What a strange film this is!
Beverly Hills Cop began its life as a Sylvester Stallone actioner. Stallone didn’t last long in the project (eventually he’d make Cobra as the film he wanted this to be) but the film still feels constructed for him in the opening sequences. Eddie Murphy is surrounded by a cast that doesn’t click at all. When Mikey (James Russo) embraces Axel Foley and professes a brotherly love, the acting is fine, but the two actors share no rapport. Paul Reiser’s tack on role never makes any sense within the context of a police station.
Only Inspector Todd really works. Gilbert Hill was cast in one of the great verite police commander roles, plucked from Detroit police department for local character and only appearing in film as Todd in the Beverly Hills Cop trilogy. He immediately establishes the adopted father-connection with the Foley character, familiar from the classic hero arc,.
For the first third of the film Axel Foley seems pretty far from a supercop. The impromptu sting operation that opens the picture leads to a police chase that destroys multiple police cars and public property. For all the effort Foley is unable to make any arrests. Generally these films won’t let lowly criminals embarrass their main characters and live to tell the tale. Later, the thugs after Mikey easily incapacitate Foley, not killing him because he’s of so little concern. Mikey is killed just a few feet away.
Foley’s paired with a truly awful automobile. Worse even than the rust bucket Nick Nolte drove in Murphy’s previous film, 48 Hours. When action movies put their heros in crappy vehicles, they are often invested with a certain character. They’re faster than they look, or have hidden compartments, or have some backstory. Not here. Even Foley is embarrassed to be seen driving it, and ditches it for a Mercedes whenever he gets the chance.
His luck doesn’t improve in Beverly Hills. Foley talks his way into an opulent suite in a posh hotel, but still has to pay an exorbitant daily rate. Investigating Mikey’s death brings Foley to the office of Victor Maitland. They don’t talk long before Maitland’s goons throw him through a window. For this Foley gets arrested.
Foley’s prowess increases so substantially after his release from the cell that the final two thirds of Beverly Hills Cop could’ve been sold as a dream sequence. He’s immediately introduced to detectives Rosewood (Judge Reinhold) and Taggart (John Ashton). In stark contrast to Murphy’s costars from the Detroit portion of the film, the three click immediately. It’s an interesting dynamic, Rosewood and Taggart could almost carry their own buddy-cop movie, so mismatched are their personalities. But they both are so far to the extreme, Rosewood such a naif, and Taggart so hot-tempered and surly, that Foley is a perfect bridge between them. The trio gets a surrogate father in Lt. Bogomil (Ronny Cox). There’s a verisimilitude here, a real sense that the actors connected as well as their characters. As Murphy is given free reign to improv some jokes, Brest slips in reaction shots from all four of them. It isn’t clear if they’re staying in character, or just that they’re enjoying their time together.
Within two days of film time Foley is able to stop a robbery at a strip club, infiltrate the Maitland criminal empire, deduce the entire scheme solely from coffee grinds, best Maitland’s personal enforcer, evade multiple units of highly trained Beverly Hills police, engage in a shootout with an army of hired goons, avenge Mikey’s murder, and win the approval of surrogate father #2.
And it all works!
Such is the power of peak Murphy, in the portion of his career where he connected with the average American.
Trading Places, 48 Hours, and Beverly Hills Cop made Eddie Murphy a superstar by introducing his signature character: a man low in society but with great talent. The only thing separating him from success was the right opportunity, something that he often had to hustle his way into, but never wasted. Maybe this is why he connected so well with mainstream audiences. Murphy was the pure underdog in a way Richard Pryor, Bill Cosby or Chris Rock could never be. Beverly Hills Cop was in a way the last of Murphy’s pictures in this role.
Never again would he play a kid with something to prove. His very next role in The Golden Child would cast him as the "chosen one", a character for whom success was near preordained. Subsequent films would cast him as an African prince, as a senator, as a corporate executive, as an ancient vampire. In all these Murray steps down from the position of power to engage with the common man, reverse aspirational and far less compelling a character.