35 Years Ago: ‘Beverly Hills Cop II’ Anticipates Eddie Murphy’s Fall
For a brief moment in the '80s, Eddie Murphy was sitting on top of the world. He had found comedy fame through a stint on Saturday Night Live and parlayed it into big-screen success with the likes of 48 Hours, Trading Places and Beverly Hills Cop. By the early '90s, though, Murphy's star had fallen, and he was churning out mediocre fare for a paycheck. It was a precipitous decline, and it arguably began with Beverly Hills Cop II, which premiered on May 19, 1987 in Los Angeles.
The film sees Murphy reprising his role as Detroit police officer Axel Foley, who was introduced in 1984's Beverly Hills Cop. That movie was a smash hit, earning $316 million worldwide against a budget of $26 million, and it did a number of things to near-perfection. The story, based on the fish-out-of-water premise of Foley's tough Detroit cop having to deal with the ritzy environs of Beverly Hills, felt both fresh and topical, cheekily shining a light on the financial and cultural excesses of the '80s. Murphy was perfectly cast, and the script highlighted his wise-cracking humor and charisma. Director Martin Brest brought a quirky pop sensibility to the material that gave it a tremendous energy.
Three years later, legendary producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer decided to try their luck with a sequel. In financial terms, Beverly Hills Cop II was a hit, earning $276 million against a budget of $27 million. But beneath its success, the flaws had begun to show, both in terms of Hollywood's inability to find material suitable for Murphy's vast talents and his inability to choose projects that might challenge him.
Watch the 'Beverly Hills Cop II' Trailer
The first inert point of the film comes with its story. As Foley, Murphy is again a humorous, quip-firing machine. He has a quick-witted line for every situation and falls easily into funny caricatures to get himself out of tight situations. He also does well with the character's more heartfelt side — as he did in the first Beverly Hills Cop and 48 Hours — revealing a real person behind his character's comedic front. But the story of Beverly Hills Cop II hews so closely to the first that it feels like a naked attempt to hit all the high points again without adding a single new idea.
Both films see Foley going to Beverly Hills to avenge a friend. In the first, it was his childhood friend Mikey; here, it's Captain Bogomil (Ronny Cox), the L.A. cop he befriended during his first visit. Both films pair Foley up with his other L.A. cop buddies Rosewood (Judge Reinhold) and Taggart (John Ashton), and the three of them defy the orders of their superior officers in order to get their man. Both involve Foley in a platonic relationship with an L.A. woman. And both find them investigating a crime ring headed by a seemingly upstanding businessman.
In some franchises, like Rocky, this storyline repetition becomes a foundation for moving the characters in new directions, but in Beverly Hills Cop II — despite some genuinely amusing moments — there is a deadness to the proceedings that reflects an effort not to make a new film, but to make more money. Even Murphy was aware of this, telling Rolling Stone in 1989, "It was a half-assed movie. Cop II was basically a rehash of Cop I, but it wasn’t as spontaneous and funny."
This is perhaps most clearly epitomized by the choice of director. Simpson and Bruckheimer jettisoned Brest — who guided the first film to a Golden Globe Award nomination for Best Motion Picture – Comedy or Musical and an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Screenplay — for Tony Scott, who'd made them a fortune one year earlier by directing Top Gun. Scott has as many fans as critics, but the one thing that can be said with certainty is that he's a total stranger to subtlety.
Watch the 'Beverly Hills Cop II' Stolen House Scene
In Beverly Hills Cop II, Scott's glossy, blunt-force style sands all of the unconventional edges off the story. Gone are the genuine glee at the ridiculousness of high-end Los Angeles living and the tonal shifts between irreverent humor and tough-minded action. Worst of all, Scott replaces the first film's technical inventiveness — such as its wonderful opening chase sequence and references to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid in a shootout — with an up-tempo homogeneity. Everything is bigger than life, everything goes to "11" – and as a result, everything is flattened.
Was Beverly Hills Cop II the worst film of its kind in its era? Absolutely not. Tango & Cash was only two years away. But it presaged the beginning of a long slump for Murphy. His next film, 1988's Coming to America, would prove his last hit for a long time.
Throughout the '90s, Murphy chose again and again to appear in movies that underutilized his talents and at best broke even at the box office. There were self-directed passion projects (Harlem Nights), broad comedy flops (The Distinguished Gentleman, Vampire in Brooklyn), lackluster sequels (Another 48 Hours, Beverly Hills Cop III) and clear attempts to recapture the magic of the original Beverly Hills Cop (Metro).
It would be reductive to claim all of these films failed for the same reasons, but they at least shared some of the same symptoms: bland commercialism, a reliance on rehashing Murphy's standard moves and a lack of inventiveness. And these elements are all on display at the beginning of his fall, in Beverly Hills Cop II.