Every action comedy of the last 25 years, be it Bad Boys or the Rush Hour series or this week's Ride Along 2, owes a debt to Beverly Hills Cop. Though there had been movies in which a cop is up against a big case and out of his or her depth, very few had the cop face down threats with a quick wit and lot of attitude -- and certainly none of them on a level of success achieved by the original Beverly Hills Cop. The movie was the second highest-grossing film of 1984 (eventually edged out by Ghostbusters), receiving nominations for both the Golden Globes and the Oscars and officially turning Eddie Murphy into a global superstar. Its influence has been filtered down through so many pale and inferior imitations that it's easy to forget just what a massive impact that it had on Hollywood. It's one of those watershed movies in the action genre.
Two of its inferior imitations are its own sequels, 1987's Beverly Hills Cop II and 1994's Beverly Hills Cop III. The latter film is hardly worth talking about; it's barely a movie, much less a Beverly Hills Cop movie, and has the distinction of being the worst movie on director John Landis' distinguished resume. The former, though, is not so easily dismissed. Like its predecessor, it was a huge hit -- the third highest-grossing film of 1987. It helped cement director Tony Scott's A-list status as a director of slick, successful Hollywood product. It is also an ugly, angry movie damned by the hubris of Eddie Murphy. Like so many movies covered in #HeavyAction, its star is the movie's real auteur. In this case, that's not such a good thing.
If you think that sounds just like the plot of the original Beverly Hills Cop, you're not mistaken. In that movie, Axel went to Beverly Hills to solve the murder of his friend and did so with the help of Reinhold and Ashton. In Beverly Hills Cop II, Axel goes to Beverly Hills to solve the attempted murder of his friend with the help of Reinhold and Ashton. This is a real case of 'ain't broke/don't fix' sequelizing, in which all the same beats are repeated but without the freshness found the first time around. The best action sequels are the ones that tweak the formula (Lethal Weapon 2), that build upon the original (Terminator 2: Judgment Day) or that at the very least execute their sameness with skill (Die Hard 2: Die Harder). Because it's directed by Tony Scott, it can't be said that Beverly Hills Cop II isn't skillful or professional. It's also totally hollow, even for a sequel to an action comedy.
The problem, I'm afraid, is Murphy. A lot had changed for the comic in the three years between the original Cop and its 1987 sequel. He had become one of the biggest box office stars in the world. He made a go of it as a rock star, releasing the hit single "Party All the Time" in 1985. He was, at the time, one of the great swinging dicks in all of America, and Beverly Hills Cop II is a swinging dick movie. That's why Tony Scott was hired to direct; hot off the success of Top Gun, he was the guy who knew how to do swinging dick action. As a result, the film has more swagger, more firepower, more testosterone than its predecessor, but also far less attitude and spunk. Beverly Hills Cop was the class clown. Beverly Hills Cop II is the school bully.
Don't get me wrong -- Axel was cool in the first film, too. But he was cool because he didn't give a shit. He ran around Beverly Hills in a sweatshirt and a blue hoodie. He outsmarted and out-talked everyone he encountered, and the joy of the movie was seeing this outsider tear down the artifice and superficiality of the wealthy elite living in the 90210 zip code. By the sequel, he's just an aggressive asshole, pushing people around and taking money from them (his big move is getting people to bribe him) not because they have it coming but because he is better than them. That's the mission statement of Beverly Hills Cop II: Eddie Murphy is better than you.
In the same way that those opening moments suggest that the impeccably dressed, vain Axel Foley to whom we are introduced has become part of the same superficial class he originally opposed, so too do the aesthetics of the sequel. I love Tony Scott, but his approach to filmmaking underlines much of what's wrong with Beverly Hills Cop II. Martin Brest, who directed the original, isn't much of a stylist; he shot Beverly Hills with a kind of anthropological approach, something to be observed. Tony Scott is all style and creates a look that's very slick and beautiful, further refining what would become the Simpson/Bruckheimer aesthetic carried through the likes of Michael Bay, Dominic Sena and Simon West. By placing so much emphasis on surfaces, Scott further reinforces the notion that Axel Foley has become a sellout, now firmly entrenched in a society into whose tailpipe he once shoved all the bananas.
Cobra (which, oddly enough, was a movie borne of Sylvester Stallone's original draft of Beverly Hills Cop, once intended as a vehicle for him), but Nielsen has never made as big an impression as she does in Cop II: seven feet tall, a shock of white-blonde hair, ice water running through her gigantic Danish veins. She doesn't get a ton of screen time but manages to steal the movie. I'm conflicted about the way she's treated by the movie, which -- like a number of Murphy's movies from this period -- is heavily misogynistic. Making Nielsen a commanding villain isn't anti-woman. It's equality. The problem comes when she's the only significant female character surrounded by nothing but strippers and Playboy playmates (there's a scene at the Playboy mansion because this movie is not great). When she's finally [spoilers] shot and killed by John Ashton, he cracks "Women..." and he and Axel laugh. It's even funnier because he's spent the whole movie talking about his divorce, so ha ha women should be shot. It's ugly.
Beverly Hills Cop II is watchable junk -- it's Tony Scott, after all -- but it's junk all the same. It feels filtered through the worldview of 1987 Eddie Murphy (he gets story credit), which really isn't a pleasant place to be. It betrays the character of Axel Foley and our investment in the underdog, as Axel can't be considered an underdog when the entirety of the movie is devoted to his awesomeness. Despite having very little new or positive to offer, the sequel is almost as influential as its predecessor -- subsequent action comedies are riffing as much on Tony Scott's aesthetic as much as on Martin Brest's more successful blend of genres. Beverly Hills Cop is a better comedy than it is an action movie, while Cop II is a better action movie than it is a comedy, mostly because it is never funny. I love cop movies and I love action comedies, but this one resists my affection. It's just too cool for me.
And while we're talking about Beverly Hills Cop, RIP Glenn Frey.