‘Beverly Hills Cop’ (1984) and the Black Man Dressed Like Me Moment
When reckless Detroit detective Alex Foley heads to Beverly Hills to investigate the brutal murder of a longtime friend mixed up in some illegal bearer bonds, he discovers that life in Tinseltown is a lot different, including how police handle out of town cops.
Directed by Martin Brest, Beverly Hills Cop started as a straight up action film that had Sylvester Stallone in the lead but was eventually recast and rewritten for Eddie Murphy in what would become a star making performance. Playing an edgy, wise-cracking urban cop, Murphy was a perfect fit for the fish out of water story that saw the fish make fools of those on land. Playing Axel Foley, the cop is told he can’t investigate the hit on his friend, so he cashes in on some overdue vacation and decides to do it on his own, traveling to glitzy L.A., a place ripe for the picking when it comes to poking fun. Making waves right away, he is arrested and put under the supervision of a pair of Hollywood cops who turn out to be woefully out of step in trying to keep up with the clever Foley, who makes a habit of losing them. The success of the film, which is a heady mix of violence and comedy, is solely on Murphy’s shoulders as he chortles and mugs his way through the story, bringing lots of laughs but also proving he had what it takes to be a real leading man.
Foley suspects that a gallery owner named Victor Maitland has ties to his friend, and that Maitland is running drugs so to prove his theory, breaks into one of Maitland’s massive warehouses, where he discovers crates of coffee he thinks are concealing packed bags of cocaine. While in the warehouse, a security guard spots him, but Foley is far too quick-witted to be caught so easily. Fast-talking and with heaps of confidence, he spins the situation around, claiming to be a customs inspector and that he needs to see the supervisor right now, flashing his badge to add some authority to his speech. It works and the somewhat dim guard brings his boss over where Foley continues to run roughshod over the two bewildered men.
Why it Matters:
One of the best parts of action films is the seemingly no escape scenario where the hero seems hopelessly caught, only to surprise us and cleverly free themselves out of the guandry. Usually that entails some elaborate set piece with fisticuffs and if we’re lucky, some explosions. Foley isn’t that kind of hero though, as his best weapon is his mouth. He is also quite good at disarming, and with only a few words, completely convinces the stunned security guard that he is someone else entirely, sending him shambling away certain that he’s about to have a very bad day. The on-the-fly verbal dancing that Foley exhibits is so rapid fire, we don’t even realize how far ahead he is thinking until he closes gaps we didn’t know were being made. When he asks the guard for a match, it seems entirely random, but when we see the pay off to that question, it is not only funny, it is startling as how well-planned the spontaneous exchange feels, as if he had been scouting out the place for months. The trick would be repeated a year later in the Chevy Chase film Fletch (read about that moment here), and is equally satisfying, but there is something about Murphy’s raw delivery that packs more punch, slipping in a race remark that is as much a shot on society as it is on the situation. It’s this sharp satirical delivery that make this and much of anything Murphy does in this film still so relevant.
Daniel Petrie Jr. (screenplay), Danilo Bach (story)
Eddie Murphy, Judge Reinhold, John Ashton