The film that eclipsed “Ghostbusters” and “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” at the box office in 1984, opened in December and starred the man who would be guaranteed box office security for almost twenty years. Eddie Murphy was on the cusp of being the biggest star in the world and this is the film that established that as a fact not a prediction. “48 Hours” and “Trading Places” were just the warm up acts for this bravura comedic gem of improvisation and script.
Taking an action script that was originally meant for Sylvester Stallone and turning it into comedy dynamite was an amazing accomplishment. The success of the movie has to be laid at the feet of the star. Murphy was not yet bored with his roles and clowning through childish premises. Murphy was still fresh, brash and ready to poke some traditions in the eye.
Over the years my view on the film has gone up and down and up again. There is some sloppiness in the story and the bad guys are so easy to spot that there was no mystery and very little tension. On the other hand, as a comedy, it seemed strange that people would get killed and shootouts would occur on such a regular basis. So I suppose that the reservations I developed over the years are based on the schizophrenic nature of the plot. Re-watching the film for this project though made all of that go away. I felt the same exuberance that I noticed when the film opened just a couple of weeks before Christmas, 30 years ago. This movie is simply plain old fun.
Check the smile on his face and remember how cool it was to have this young, smart ass as the hero of a movie. Axel Foley is a supremely confident character, even in the face of superior odds. He is never intimidated, even by the authority figures he has to answer to and certainly not by the villains. He would B.S. his way through anything, knowing that attitude is what sells the story more than fidelity to reality.
The TV series “McCloud” featured Dennis Weaver as a small town Western Sheriff transplanted to the big city. It was inspired by the Clint Eastwood picture “Cogan’s Bluff”. Foley is another outsider, trying to navigate a different police culture than he is used to. This is a fish out of water story where the fish is just as much at home in the new environment as the old, what is different amuses him but it does not stifle his talents or attitude.
There have been plenty of times in my life when I felt a little out of sorts with my surroundings. A fancy hotel is a bit overwhelming when you arrive in a car that is not just used, but badly used. The price of the hotel room or the snotty look from maître d’ could easily bring your confidence crashing down. Axel Foley never lets tha happen. He takes over a scene and bluffs his way through as if he is the one who is in charge. You can understand how that could happen when you see the way he reacts honestly to the things he encounters. The double take that he does when he sees the Michael Jackson wannabees stroll down Rodeo drive is a case in point. It is a mirthful acknowledgement of how silly the culture he has just landed in is. He has a very similar reaction to the art work in the gallery run by his friend Jenny Summers. He covers up with her a little but he gleefully kibitzes with Serge, the odd ball sales associate with an extreme accent played by future TV star Bronson Pinchot. Foley may be out of his territory but he is not out of his depth. The way he intimidates the restaurant host with a subtle but vivid description of the subject he wants to discuss with Victor Maitland is hysterical. The reason it works is because the host invited the subject matter to be shared, otherwise the gag would feel like Axel was bullying rather than responding to a bully.
Look at how out of place Axel appears in nearly every scene because of his clothes, his manner of speaking, and yes his ethnicity. Maitland (Steven Berko) and his chief thug Zack, the reliable Johnathan Banks, are always in suits and ties. The elegant clubs, offices, shops and dining facilities where their confrontations with Foley tale place should all give them the advantage. Axel is wearing his high school gym shirt for most of the movie. Being a smart dresser does not mean that you are smarter than Axel Foley. He is always quick with a retort, fast on his feet in making up a story and as a cop, he has the instincts that go with putting information together to get a big picture. He treats the bad guys with the same dismissive attitude that he treats hotel clerks and uniformed police officers with.
The comedy comes from Eddie doing the indignant bellowing that cows some and irritates others. He is not alone in his improvisation, reportedly John Ashton and Judge Reinhold played well with Eddie and came up with a lot of their own lines as well. The sequence in which Detective Billy Rosewood reads a health report about red meat collecting in the colon to his older partner, was an improve used when they auditioned together. These three characters spend a lot of the movie together and it is essential that they sounded natural at the various put downs and comebacks. Stallone could have carried off the action scenes without any problem, but the movie would not be funny if it relied on his glibness to manufacture humor. Murphy was at the top of his game in this film and as a result this mundane crime film became an international smash in spite of the fact that comedy does not always translate well overseas.
The film did not re-invent the wheel, it is not artistic or innovative, it is simply entertaining as heck. In a period where Science Fiction films were swamping the box office, and star vehicles with Robert DeNiro, Meryl Streep, Clint Eastwood and Burt Reynolds were fighting for a share of the box office, all of them had to play second fiddle to the raucous comedy that feels fresh not because of the story but because of the star.