Thursday, June 15, 2017

Expert Tutelage


There’s no particular need to defend BEVERLY HILLS COP II. It comes from the absolute dregs of the 80s and Tony Scott, rest his soul, gave us that one-two punch of TOP GUN in ‘86 followed by this film serving as a cinematic illustration of just how rotten the decade was in all its MTV glamour. Funny thing is, I never have any desire to see TOP GUN again, and don’t bother asking me, but BEVERLY HILLS COP II is one that I feel a little more ambivalent towards. As a matter of fact, I’ll gladly watch it right now if you want. The film was a big enough hit when it came out over Memorial Day weekend 1987 although it was never the meteor crashing to earth that Martin Brest’s original film was when released at the end of ’84. As much as that film was the absolute peak of Eddie Murphy Mania, today it plays like a modest, pleasantly enjoyable movie bolstered by the explosion of his star power along with a few fantastic supporting performances by both good guys and bad.


Now celebrating its 30th anniversary, Part II isn’t really the same thing for a variety of reasons, chief among them being that’s not what you hired Tony Scott for. If you’d seen TOP GUN or THE HUNGER or, I’m assuming, commercials he’d directed you got him for pure visual power. What Scott brought with him was a new eye to material which could somehow elevate the storytelling through sheer force, not necessarily for character work or opening up new possibilities to the concept. And there aren’t any particularly memorable new characters or elements in BEVERLY HILLS COP II unless you want to count the sheer presence of Brigitte Nielsen, not that she ever really does that much in the film. Earlier concepts for sequels included a version set in London but as it was finally made the film clearly isn’t supposed to be anything new or different. It’s supposed to be More. For one thing, when they go to a strip club this time around it’s a high end strip club (where a Coke costs seven dollars). And even though that cockiness to the filmmaking borders on an arrogance at times it does have that pop energy brought to it by Tony Scott and his crew. Instead of just using it as a showcase for Eddie Murphy and his routines the director makes it a full-fledged movie. Comedy is secondary, not to mention any semblance of social commentary, and it all feels like a story made up by a couple of 12 year-old boys looking to make their own BEVERLY HILLS COP sequel. That’s probably exactly what producers Don Simpson & Jerry Bruckheimer wanted but it damn well moves, containing immense energy like a freight train built with a Ferrari engine burning through that hazy, smoky imagery in almost every shot. Like I said, I’ll gladly watch it again right now.


As Axel Foley (Eddie Murphy) is involved in undercover duties back in Detroit, his friend Captain Bogomil (Ronny Cox) in Beverly Hills is investigating a series of Alphabet robberies in the city led by the mysterious blonde Karla Fry (Brigitte Nielsen). After being suspended by the new hard-assed police chief (Allen Garfield) angered by the lack of movement in the investigation, Bogomil is gunned down on the street with a ‘B’ left on his body signaling that the bandits have struck again. So Axel flies into town immediately to team up with friends Billy Rosewood (Judge Reinhold) and John Taggart (John Ashton) to catch the bandits. Their investigation leads them to the Beverly Hills Shooting Club where Foley encounters Fry who is in fact working with Maxwell Dent (Jurgen Prochnow), the mastermind behind the crimes. On the trail of what their plan really is, Foley, Rosewood and Taggart begin to put the pieces together to take them down.


Out of total curiosity, the other week I ran a “Which film says ‘The 80s!’ the most?” poll on Twitter placing this film up against COCKTAIL, ROCKY IV and THE SECRET OF MY SUCCESS. The three other choices were fairly random (ROCKY IV won; I would have gone with THE SECRET OF MY SUCCESS) but I thought that BEVERLY HILLS COP II might have done better with its slickness and gleeful immaturity. For a movie where we get a title card identifying ‘BEVERLY HILLS, CALIFORNIA’ twice in the first ten minutes to clarify things for anyone not paying attention I’m still not sure it actually makes a lick of sense. Seriously, writing that summary above was harder than I thought and one of the best things to say about the plot (story by Eddie Murphy & Robert D. Wachs, screenplay by Larry Ferguson and Warren Skaaren) is that it moves so fast you might not bother to ask questions. For one thing, I’m not sure how the police in Beverly Hills are investigating what they believe to be a series of ‘Alphabet Crimes’ after a single robbery (of course, the imdb goofs page is way ahead of me on this) and at least once someone says the ‘Alphabet Killer’ even though no one’s actually been killed as if the full plan for the bad guys hadn’t been totally worked out as the script was presumably being rewritten during production (shoutout to whoever got Agatha Christie listed as an uncredited writer on the imdb page, presumably a reference to her novel “The ABC Murders”). Captain Bogomil gets several bullets fired into him at close range without being killed which doesn’t make the bad guys particularly competent at their jobs. At one point there’s talk of stopping the impending ‘E’ crime, but I’ll be damned if I can figure out what happened to the ‘D’. What I’m saying is, this is not exactly an airtight story although I doubt anyone outside of maybe Roger Ebert has ever cared.


The big surprise is that the film isn’t as funny as you’d think an Eddie Murphy movie from the 80s would be since it’s more interested in the action, the smoke, the pureness of the imagery. The bigger surprise is watching the film now in 2017 it’s not that big a deal since as much as it feels like ‘the 80s’ the pure style of Tony Scott’s direction means that it hasn’t dated as badly as other films from around the same period. His visual approach became more complex over the years but here entire scenes are framed almost like a series of paintings depicting life in Southern California--Jessica Ritchey (@Ruby_Stevens) on Twitter pointed out they’re like Patrick Nagel paintings, which is dead on. But it’s also much looser than I remember with a relaxed vibe to it all, even down to the cigars some characters are smoking in scenes which feels like they just happened to be holding them as the cameras started to roll. The bulk of Eddie Murphy’s improvs where Axel Foley talks his way into places feels like second rate material this time around but since there’s no need for tension between Foley, Rosewood and Taggart anymore the chemistry between them makes it almost a hangout film in a Hawksian sense, even if it is much flashier and anarchic than Hawks would ever do. The looseness of the way the guys start humming the theme to “The Dating Game” at one point feels like it was totally made up on the spot, which Judge Reinhold confirms on the DVD and even his reaction to John Ashton falling in the swimming pool looks totally genuine.


Compared to the first film which was grounded in a fairly believable world upended by the lead character, II is all flash and everyone, including the few people we see in Detroit, feel part of the same universe so the fish out of water concept of the original is pretty much forgotten about (even more than the first film, it doesn’t differentiate very much between Beverly Hills and Los Angeles anyway, not that I could tell the difference seeing it at Yonkers Movieland). It’s not about reality in any form and it doesn’t care. The comedy part of all this is clearly outside of Tony Scott’s wheelhouse (the bit in the strip club where Foley claims that Taggart is actually Gerald Ford isn’t much but at least it’s an attempt) and he doesn’t seem to know how to direct the day players who are straight men to Murphy’s routines; it helps immensely when it’s someone who already knows comedy like Paul Reiser or Gilbert Gottfried; in his scenes with them Murphy isn’t even the big personality in the scene and he seems to enjoy how the dynamic suddenly shifts. The film is gleefully immature and ultimately hollow at its core but somehow feels strangely innocent much of the time, not a care about anything beyond creating its own world while barreling forward.


The visual flash manages to mask how flimsy the story is, a reminder of how as Tony Scott got better scripts to work with (THE LAST BOY SCOUT, TRUE ROMANCE, CRIMSON TIDE, MAN ON FIRE) the better and more layered his films became. As chase heavy as the film is there’s also a lot of dialogue used to explain byzantine the plot involving the alphabet crimes and breaking the complex code the bad guys leave behind (much of the heavy lifting done by Alice Adair, as Bogomil’s daughter—the one female character who’s not a bitch or a slut so all she does is provide exposition) giving the impression more is going on than there really is with information occasionally shoehorned into scenes as if put in there at the very last second. I think I can follow it all but, nah, I can’t. But barely any of it matters anyway, since it focuses mainly on being enough of a clone of the original whether it makes sense to be or not, so a flashy 80s montage of Axel driving around Beverly Hills immediately after visiting Bogomil in the hospital feels a little out of place. A big thing is made out of the bad guys getting the address of where Foley is staying but instead of ambushing him there in the dead of night they follow him to strip club owned by one of the other bad guys where they try to gun him down. As much as they glower while acting European, the bad guys don’t really do very much in between robberies and while I doubt anybody was worried about Axel Foley in the first film there was still an undeniable tension in how Steven Berkoff and Jonathan Banks would sit there simmering as he talked, a believable threat hanging in the air which this film never bothers to attempt. For all everybody remembers Murphy’s ‘grooming services’ line while sizing up Brigitte Nielsen’s Karla Fry at the gun club there’s not much interaction between him and the bad guys at all. Some of that stuff is pretty crass anyway, with Foley referring to her as a bitch even before finding out who she really is and the overall tone of misogyny that runs through the entire film would probably get more than a few angry online pieces written about it today. Oddly the film rushes through the visit to the Playboy Mansion, complete with Hugh Hefner cameo, and the sequence feels pretty shoehorned in. Even at that location the movie doesn’t linger, ready to move on to the next chase not wanting to hang around.


As a lengthy aside, the recent 30th anniversary of BEVERLY HILLS COP II reminds me that the film opened less than a week after Elaine May’s legendary ISHTAR which was roundly trounced by it at the box office. Just a few weeks ago ISHTAR ran at the New Beverly (paired with A NEW LEAF) and played like gangbusters to the packed house, a welcome reversal of what happened in ’87 but also a reminder of how which of these two films was the perfect one for that moment. They actually have oddly similar climaxes each featuring the leads heading into battle heavily armed and of the two the movie which has the characters admit that they’re prepared for the worst isn’t the one from the director of TOP GUN. There’s never any doubt about winning in BEVERLY HILLS COP II but in its commentary on Reagan-era foreign policy ISHTAR is more open to the individual and what it means to be a loser and a pawn in how the corrupt system views you. COP II is somewhat more apolitical beyond its generic embracing of ‘the 80s’ and everything insidious that stands for, including guns, fast cars and women told to keep quiet but as much of a maverick as Axel Foley is supposed to be it’s still about upholding the system and preventing the evil foreigners of the world from using American might to get rich for themselves around the world. In ISHTAR the glory isn’t in money or even victory but in simply getting to do what you want in the world, whether the establishment is happy about that or not. Both films clearly have a love for their main characters but ISHTAR loves the losers that they are and the film is about reveling in your expected failure because you’d rather have nothing than settle for less. BEVERLY HILLS COP II is about victory since failure is never a possibility and it highlights the emptiness of the film in the end. Which made it perfect for the decade because nothing of value can ever come after that empty glory.


Quentin Tarantino likes it, saying in a Video Watchdog interview on sequels back in 2012, “it’s gorgeous looking and cinema is very much involved”. He likes ISHTAR too, for the record. I’ve grown to like BEVERLY HILLS COP II myself in its slick, ultra dumb-dumb way over the years since the slickness at least feels genuine, unlike a lot of really crappy action movies I can think of. There’s beauty in this junk so its own excitement about itself is part of what makes it work so well, a complete film world created by Tony Scott along with cinematographer Jeffrey L. Kimball and his multiple editors along with a Harold Faltermeyer soundtrack which in addition to the various songs and expected umpteen reprises of “Axel F” seems largely inspired by the track “The Duke Arrives” from John Carpenter’s ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK score. I wouldn’t want to live forever in this but an afternoon wouldn’t be so bad. For all the action and movement and crashing through parking meters as cars barrel down sidewalks, it’s really about the sensation of that ferocious imagery, not about any sort of suspense. The final shootout seems pretty brief for what you’d think would be a grand confrontation between hero and villain but why draw it out. As for the legendary Taggart line after he blows away a certain bad guy at the end, it’s pretty memorable in its brevity. It’s a good line. It’s a pithy line. And it’s also pretty awful about the worldview being stated. But hey, it was the 80s. The last line of the film is “Who’s that black guy?” spoken by the guy whose house he was using and it feels like the only truly racially tinged moment of the film, that ‘he doesn’t belong here’ inherent in the conflict which the film never addresses and doesn’t seem to care.

The funny thing is that the movie is pretty much the high water mark of Eddie Murphy, Superstar as we knew it then. COMING TO AMERICA was the following year and an even bigger hit but it at least involved Murphy playing a different sort of character. That was followed by HARLEM NIGHTS and at that point the cracks were beginning to show. But with James Ingram’s “Better Way” playing us out as the end credits roll, the cockiness of BEVERLY HILLS COP II is so assured that it feels like the vibe is going to go on forever, as if Paramount was ready to have them start production on Part III a week later. For what we knew of as Eddie Murphy in the first ten years of his career, it was never close to this high again. Everything ends eventually, we just don’t know it until it’s too late.


When there’s a giant close-up of Eddie Murphy laughing during the opening credits it’s as if he knows that’s why the movie is being made. He’s coasting here and it’s not like there’s much that could be said to be actual character work. Murphy is even effective during the quiet moments in the first film but this film has no quiet moments. In the way he directed his star Martin Brest was interested in behavior. Scott wants the movement. But going with the hangout vibe he does seem to enjoy playing off his main co-stars, a reminder of how well Judge Reinhold and John Ashton played off each other as these guys, adding immensely to how much fun the scenes are. If they ever decided to spinoff the two characters in their own film—and I wonder if that was ever brought up—it probably wouldn’t have been enough without Murphy but the two of them are ideal together here. There’s not much to say about Brigitte Nielsen in terms of performance but Tony Scott really does know how to shoot her. If only he could have figured out how to do more with her signature “Good bye” line but maybe what we got was the most effective way to do it and hidden in the shadows Jurgen Prochnow doesn’t make much of an impression at all. There’s not much to say about them, as much as the movie tries to convince us they’re important--I’m not even sure if CSI’s Paul Guilfoyle gets any actual dialogue as arms dealer Nick Thomopolis. On the other hand, Dean Stockwell barely does anything as his secondary bad guy but even his flat line readings have a touch of eccentricity. As new Beverly Hills Police Chief Lutz, Allen Garfield shouts so much you almost remember him more than anyone else in the movie, Robert Ridgley of BOOGIE NIGHTS is the Mayor of Beverly Hills while actual cop Gil Hill of the Detroit Homicide Division again plays Foley’s captain back home. Paul Reiser, then hot off ALIENS, again plays Axel’s friend Jeffrey, this time getting his own brief subplot, Gilbert Gottfried is accountant Sidney Bernstein and a very young Chris Rock appears briefly as a parking valet at the Playboy Mansion.


There finally was a BEVERLY HILLS COP III directed by John Landis a full seven years later and it’s not remembered for very much other than being bad (and a George Lucas cameo) so not much needs to be said about it. In 2013 there was even a pilot for a BEVERLY HILLS COP series meant for CBS that wasn’t picked up, featuring Murphy as Axel Foley working with son Aaron Foley, played by Brandon T. Jackson. I’ve seen it and, trust me, not much needs to be said about that either. Rumors of a fourth film still crop up occasionally but maybe one reason why it hasn’t happened is that it needs to figure out what the BEVERLY HILLS COP franchise is and I’m not sure there’s an answer to that beyond, “Eddie Murphy ad-libs his way through an action-comedy in 1984.” Which was great then, sure, but outside of that context it’s pretty much empty sensation. But taken by itself, BEVERLY HILLS COP II, defiantly staying back in the decade it was made and working today as a Tony Scott film. As immature as it is, there’s a likability and a glee that Michael Bay, the next step in the Simpson-Bruckheimer visual evolution, has never managed. No, there’s not much point in defending it but sometimes you watch what you watch anyway. Maybe to reclaim those feelings of being back there even though it’s never a place I want to visit. Maybe to wish it had all been a little better.


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