As irreverent Detroit police detective Axel Foley, Eddie Murphy sashays through Beverly Hills Cop like a chaotic clown prince. Except he knows exactly what he’s doing. A Black man who finds himself in the white-hot center of a white world, Foley turns racial fears and prejudices to his advantage. “I dare you to discriminate against me,” his grin seems to say. “You’ll only look like an idiot, and I’ll come out on top anyway.”
Consider an early scene in which Foley, who has come to Beverly Hills to investigate a friend’s murder, is thrown through a window by a bunch of goons and arrested for disturbing the peace. He doesn’t tell the arresting officers he’s a cop, but instead jokes about the lunacy of the situation and lets them take him to the station—where his identity will be revealed and their prejudicial practices will be revealed for all to see.
With a few features already under his belt (48 Hrs., Trading Places), Murphy had figured out how to conjure a real character out of expert comic timing. His trademark motormouth is in full effect, but that only works as well as it does because Murphy’s also a master of the deadpan pause, which can stop a verbal adversary in their tracks. And I love when he downshifts into a calm, quiet, and reasonable demeanor, disarming anyone who was getting comfortable categorizing him with stereotypes.
The plot is mostly a MacGuffin, a framework for scenarios in which Foley wreaks havoc in a variety of white spaces (an art gallery, a country club) simply by showing up. This includes the Beverly Hills police department, where he repeatedly pranks the detective team (John Ashton and Judge Reinhold) charged with keeping an eye on him. Reinhold’s dazed face makes for the perfect surrogate for the White audience; he’s in complete awe of Foley, even as he’s being destabilized by him.
Of course, Axel Foley is a fantasy, a figure who could only work in an outsized comedy such as Beverly Hills Cop. Written by Daniel Petrie Jr. and directed by Martin Brest, the movie is very much a product of the white Hollywood establishment (Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer were the producers). In a sense, the film only works because, in the real world, the system is rigged against someone like Axel Foley. Yet when Murphy seizes the screen, all bets are off, resulting in a work of racial subversion that’s both hilarious and cathartic.