BEVERLY HILLS COP III is not as bad as anyone says it is. That’s not to say it’s particularly great. And maybe you shouldn’t listen to me anyway, because I saw it more than once in the theaters, and I can promise you that at the time I was as excited to see a new BEVERLY HILLS COP movie as most people my age would have been to see a new STAR WARS movie. Most guys my age grew up wanting to be Han Solo. I grew up wanting to be Axel Foley. And a movie where Axel Foley investigates a murder at an amusement park? Directed by John Landis (ANIMAL HOUSE, THE BLUES BROTHERS, SPIES LIKE US)? Yeah, that’s a movie a sixteen-year-old Jon Abrams wants to see very much, thank you.
The first BEVERLY HILLS COP (1984, d. Martin Brest) is a pretty-much perfect Hollywood movie, a fish-out-of-water story with genuinely hysterical one-liners, an earworm of a main theme, a terrific supporting cast that includes Ronny Cox, John Ashton, Judge Reinhold, and the super-cute Lisa Eilbacher, at least two enjoyably-hissable villains (Steven Berkoff and BREAKING BAD‘s Jonathan Banks), and a comedic supernova of a leading man in Eddie Murphy, on a streak that went from Saturday Night Live to 48 HRS. to TRADING PLACES to his concert film DELIRIOUS and then here, to the biggest box-office hit of 1984.
The second BEVERLY HILLS COP II recently got a bump in its critical esteem with the too-belated outpouring of respect for the work of its director, Tony Scott. I’m a big Tony Scott fan, but not as much a fan of BEVERLY HILLS COP II. It’s a few notes too aggressive for my tastes, with villains that aren’t as much fun to hate (Jürgen Prochnow, Brigitte Nielsen, Dean Stockwell, and Gilbert Gottfried) and a dark and depressing overcast that sees Ronny Cox’s Capt. Bogomil sidelined throughout the entire movie. The first film had moments of real darkness and danger that made it work for me, but somehow it was upsetting to have a character I liked so much shot down and left by the side of the road like that. It must be how nerds of a different variety feel about Hicks and Newt in ALIEN 3.
Of course, Ronny Cox didn’t even show up for BEVERLY HILLS COP III. As he told the great Will Harris over at the Onion’s A.V. Club, the script (allegedly) wasn’t so hot. John Ashton (Sgt. Taggart) didn’t show up either, reportedly unavailable due to scheduling. Those two characters, Bogomil and Taggart, were the strongest foils to Eddie Murphy’s Axel Foley character, and their grudgingly warming up to him is what gave the franchise almost all of its heart and soul. Without them, something’s missing. In BEVERLY HILLS COP III, Bogomil goes unmentioned and we’re told that Taggart retired and moved out of state. Even the puppyish Billy Rosewood (Judge Reinhold’s character) is trying to act more serious and mature. Rosewood has a new, gruff, mustachioed partner, Jon Flint, played by Hector Elizondo, but let’s face it, the only one happy about that replacement is Garry Marshall. The third movie, even more than the second, feels like its genesis was motivated out of less than artistic reasons.
BAM Cinematek is playing BEVERLY HILLS COP III as part of their terrific “American Gagsters: Great Comedy Teams” film series. I’m torn between applauding the left-field choice and wondering why they didn’t go with the more popular and frankly more successful pairings of Eddie Murphy and director John Landis – TRADING PLACES and COMING TO AMERICA. Those two films were much bigger creative and critical successes, and along with 48 HRS. and the first BEVERLY HILLS COP, are the foundation of Eddie Murphy’s onscreen comedic persona. Apparently, John Landis and Eddie Murphy had a serious falling-out after COMING TO AMERICA (my heart hurts just typing that), and BEVERLY HILLS COP III was their reunion. It came at a time (1994) when Eddie’s fortunes were shifting a little — his movies continued to make money but among many of his fans, they weren’t nearly as universally beloved. Maybe Eddie was trying to recapture some of the old magic by bringing Landis back. It could have worked.
I’ve always wondered what the tipping point was with Eddie Murphy. For a time, he could do no wrong. Then I started hearing people bagging on his movies, and what a disappointment he’d become. No one thinks he still isn’t, somewhere inside himself, the most incendiary and fucking funniest comedian on the planet, but plenty of people seem to think he’s given up. I don’t see it that way, but venture off my page and look elsewhere on the internet — it gets scary out there. I think I can argue my point with the clear evidence that there are plenty of bright spots in Eddie’s post-1980s output: THE NUTTY PROFESSOR (obviously), DOCTOR DOOLITTLE (fuck you, I laughed), LIFE (hugely underrated), BOWFINGER (a little underrated, definitely underseen), DREAMGIRLS (all-the-awards-worthy), TOWER HEIST (his performance, not the movie, which is otherwise pretty lame).
But there was a definite shift in Eddie’s persona that happened between COMING TO AMERICA and BEVERLY HILLS COP III. The wisecracking, authority-demolishing, devil-may-care Eddie started to get romantic. In my opinion, this really kicked into gear with BOOMERANG, a movie some people still love a lot, though you’ll see early traces of it in COMING TO AMERICA and then in Eddie’s own directorial debut, HARLEM NIGHTS. I don’t have a problem with that — why shouldn’t Eddie get some onscreen, same as any other movie hero? — and in fact film historian Donald Bogle raised a similar point about BEVERLY HILLS COP — exactly why isn’t Lisa Eilbacher a romantic interest for Eddie in that movie? (Of course we all know the old bad answer to that one.) But when a comedy icon becomes a romantic lead, that requires some changes to his onscreen persona. BOOMERANG Eddie Murphy is going to have to be a different guy in a lot of ways than 48 HRS. Eddie Murphy, or even GOLDEN CHILD Eddie Murphy.
In keeping with this line of thought, here’s one element of BEVERLY HILLS COP III that is actually underrated, and even better than the previous two installments: Axel Foley gets a love interest, and she’s actually worthwhile, at least by 1990s big-budget comedy romantic interest standards. Theresa Randle is an actress we don’t see much anymore, but she worked with Spike Lee and Abel Ferrara and had a role in both BAD BOYS movies. She has a rather thankless role in BEVERLY HILLS COP III, as a park employee who helps Axel Foley out, and the romance doesn’t go too far, but at least it’s played by a capable actress who can suggest some subtext.
Maybe I’m easy on BEVERLY HILLS COP III because of that reason, or because on BAM’s page they have a John Landis quote which makes it sound more promising than it ended up: “I was attracted by the marvelous premise of a murder in Disneyland, a subversive idea. And I couldn’t resist the thought of creating a world of wonders, immersed in illusion.” The second half of that quote is Landis overselling it a little, but the first half is a genuinely good reason to make a movie, especially for a gleeful cinematic anarchist like him. There are a few factors why the final edit of the movie feels more toothless than it should — budgetary cuts, rumblings of creative differences — but there’s still stuff to enjoy. The director cameos. The name of the main villain (“Ellis DeWald.” Say it! It’s fun!) The orchestral reworking of the “Axel F” theme, by Chic’s Nile Rodgers. The fact that so far, fingers crossed maybe, it’s the last time we’ve seen Eddie Murphy’s most iconic character a movie screen. You guys go hang out with Han Solo all you want. I’d still rather hang out with this guy.
BEVERLY HILLS COP III plays tonight at BAM Rose Cinemas.