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A fourth ‘Beverly Hills Cop’ movie is great, but Eddie Murphy is the real gift

LZ Granderson – Los Angeles Times (TNS)

As Eddie Murphy was receiving the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor about a decade ago, he made this joke about the longevity of his career: “It hasn’t been lost on me that usually when people have evenings like this the person is really, really old when they get these awards. … To be standing here alive and looking like myself still is wonderful.”

Fast-forward to 2024 and not only is Murphy still here, but so is Det. Alexander James “Axel” Foley. The fourth installment of the “Beverly Hills Cop” franchise is now on Netflix, and with it the character that launched Murphy into superstardom.

The crazy thing is: The role was not meant for him, and yet in hindsight no one else should have been considered.

As the story goes, “Beverly Hills” was originally going to be a vehicle for Sylvester Stallone, who wanted more action and less comedy. He was Rocky. He was Rambo. Made sense, except that at heart the story was about the humor of being out of place. Hollywood turned to Mickey Rourke; he dropped out.

Along came Murphy, and with that casting, history. “Beverly Hills Cop” is one of the highest-grossing movie franchises of all time. Murphy’s films have made more at the box office than any others starring a “Saturday Night Live” icon. The long-held notion among film executives that Black stars didn’t make money was dealt a seismic blow.

His 1982 film debut, “48 Hours,” was the seventh-highest global earner that year. The following year “Trading Places” finished fourth. “Beverly Hills Cop,” the film that basically fell into Murphy’s lap, was the top grosser in the world in 1984. Remember, Murphy’s films during the 1980s were not only up against science fiction juggernauts such as “Star Wars” and “Indiana Jones” but also a host of Brat Pack films including “Sixteen Candles,” “The Breakfast Club” and “Pretty in Pink.”

At a time when much of the filmmaking felt driven by either guns, explosions or white teenage angst, Murphy consistently brought us all laughter, regardless of the film’s premise. That’s because he understood how to embody the absurd and when to be the satirist noting the absurdity. His artistry did not depend on a script or a director. He knew where the humor was.

Murphy’s first film character was a con artist. His second was a career criminal. Maybe Hollywood executives didn’t immediately see Murphy as the cop for “Beverly Hills” because they had already pigeonholed him as a bankable funny crook.

However, Murphy’s success led to more power, and he used that power to showcase the Black experience while continuing to be bankable. It was a freedom rarely afforded to Black actors in Hollywood during the days of Reagan and Clinton. However, even after a decade of box office smashes, Murphy’s “Boomerang” was pinged by some critics for representing a world they felt could not be possible. The offense? A successful Black-owned business, a world where the people in charge looked like Murphy.

“For those who feel that it’s racist for a film to have a predominately black cast, one has only to look at the countless movies that portray an all-white world,” Murphy wrote in a 1992 Los Angeles Times opinion article. “And consider all those films that did feature small roles for African Americans — we thank you for having the world believe that all people of color are pimps, prostitutes, drug dealers and criminals.”

Recall that portraying a con artist and a criminal is how Murphy got his start in Hollywood. Being cast as a police officer took some convincing. However, once he got the job he reshaped what a leading man could be. Martin Lawrence, Will Smith and Kevin Hart stand on Axel Foley’s shoulders. That character’s theme song (an electronic track called “Axel F”) became an international hit and continues to resonate culturally today — because the comedic genius who brought that character to life continues to resonate.

Maybe this latest sequel is just some mindless fluff, timed to compete with summertime blockbusters in theaters. Maybe it’s a signal that Murphy is restarting the franchise by ending his 30-year hiatus after “Beverly Hills Cop 3.” To be honest with you, I really don’t care.

It’s Eddie Murphy.

I’m going to do what I’ve done for the first 40 years of his career — laugh at the humor only he seems able to find.

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(LZ Granderson is an opinion columnist for the Los Angeles Times.)

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©2024 Los Angeles Times. Visit latimes.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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