Beverly Hills Cop (1984)

2015 #176
Martin Brest | 105 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | 15 / R

The last time I watched the first entry in a once-popular ’80s comedy cop movie series, it didn’t end well. And that was directed by Richard Donner, of Superman and The Omen fame — Beverly Hills Cop, on the other hand, was helmed by the man who would go on to give us “worst film of all time” contender Gigli. Oh dear. Truth be told, my main reason for watching Beverly Hills Cop is so that I can one day watch Beverly Hills Cop II, directed by Tony Scott, and Beverly Hills Cop III, directed by John Landis. So, I didn’t expect to care for this all that much…

But I actually thought it was really fun. It’s not the funniest movie ever, nor does it have the most thrilling action, or the most engrossing or surprising plot, but it does all those things — well, the first two — well, maybe just the first one — well enough. It’s sort of incessantly likeable.

The term “star vehicle” could have been coined for this film — it’s all about Eddie Murphy as Axel Foley. It’s mad to think he was brought on late in the day, because you just can’t imagine it with anyone else. It’s his performance, his style, that makes the movie worth watching. Without him — with a straightforward lead like Sylvester Stallone, who was originally attached — it would be a painfully rote action/revenge thriller. The plot is no great shakes at all; what works is the fish-out-of-water element of putting Murphy’s black, working-class Detroit cop in white, posh Beverly Hills, plus his engaging performance and humour.

Murphy’s not the only good thing, though. Judge Reinhold and John Ashton make an excellent double act as the pair of cops assigned to keep an eye on Foley in Beverly Hills; Ronny Cox is their amenable boss; Steven Berkoff pretty much just has to turn up to be an excellent villain; Lisa Eilbacher is decent as the girl (presumably changed from being a love interest after they cast a black guy). Her part doesn’t exactly call for a great deal, but she’s fine enough in it; as good as anyone ever is in such a limited role.

There’s also the iconic theme music, Axel F, perhaps better known to The Youth of Today thanks to Crazy Frog (you’d forgotten that, hadn’t you? Sorry). It makes its debut ten minutes into the film during an exciting sequence where… Axel parks his car outside his home. I guess no one knew what they had on their hands… except perhaps composer Harold Faltermeyer, who seems to have written the theme, thought “my work here is done,” and laid it over most of the movie. (That’s unfair — there is other music. Sometimes.)

Beverly Hills Cop’s plot is colour-by-numbers, and sometimes advanced by magic (the way they track Axel and co at the climax just looks like GPS today, but no such system existed in 1984); the mystery is non-existent (even if it wasn’t obvious Berkoff would be the villain, the henchman who did the deed is shown to be in his employ the first time we meet him); Brest’s direction is unremarkably static… you could probably go on. But thanks to Eddie Murphy and the rest of the cast, Beverly Hills Cop winds up a highly watchable, very likeable spot of entertainment.

4 out of 5

This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2015. Read more here.

Total Recall (1990)

2010 #77
Paul Verhoeven | 108 mins | TV (HD) | 18 / R

Post Inception, it feels like we should be seeing a revival of interest in all things Total Recall, concerned as it is with dreams, fake memories, and what’s real and what isn’t. On the other hand, aside from an ambiguity about whether the lead character is dreaming or not — which adds texture but, arguably, is unimportant to the film’s primary thrills — there’s not that much to read into it.

For me, the joy of Total Recall is in discovering another ’80s blockbuster (ignore the fact it was released in 1990), the kind of thing I grew up watching on rented videos and BBC One Bank Holiday schedules; films like the Indiana Joneses, Back to the Future, Ghostbusters, Burton’s Batman, and all the rest (I feel I’ve used these examples before; I must have some others), whose practical effects and general style and tone — not a conscious effort by these filmmakers, I’m sure, but instead just How Hollywood Films Were Then — vividly recalls that era for me; films that at the time were, to my young eyes and understanding, enduring classics of cinema that had always existed… despite the fact most were just a few years old.

I suspect it’s for this reason that my top note on Total Recall is “fantastic effects”. But, still, they are; from the wide shots of a Martian landscape and its complex of buildings, to the mutants, disguises, and blood ‘n’ gore. That it all becomes slightly cartoony — albeit the nastiest, gruesomest cartoon (apart from, y’know, some of That Japanese Stuff) — just adds to the charm. Similarly, a lot of the ‘science’ is utterly implausible or impossible — which, Open widedepending on your point of view, either supports the “it was all a dream” reading or is just a case of artistic licence, hardly uncommon in SF cinema.

Also very much ‘of the era’ is the star, Arnold Schwarzenegger (as if you needed telling). He really isn’t cut out for any role more demanding than the Terminator, though his laboured delivery and awkward presence injects a certain amateurish, humorous charm to any scene he’s in — ergo, much of the film. Conversely, Michael Ironside makes an excellent villain. Though his death is suitably dramatic, it’s a shame he’s not The Big Bad Guy — the film follows the blockbuster rule of dispatching villains in order of importance well enough, but Ronny Cox doesn’t come close to the commanding presence required to create a memorable villain in such little screen time. It leaves the viewer longing for Ironside to be featured during the final climax instead of Cox’s limp boss.

I suppose Total Recall endures in that way successful films do, because they provide a point of shared cultural awareness. I feel its influence has diminished with time — this is entirely subjective, but it doesn’t seem to come up as much as it used to — and presumably will continue to do so, as its not-unjustified absence from Best Of lists means fewer new viewers come to it and so its cultural cachet diminishes. Take this pill to forget... how to actPerhaps it’s ultimately destined for an afterlife as a film representative of its era; the kind of thing that comes up as a footnote or personal favourite in texts & documentaries specifically discussing things like The Sci-fi Cinema of the ’90s. Or perhaps I’m doing it a disservice. We shouldn’t really try to predict these things too much, it’ll only lead to embarrassment when the opposite happens.

So, Total Recall. Good fun. Quite funny. Bit gory. I liked the effects.

4 out of 5

Total Recall is on Syfy (UK) tonight, Monday 10th November 2014, at 9pm.