Beverly Hills Cop: Axel F review – Eddie Murphy’s megawatt charisma lights up creaking sequel

It’s a full 40 years since maverick Detroit police detective Axel Foley (Eddie Murphy) first found himself a fish out of water in the alien world of Beverly Hills, and 30 years since the franchise’s most recent instalment. As Foley revisits the west coast yet again for the fourth film, what’s remarkable is how little has changed. Sure, there are a few more wrinkles on the returning cast members (Murphy, who is comparatively well preserved, clearly relishes a running gag about how ancient and creaky his co-stars now look), but the plot could have been cut and pasted from parts of any one of the previous outings.

Foley creates havoc in a Detroit-based opening action sequence, decamps to the fanciest upmarket neighbourhood in Los Angeles (in this case, a threat to the safety of his adult daughter is the motivation), causes more havoc, falls foul of his bosses and finally saves the day, thus vindicating his unorthodox techniques and issues with authority figures. It’s not unentertaining – the blast force of Murphy’s charisma alone carries the picture, and that’s before you get to the bracing vehicular carnage of the chase scenes. It is, however, lazy, formulaic stuff that diminishes the brash brilliance and danger of the actor’s early career work.

It’s no secret that the people who control the purse strings on big Hollywood productions prefer a safe bet. Hence the voracious appetite for comforting, familiar IPs (intellectual properties), be they toys, video games, comics, TV shows, books or existing movie franchises. On the most basic level, audience familiarity with a property gives a crucial leg-up for the marketing department: it’s so much easier to sell a movie if there’s a pre-existing fanbase, or at the very least, enough name recognition to ensure that it glues itself into the collective consciousness.

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Of course, the fact that a film is based on an existing IP doesn’t necessarily mean that it will inevitably be bad. But those that succeed tend to be the ones that embrace risks. Greta Gerwig took Barbie, a toy that had all but become a punchline to jokes about unrealistic expectations of female beauty, and delivered a playfully political feminist treatise. And the rebooted Planet of the Apes series elevated the franchise far beyond the crude rubber facial prosthetics and the B-movie kitsch of the early films in order to hold up a mirror to the failures of human society.

At the other end of the spectrum, there are films such as Beverly Hills Cop: Axel F, the sorry consequences of the twin forces of nostalgia and creative cowardice. For all the wisecracking, profanity and staggeringly ambitious stunts – and this is a film that flings a helicopter around as if it were a Frisbee – Axel F is an overly cautious movie that takes a tried-and-tested greatest hits approach to all aspects of the film-making, from the plot onwards.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the score, which cannibalises much of the first film’s soundtrack. Axel F by Harold Faltermeyer features heavily, offering an instant dopamine hit to anyone who sneaked, underage, into the cinema in the mid-80s to see the original picture. It’s a mixed blessing though: the track is so dated, it might as well be wearing leg warmers and a ra-ra skirt.

‘Pleasingly testy dynamic’: Murphy with Taylour Paige in Beverly Hills Cop: Axel F. Photograph: Netflix © 2024

But this debut feature from Australian commercials director Mark Molloy – a man who clearly knows a thing or too about slickly packaged products – has a couple of things going for it. One is the pleasingly testy dynamic between Foley and his daughter, Jane (Taylour Paige), a Beverly Hills defence attorney who has not spoken to her father in years. It’s a generic plot device certainly – watch enough American cop movies and you start to assume that they hand out crappy marriages and estranged adult children along with the police badge. But Murphy and Paige spark together, their combative energy snapping the picture into sharper focus.

Then there’s the bravura action direction. True to form, Foley commandeers many and various vehicles, which he then crashes into stuff, sending the denizens of LA scurrying for cover, their designer shopping bags and tiny dogs scattered to the wind. The car/lorry/golf cart chases are chaotically entertaining, and a neatly efficient way to ramp up the film’s energy whenever the plot starts to feel a little draggy and familiar. Plus, if you ever wondered what happens when you drive a snowplough at speed down a narrow alleyway full of bins, you now have the opportunity to find out.

Ultimately, however, the point and the driving force behind this franchise has always been the opportunity to give Murphy’s larger and cooler-than-life persona free rein. Now in his 60s – not quite old enough to be a US presidential candidate but not far off – the actor lacks some of the hunger and aggression that ignited his career in the 80s, but he remains a uniquely magnetic performer. And somehow he manages to bring a degree of freshness to material that was stale several decades ago.

The Guardian