that is one big bitch" is "Eddie Murphy.")

More damagingly, somebody (I assume Murphy, but it could be anybody because it was, after all, the most iconic element of the first film) really doubled-down on Axel's quick-talking con-artistry.  Iconic or not this has always felt like the least essential thing about the characterthe notion is that he's using street-smarts on out-of-touch richies, though the reality is he's bamboozling working-class schmucks who don't even live in Beverly Hills; and, frankly, I didn't even realize it actually was essential until Murphy's sullen anti-performance in the third film took it away completely.  But in any case, BHC2 takes it from "zany semi-plausibility" to "who even dressed these people, because they definitely didn't do the buttons themselves."  If there aren't more of these sequences here, it feels that way, because they're mostly misconceived and tend to slightly drag.  Fortunately, some tweaks really are for the better: Axel leans on "actual detective work" more and comes off smarter, and he came off smart in the first film already.  And some things, unfortunately, don't change at all: just like in the first film, Axel demonstrates a strong rapport with a white woman (Alice Adair) that is kept carefully neutered lest it turn romantic.  I guess even Murphy's stardom had limits.

Crucially, though, Axel is still one affable motherfucker, and this is where I stop picking at the movie and just enjoy it for the rich buffet of comfortable comedy it offers; whatever contortions Murphy inflicted on this scenario, he did realize that Beverly Hills Cop was not only a star vehicle, it was a buddy film, Murphy depending critically upon being able to react to Reinhold's whitebread goofiness and Ashton's moderating irritability.  BHC2 is a much purer expression of that understanding.  (The dispersion of the ensemble is the fundamental reason that BHC3 is barely acceptable even as a long-delayed passion-free cash-grab.)

Beverly Hills Cop did good work, but it was work; now, without the burden of having to establish Axel, Taggart, and Rosewood as a trio, BHC2 can just do Axel, Taggart, and Rosewood as a trio, and once Axel arrives in California I don't think he's out of the company of one or the other for more than four minutes.  Reinhold, who was already responsible for the biggest laughs in the first film (not the majority of laughs by any means, but the biggest) is rewarded with some really terrific character convolutions for Rosewood, taking full advantage of Reinhold's glassy-eyed stares and puckered grins that make him look like he's seconds away from drooling on himself, turning him from mere dorky cop into a complex lunatic, who somehow seamlessly combines New Age spiritualism and obsessive visions of apocalyptic vigilante violence in one wonderful freakshow.  Somehow, this is all largely understated even though it's being constantly stated every time Rosewood does anything (maybe Scott not being "a comedy guy" was a godsend), or at least it's understated until Rosewood puts on his trenchcoat and dual-wields shotguns for the final battle, which is somehow still not the conclusion of his pursuit of fantasy urban violence.*  (He again gets the biggest laugh in his soothing read of a line addressed to a turtle: "You know where your dick is, don't you, Big Al?"  Weirdly, it's thematic.)


That dynamic papers over some of the weaker material"let's go a strip club again, mainly because we did it in the first movie at around this time"and altogether it's just one of the most appealing depictions of a group friendship in 80s blockbuster cinema, not least because you can easily imagine them choosing to be around one another in the absence of any particular reason, which sure as fuck isn't the case in (e.g.) 48 Hrs., but that isn't even really the case in, like, Ghostbusters.  Near the end of the movie, Axel tells his friends he loves them, and Murphy makes it a perfectly casual thing to say; he's obviously told them that before, and so it rings true.

This more than anything else is what reminds me here of Top Gun: in some respects, it winds up feeling like a hang-out movie, where our cops meander through the mystery (to the point that, because it's 1987 and not for any other good reason, they wind up wandering into the Playboy Mansion stocked with assorted Playboy personnel), yet it's a hang-out movie tinged with brutal urgency by the countervailing force of all of those hard-edged supercrime modules that Scott keeps forcing onto a story that practically seems like it would have preferred it if the boys had just got some sun together by the pool.  I very much love the "sequel escalation" at play hereAxel Foley deserved criminals more interesting than "drug dealer, I guess?", and this movie gives him someand I love the way this Batman-scaled threat continually crashes into Axel's fun buddy reunion.  The finale almost gets away from Scott, but even that seems strategic in a sense, turning from "desultory 80s gunfight with unlikely pyrotechnics" to something much artier and Scottier, defined by quiet suspense, shadows, flowing pieces of fabric, and some really indelible framing of a backlit Nielsen against some running horses, that is, yes, not necessarily best-served by her character's summary denouement immediately thereafter.  ("Women!"  It's not an honorable laugh.)  Well, despite allowing plentiful indulgences to his characters, Scott made a tight action-comedy here (it's the shortest of the BHCs), and the combination of lax comedy and taut actionsometimes even mixing it up, the cement mixer chase being taut comedy and lax actionis just effortlessly watchable.  It's never really too ambitious about it, but in the annals of sequels that do exactly the same thing as the first film but bigger, it's surely one of the best.

Score: 8/10

*Brigitte Nielsen, incidentally, was presently married to Sylvester Stallone:


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