“We got cocaine and coffee here. We’re gonna get wired and have a big party.”
It isn’t difficult to believe why Beverly Hills Cop received an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay. The laughs are huge, the characters more complex than simply facilitators of plot progression, and the central mystery a solid criminal investigation despite being relegated to the background as a MacGuffin used to evolve relationships and build trust between Axel Foley (Eddie Murphy) and the cops he messes with along the way. The surprise comes from reading about how many different variations of the script there were starting with an original draft in 1977. Danilo Bach was first, Daniel Petrie Jr. added the humor, Sylvester Stallone turned it serious for himself, and by the time Murphy came onboard they compiled a shooting script together from every iteration and let the cast ad-lib the rest. Unorthodox or not, it worked.
A gigantic hit vaulting Murphy to A-list Hollywood status as well as providing director Martin Brest the success to move onto Midnight Run, Beverly Hills Cop is pure 80s yet barely feels dated when you shut your ears to the synth beats and obtrusive pop song interludes. I’m not saying synth beats are bad—few themes are more iconic than “Axel F”—they simply epitomize the decade. Honestly, by including a GPS precursor that didn’t actually exist at the time, police consoles full of flashing lights and buttons to have me wondering if parts of the War Room set from Dr. Strangelove were used, and a deliberately heightened aesthetic ensuring California’s law enforcement screamed money and perfection when juxtaposed against Detroit’s rough and tumble neighborhoods, it’s almost more high concept sketch than fully-formed film.
That said, the plot has meat too courtesy of a personal vendetta on behalf of Detective Foley. Boisterous, foul-mouthed, and never afraid to ignore orders, Axel’s introduced to us undercover and haggling with a criminal before unwittingly partaking in an expensive police chase. Chewed out by his boss (real life Detective Gilbert R. Hill), you can’t help loving him for doing what he believes is right since he and his superiors know he has the potential to be the department’s greatest asset. Because the day’s ordeal was frustrating nonetheless, it’s a welcome surprise to find best friend Mikey (James Russo) in his kitchen unannounced. We glean details about Foley’s youthful past, witness more of Murphy’s trademarked humor, and learn what’s happening on the west coast to warrant a hitman (Jonathan Banks) arriving with a bullet for Mikey’s skull.
Desperate to avenge his buddy’s death, Axel takes a “vacation” to Beverly Hills under strict orders he’ll surely neglect to not interfere with the case. Mutual friend Jenny (Lisa Eilbacher) directs him towards Mikey’s and her employer Victor Maitland (Steven Berkoff), Foley quickly sticks his nose where it doesn’t belong, and soon everyone is trying to send him home packing=. It’s at this point he meets by-the-books Sgt. Taggart (John Ashton) and his rookie partner Billy Rosewood (Judge Reinhold), products of a police force too pristine for the largest of fanciful flights. These guys won’t even agree with a white lie someone else tells to save their own butts let alone skirt the law. Their commanding officer Lt. Bogomil (Ronny Cox) is no different either as each man fears the repercussions that will inevitably crash down upon them.
So it’s up to Axel to find evidence against Maitland alone while also coercing the Beverly Hills team to help despite them doing so probably destroying their careers. This leads to some glorious comedic bits as Foley sends room service down to the cops on stakeout, feigns being Maitland’s lover to work his way into a private club, and hilariously cons a customs bond company to open up their files for him. The role is vintage Murphy, fast-talking his way into and out of jams as he continues to pile on enemies with a dwindling few friends at his back. He’s the kind of guy you love to hate because he’ll make you into a hero if things go well and a pariah if they don’t. Luckily for all involved, his hunches usually pan out.
Many of the best sequences are improvised and it shows in their hilarity and the chemistry of the actors. Reinhold and Ashton are the perfect odd couple of wide-eyed newbie and underappreciated veteran arguing about red meat and coffee while Foley sticks bananas in their exhaust pipe. Cox’s Bogomil is cutely stuck between a rock and a hard place wanting to play along if there was enough proof to not bend the rules and Banks as Maitland’s assistant can’t stop staring slack-jawed with homicidal thoughts. Besides Murphy, however, the second most memorable piece comes from a brief cameo by Bronson Pinchot as Jenny’s employee Serge. A throwaway role expanded due to the laughs he earned on set, it’s these little unexpected flourishes that provide the comedy the depth and color necessary to remain a classic.