Black goes mainstream with a commercial trendsetter of great cultural significance
Beverly Hills Cop would set a precedent for black action stars, but it almost didn’t happen. In 1984, Eddie Murphy was the hottest stand-up act on the planet following the release of Delirious, a 1983 HBO special that pushed the boundaries of race and sexuality, taking the mantle from Richard Pryor and running it off a commercial cliff edge. Like his predecessor and idol, Murphy’s act was more than just a barrage of expletives and crude analysis, tackling such issues as Reaganomics — which had a hugely negative financial impact on low-income minorities — and the rising AIDS epidemic, but when your 70-minute act features 230 uses of the word Fuck, that’s all you hear about, particularly from a privately owned, white media looking to discredit his anti-establishment repertoire.
Whatever your opinion of Murphy, the man had star power in abundance, and though he had semi-headlined Walter Hill’s offbeat buddy cop picture 48Hrs and John Landis’ class comedy Trading Places, earning two consecutive Golden Globe nominations in the process, he was still the black man playing second fiddle, portraying likeable characters who were ultimately crooks. Beverly Hills Cop would fully embrace Murphy’s talents, casting him in a manner that would open many doors for African American leads in mainstream Hollywood, but the part was originally meant for ‘Italian Stallion’ Sylvester Stallone, the kind of musclebound white actor who dominated the genre back in the mid-1980s.
Stallone was so wrapped-up in the role that he subjected the original screenplay to a heavy makeover that ditched the comedy element for a straight-up action flick, renaming the Foley character Axel Cobretti, a surname that will sound familiar to any action junkie worth their salt. But the Oscar-nominated Stallone’s lavish projections didn’t sit well with those at Paramount, leading Stallone to quit and pursue other projects. Two years later he would sign a deal with Golan-Globus, a cavalier production company with equally lavish tastes who would offer the star unprecedented fees as they looked to crack the big time. Stallone would star in two movies, washing his hands with the company after huge commercial misfire Over the Top, though his first movie for the Cannon Group would make $160 million worldwide in conjunction with distributor giants Warner Brothers. Cobra would feature a vigilante protagonist name Marion Cobretti, and is the closest thing to Stallone’s proposed version of Beverly Hills Cop we are ever likely to get.
Axel Foley: I was gonna call the article “Michael Jackson Is Sitting On Top of the World,” but now I think I might as well just call it “Michael Jackson Can Sit On Top of the World Just As Long As He Doesn’t Sit in the Beverly Palm Hotel ‘Cause There’s No Niggers Allowed in There!”
After several scripts, a whole series of screenwriters and investment that had already reached the $2,000,000 mark, the production was back at square one and floundering until producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer convinced Murphy to take the hot seat, and a hot seat it would prove to be. Black protagonists were nothing new in the mid-80s, but rarely were they the marquee name, particularly in the realms of mainstream Hollywood, where big money typically meant adhering to certain conventions. Right or wrong, the prospect of an African American lead in a mainstream action vehicle meant potentially alienating certain sections of the white demographic. Unenlightened folk weaned on a casual diet of racial discrimination were unlikely to accept an average-build black guy as a hero they could get behind, particularly when that hero openly mocked them as being ignorant.
Before Murphy, black action stars had mostly played second fiddle. They assumed the same patriotic guise as their white counterparts but were typically portrayed as less intelligent, subservient and generally inferior. They were accepted as good guys against races that were even more alien, but were invariably tied to the white alpha male’s quasi-oppressive leash. In 1985, African-American sidekick Steve James demanded that his American Ninja dialogue be altered due to asinine lines such as “no problem, whatever you say, partner.” A bona fide badass with a million dollar smile, James had all the prerequisites for an action lead in an industry steeped in prejudice but would never fulfil his true potential. After the release of Beverly Hills Cop all that began to change; black action leads were cropping up everywhere in Hollywood, and though blaxploitation would briefly flirt with the mainstream (you know who I’m talking about, and you can dig it), it would be years before black made its presence felt on a regular basis.
Beverly Hills Cop was a unique action movie in many ways. Murphy may have already broken ground with his turn as the loose-lipped Reggie Hammond in Walter Hill’s buddy cop innovator 48hrs, and in some respects that movie tackles racism more earnestly, but in terms of taking black mainstream and challenging audiences to accept an African American actor as a more conventional lead stripped of racial confinements, it’s hard to look beyond the original Beverly Hills Cop, which took the blue-tongued, negative connotations and turned them into something positive. Black culture was no longer a circus sideshow riding the tailcoat of a level-headed, white saviour, it was the marquee attraction, opening up new avenues for the likes of Wesley Snipes and Will Smith as black became the new action chic.
Beverly Hills Cop tells the story of a street-smart Detroit detective who takes a pseudo-vacation in Beverly Hills to avenge the death of his childhood friend against his captain’s wishes. There he meets a couple of white sidekicks in Sgt. Taggart (John Ashton) and Judge Reinhold’s Detective Billy Rosewood, the three become lifelong pals against all expectation. It’s interesting that the screenplay introduces two sidekicks as opposed to one. Taggart and Rosewood come across as fools while tailing Foley, but often at the expense of each other, and though Foley is portrayed as their professional superior, he never really condescends to them directly. Also notable is Beverly Hills Cops‘s lack of a love interest. The movie’s eye candy comes in the form of longtime Foley friend Jenny Summers (Lisa Eilbacher), a white character whose position is platonic from the offset. This doesn’t hurt Axel. In fact it makes him appear even more genuine. But it certainly goes against convention. Presumably white America wasn’t ready for that yet.
Jenny Summers : [about Axel] What are you gonna do to him?
Victor Maitland : I think you should be more worried about what we’re going to do with you.
Axel Foley : Yeah, Jenny, don’t worry about me. We got cocaine and coffee here. We’re gonna get wired and have a big party.
Furthermore, though Murphy often relies on his stand-up act to highlight the hypocrisy and innate prejudice of the privileged white class, the movie’s premise focuses on financial class as a way to delineate its star attraction and present audiences with a fish-out-of-water set-up that we can all relate to. Foley often comes up against affluent, arrogant or entitled characters who are made to look foolish thanks to Axel’s superior morals and sense of everyman humility, moments where race becomes more peripheral. Murphy ad-libbed many of his scenes and the racial overtones are glaring, but a financial underdog is someone everyone can get behind and a commercial safety net for anyone concerned with demographic alienation.
Future Oscar nominated writer Daniel Petrie Jr. was recruited to give Beverly Hills Cop its comic edge, and in a 2014 interview with Esquire he would explain how his idea came about.”I saw Beverly Hills Cop more as a comedy just because I had been a starving writer living and working in Beverly Hills, so I had the experience of walking down the street thinking, ‘Oh, maybe I’ll stop in here and get a tie. Oh wait, it’s $4,000.’ It seemed like a cop from a blue-collar area would be so struck with amusement about Beverly Hills and all the pretentiousness, that some great fish-out-of-water comedy could be mined from that.”
Still, Beverly Hills Cop wasn’t a half-assed push for mainstream equality, and Foley didn’t assume the white hero role by acting white. In fact, the screenplay took it in the opposite direction. Foley was foul-mouthed, uncouth and wholly anti-establishment, all the facets that had caused such a critical stir following the release of Delirious. He even dressed like and hung around other crooks, mocking another black cop for his excruciating white facade — a thinly-veiled potshot at white influence lifted straight from Murphy’s stand-up act.
Perhaps most important to the Foley package was the movie’s soundtrack, which gave audiences just enough white spirit in former Eagles frontman Glenn Frey’s tagline track The Heat is On, while flooding the majority of the LP with black artists such as The Pointer Sisters, Shalamar and Patti LaBelle, but even those tracks were accessible for white audiences, the compilation providing a broader pop sound that wasn’t strictly black. Still, the OST proves the movie’s driving force, particularly synth maestro Harold Faltermeyer’s Foley signature tune Axel F, an electro juggernaut which tapped more into the action genre itself than anything racial, allowing us to fully get behind the Axel character. It is somewhat ironic that Murphy’s signature track was composed by a white German.
But for all the talk of racial liberation, change doesn’t come easy, and ironically Foley’s character was just as guilty of discrimination, as was the actor who portrayed him. Murphy had come under fire for an identical portrayal of homosexuality in Delirious, frequently mocking gay men with homophobic slurs such as “faggot” to a widespread backlash from the gay community, and though he has since apologised for offences that were deemed acceptable in the mid-80s, it’s interesting that an emancipating screenplay such as Beverly Hills Cop is actually guilty of double standards, particularly during a scene in which Foley infiltrates antagonist Victor Maitland’s affluent lunch by pretending to be a gay one-night stand bearing bad news from the sex clinic, and it doesn’t stop there.
In fact, another openly gay character was written in a way that was just as disparaging, though actor Bronson Pinchot, who portrayed flamboyant art dealer Serge, took matters into his own hands. Pinchot would say of the part he would return to for both Beverly Hills Cop sequels, “[Serge] was just the gay shop boy who Eddie’s character just hammered. In the script he was this period set-piece from the ’80s of ‘now we bash the gay character,’ and I, without mentally or consciously planning to, made it into not ‘we bash,’ but ‘we play with.’ Possibly that’s why it made such an impact, because I think you would never look at that character and say, well, now we’re going to bash him, which was perfectly acceptable in 1984, 1985. He seemed like, ‘We’re going to have fun, and you’re going to accept me as a person.'”
Serge : [taking notice to Axel’s interest in the artwork] I see you look at this piece.
Axel Foley : Yeah. I was wondering how much something like this went for.
Serge : One hundred and thirty thousand dollar.
Axel Foley : Get the fuck out of here!
Serge : [laughing] No, I cannot! It’s serious! Because it’s very important piece.
Axel Foley : Have you ever sold one of these?
Serge : [proudly] Sell it yesterday to a collector.
Axel Foley : Get the fuck out of here!
Serge : No! I’m serious! I sell it myself!
Up until that point, gay characters were subjected to the kind of derision that was borderline hateful. Of course, those were different times, and almost everything becomes a source of outrage in hindsight. That’s the nature of continued enlightenment. Whether it was the screenplay’s initial intention or not, the Serge character proved to be a step in the right direction. Though he was little more than an absurd stereotype on the surface, we aren’t manipulated into ridicule. Cinema has since come a long way in that respect, and today his scenes may have the capacity to offend but his character was deserving of our affection in a way that was not condescending by 1984’s standards.
Movies and their themes date — that has and always will be the case — and Beverly Hills Cop‘s antiquated elements don’t end at sexuality. There is no doubting the fact that this was a hugely influential movie, but compared with genre classics such as Die Hard and Lethal Weapon it hasn’t aged quite as well, and not just because of those now startling moments of discrimination. The action sequences are dated, and overall the movie strikes you as pretty low-tech and outmoded compared with those other genre high points that put character above muscle.
While Die Hard and Lethal Weapon present us with rounded characters and relationships that ring true, Beverly Hills Cop is more a series of sketches that works almost like an episode of Saturday Night Live at times — the perfect platform for our innovative star turn, but one with a more generic presentation. The action formula would come on leaps and bounds during the latter part of the decade, and Beverly Hills Cop seems to have just missed out on the cut-off. One of the movie’s most memorable action scenes comes in a nightclub when Foley and his buddies foil a pair of armed robbers (crooks targeting the service industry?!), and though it does its job it seems tacked-on and hackneyed. The movie’s big finale shootout also seems underwhelming next to other action high-points of the era.
Still, there’s a level of authenticity to the movie that can’t be denied, especially during those earlier scenes in Detroit. The film’s opening paints a moribund picture of a city ravaged by industrial decline — the antithesis of Murphy’s tinsel town destination. It’s an image personified not only by Foley, but by the long-suffering Inspector Todd, a glorified Dirty Harry stereotype who comes across as so much more thanks to veteran actor Gilbert R. Hill, his character providing cynical comic relief with a human edge. The movie also benefits from antagonists who are distinctly evil in the face of so much comic cheer. James Russo’s cold and calculated Mikey Tandino leads the way, but there is also a formidable early turn from Breaking Bad‘s Jonathan Banks as a dead-eyed goon embroiled in a very personal vendetta.
Inspector Douglas Todd : Listen Axel, no more of these set ups, you understand? You’re a good cop, and you got great potential, but you don’t know every fucking thing. And I’m tired of taking the heat for your ass. One more time and you’re out on the street. Do you understand me?
Less convincing are the supposedly sheltered realms of LA’s wealthy elite, where naturally everything is done by the book. In reality, precincts served with protecting the affluent would be just as seasoned, if not from taking down street crime then from protecting the great and good and concealing those crimes that conveniently slip through the cracks. Taggart seems suitably oppressed by the demands of the chief, but the likes of Billy Rosewood wouldn’t last a day in a kindergarten precinct. Billy is the child in the equation, the backseat glue holding the three of them together through some initially shaky ground. It works as a dynamic, but you certainly wouldn’t see that kind of character in a modern R-rated movie.
Growing up, Billy was perhaps my second favourite character after Axel, but time hasn’t been kind to his puerile ways. Reinhold still serves up the occasional chuckle, but on the whole his character hasn’t aged well. This is a comedy, and his child’s play antics are forgivable for the most part, but modern TV shows like The Wire have laid waste to the one-dimensional cops and robbers facade, and the idea that Billy Rosewood is skipping naively through the streets with a deadly weapon is laughable in the 21st century. Rosewood was initially set to die halfway through the movie. I can hardly imagine the character we know dying in Axel’s arms beyond a Naked Gun style parody.
Beverly Hills Cop is not the minor masterpiece I once had it pegged for. Still, the dialogue is a joy to behold, as is the camaraderie, and you’ll be hard-pressed to find a mainstream action movie as fun as this one. Most importantly, Beverly Hills Cop gave us one of the most memorable mainstream characters of the era, one whose cultural importance and impact on mainstream Hollywood cannot be denied. Time may have passed the movie by in some respects, and its civil rights achievements prove somewhat hypercritical in hindsight, but for a generation of budding African American actors Beverly Hills Cop is a landmark film, a banana in the tailpipe for the Hollywood status quo and arguably the most significant action movie of its era.