Beverly Hills Cop (1984, Martin Brest)

Beverly Hills Cop opens with a montage of Detroit street scenes. Kids playing, people talking, walking, Black and white. It’s beautifully cut—even at its most tediously cop action movie procedural, the editing is always glorious (though there’s lots of technical magnificence in Cop—and is well-done enough you even forgive the film for Glenn Frey’s The Heat is On. The thing about really tightly chosen soundtracks is when a song doesn’t fit the characters, and Glenn Frey is definitely not what Eddie Murphy’s Detroit super-cop puts on the stereo hi-fi. It’s okay enough. And the montage is excellent.

But it’s nothing compared to the first action sequence, which has a cigarette smuggler wreaking havoc in a stolen truck on the streets of Detroit, all the cops in pursuit, Murphy swinging around the back of the trailer, The Pointer Sisters’ “Neutron Dance” blaring, every shot cut perfectly to the music. It’s mesmerizing. And director Brest makes sure to show off Murphy’s reaction shots. After that opening scene with the cops arriving to set off the truck chase, the entire movie is pretty much watching Murphy figure out the story. Brest just sets the camera on him and waits for Murphy to lead the scene to its finish with his deliveries and expressions. So when Lisa Eilbacher is just staring at him on the job, waiting for him to find the next clue, it makes perfect sense. He’d be just as transfixing to the people around him.

Brest directs Cop with a spotlight on Murphy, leveraging Bruce Surtees’s very grim and gritty photography (even for an action movie) and Murphy’s ability to make the comedy work. Because everyone’s Murphy’s sidekick in a series of sketches. Well, until the third act. And it’s sluggish through the second act when Murphy teams up with Beverly Hills cops and buzzkills John Ashton and Judge Reinhold. The movie takes a while to really loose Ashton and Reinhold as a comedy duo—they’ve got a whole slapstick number at one point, with Harold Faltermeyer’s scorekeeping the energy up until they’re able to take it through unfunny into a good gag. And the last one before the big action finale.

It’s a decent big action finale, with Murphy able to deliver the thriller goods while Ashton and Reinhold take over the comedy. There are a lot of reasons Beverly Hills Cop could never get made today, not least of which being if a bunch of white guys with assault weapons are shooting at a Black man (even one with two white friends) on their Beverly Hills estate… would the cops even show up? Cop ages rather strangely. Starting with none of the white cops just shooting Murphy when they don’t recognize him. It’s uncomfortably optimistic.

But there’s also the Beverly Hills angle. Cop’s able to treat it as an absurd foreign land, where every car is a Mercedes, every person white but polite, and the cops tattle on each other for infractions. It leads to a lot of funny scenes. Murphy, Brest, and Cop can get quite a bit of material from it. The big changeover in tone comes after the strip club scene, which isn’t the worst eighties action movie strip club scene, but it’s still utterly pointless. Cop doesn’t have female characters—Eilbacher’s art gallery director is only female because they wouldn’t have been able to sell a straight male art gallery director. She and Murphy don’t have any romantic chemistry; they’re just old friends. The first act of Cop is very much about old friends. And it’s definitely not about girls. If you look in the end credits, it’s Eilbacher then fifteen guys (and only one Black guy) before you get to the next female character. Murphy spends the entire time in the strip club flirting with the waitress, and there’s not even a reaction shot. Cop’s about boys.

To be incredibly fair to it and what they pull off: Beverly Hills Cop takes place over four days, three of them consecutive, and there’s only dull moment is trying to figure out if Bronson Pinchot is intentionally stalling the scene. Brest and the editors time everyone else in the movie with Murphy, but Pinchot against him, and it’s almost like a dig to make Pinchot more unlikable. Like maybe he was actually too likable, and they screwed it up for a laugh. But the laugh is he’s foreign and an art gallery clerk.

Paul Reiser does better in his bit part as Murphy’s Detroit sidekick, but he’s really just there to dump exposition and set up jokes.

The best supporting performance is probably Ronny Cox as the Beverly Hills captain. He’s got the least to do in terms of action but the most character while doing it. Then probably Steven Berkoff’s off-putting but successful villain. Then Eilbacher holds her own against everyone and helps maintain Murphy’s energy even when he’s in Beverly Hills. Ashton and Reinhold are both good, likable, funny. Reinhold’s got a couple long comedy bits, but they eventually pay off enough. Brest doesn’t care to showcase anyone else. He just wants to watch Murphy, which makes sense because Murphy’s almost indescribably good. Nonpareil. It’s a profoundly successful showcase (and very unfortunate he and Brest never teamed up again); Beverly Hills Cop is no crappy blue Chevy Nova; it’s the perfect star-making vehicle.

The great technicals just make it better. Cop’s unimaginable looking different from Surtees’s contrast heavy but still muted photography or playing differently than how Arthur Coburn and Billy Weber cut it. Not to mention the Faltermeyer score. Or the often great soundtrack (Patti LaBelle contributes the two other big songs, not Frey).

And Brest’s direction is excellent. The film’s a singular success.

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