Eric's Time Capsule: Beverly Hills Cop (Dec. 5, 1984)

Beverly Hills Cop is a quintessential Hollywood success story. It went through numerous rewrites, had its main character recast a few times, took the box office by storm, became the highest-grossing movie of the year, launched its leading man into superstardom, spawned two sequels and a million imitators -- and it did all this despite not being very good. What's more Hollywood than that?

It's hard to imagine BHC, released this week in 1984, without Eddie Murphy, but that's almost what happened. A featurette on the DVD reveals that the original screenwriter, Danilo Bach, conceived the story in 1977 as a straightforward action flick, with someone like Al Pacino or Clint Eastwood in mind as the star. The film became more comedic over the course of rewrites, and Sylvester Stallone, hired to play the lead, made many more revisions, including boosting the action content. This made the project too expensive, however, and Stallone was dropped from the film just two weeks before it started shooting. (As a consolation prize, he was given Cobra, which incorporated a lot of the ideas he'd had for BHC.)

The last minute hiring of Eddie Murphy necessitated significant revisions to the script, as Murphy's style was, to say the least, different from Stallone's. Murphy's presence also brought racial undertones to the story that hadn't been there when a white man was playing the lead; it meant Axel Foley's brother had to become his friend instead, to avoid explaining how two men of different races were siblings. (Less necessary but still common in 1984: turning Axel's girlfriend, played by an already-hired white actress, into a platonic pal.) It's a shame those racial themes weren't explored more than in a couple of throwaway moments, since the idea of a rough-around-the-edges black cop working in by-the-book, lily-white Beverly Hills is rife with possibilities. But the finished product barely conceals its hastily assembled pedigree, bewildering Oscar nomination for the Frankensteined screenplay notwithstanding. Only Murphy's motormouth delivery is a constant throughout the picture -- and much of that came from Murphy's improvisations, not from any script. Even the director, Martin Brest (who would later make Gigli), says he decided to make the film based solely on a coin toss.

In other words, this was not the culmination of someone's lifelong vision. This was a film designed with nothing more than huge profits in mind, and in that respect it was a smashing success. Its domestic gross of $234 million (about $475 million in 2008 dollars) put it ahead of 1984's other heavyweights, Ghostbusters and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and it held the title of highest-grossing R-rated film for almost two decades. Adjusting for inflation, it's #39 on the list of all-time box-office champs. That kind of success is stunning when you consider how hurriedly the film was cobbled together, a sort of one-in-a-million happy accident that could never be duplicated on purpose.

Murphy had been a huge star on Saturday Night Live in the early 1980s, a highlight during a woeful period and, according to some sources, the only reason the show avoided cancellation in 1983. His first two films, 48 Hrs. and Trading Places, had been such hits that he'd already begun to mentally check out of SNL by the time he appeared in his last live episode in February 1984. (So valuable was Murphy to SNL's popularity at the time that producer Dick Ebersol pre-taped a backlog of Murphy-centered sketches to use in the weeks after he left the show.) With the enormous success of BHC, he was officially one of the most popular actors in America.

The film is remembered as an action comedy, yet it has a lot more of the former than the latter. Apart from Murphy's semi-ad-libbed joking, the only real laughs are from lowbrow sources like Bronson Pinchot's art gallery employee -- he's gay and has a funny accent!! -- and maybe a little from Judge Reinhold's junior detective. The rest is a strictly generic cop movie: loose-cannon cop ordered off the case by his blustery lieutenant; his unorthodox methods get the job done; the bad guys are smuggling drugs; there are shoot-outs in warehouses; and eventually it leads to a rich guy's Spanish-style villa in L.A.'s West Hills. Lots of people and things are shot or blown up. The opening car-chase sequence is an impressive display of loud recklessness; fittingly, just as the fruit stands are being knocked over by police cars and fleeing bad guys, the Pointer Sisters are singing on the soundtrack, "It's hard to say just how some things never change." And why should they change? Familiarity is profitable.

The only thing separating this from a thousand other films is Murphy's performance as the Detroit cop "on vacation" in L.A. to look for the villains who killed his friend. Films about African-American police officers weren't terribly common in 1984, and black actors usually only headlined a mainstream comedy if they were paired with a white guy, a la Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder. Putting Murphy all by himself was a refreshing twist; ironically, it has since been copied so many times that the "motormouth black detective who goes undercover" has become a cliché all its own.

You can see Beverly Hills Cop's DNA in almost every cop-based action comedy starring a black comedian released in the last 20 years. Chris Tucker has done it; Martin Lawrence owes his career to it. Anytime there's a wise-cracking, street-wise fellow who continues to make smart-aleck comments even in the face of imminent death, you can bet Axel Foley crossed the actor's mind at some point. Anytime a movie opens with a sequence depicting an undercover cop interacting hilariously with criminals before they (and the audience) find out he's a cop, that's the BHC influence, especially if the sequence ends with the cop's cover being blown and a high-speed chase ensuing. BHC didn't invent those things, of course, but it was certainly the most widely popular example of them at the time. Murphy himself was never able to match this level of success until he turned to family films in the 1990s and the Shrek series in the 2000s, but his legacy lives on.


FROM THE TIME CAPSULE: When Beverly Hills Cop was released 24 years ago this week, on Dec. 5, 1984...

• It became the No. 1 film at the box office, followed by fellow new releases 2010 and City Heat. Beverly Hills Cop would stay in the top spot for another 12 weeks, eventually becoming 1984's top-grossing film (though most of its income was actually earned in the early months of 1985).

• Also in theaters were such films as The Terminator, Supergirl, Amadeus, and A Nightmare on Elm Street.

• The fundraising anthem "Do They Know It's Christmas?" had been released a week earlier. A few weeks before that, Ronald Reagan had been reelected president of the United States with 59% of the popular vote and a victory in 49 states. Walter Mondale, who may not have known it was Christmas, was never heard from again.

• Ashlee Simpson, Katy Perry, Kelly Osbourne, Jena Malone, and Scarlett Johansson were all less than two months old.

• The top song on the Billboard Hot 100 chart was Wham!'s "Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go," soon to be followed by Hall & Oates' "Out of Touch," then Madonna's "Like a Virgin."

• Stephen King's The Talisman was at the top of The New York Times Best Seller List for fiction, while Lee Iacocca's autobiography topped the nonfiction chart.

• On TV, The Cosby Show, Who's the Boss?, Miami Vice, and Murder, She Wrote had all recently premiered, while Fantasy Island, Happy Days, and Three's Company had all ended their long runs. Captain Kangaroo's final episode was about to air. The most popular shows on TV were Dallas and Dynasty, though The Cosby Show would be at the top by the end of the season.

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"Eric's Time Capsule" appears every Monday at Film.com. You can visit Eric at his website, where the heat is always on.