Beverly Hills Cop (1984): from zero to hero?

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Beverly Hills Cop is all about Eddie Murphy’s smart-mouthed Detroit detective. But was Axel Foley just a bumbling cop who got lucky?

What is Beverly Hills Cop about?

Axel Foley (Eddie Murphy) is a Detroit cop who doesn’t play by the rules. It drives his boss loopy, but his maverick attitude to crime fighting comes in handy when a friend is murdered. Foley hits Beverly Hills to get answers – and brings justice to town.

A tale of two cities

It may be called Beverly Hills Cop, but we’re a long way from Kansas – or, indeed, California – to begin with.

The movie opens instead with a montage of Foley’s home town of Detroit. Of course it does. Detroit in the ‘90s couldn’t be any further from vibrant and wealthy Hollywood. That makes it the perfect backdrop for this rags-to-riches crime caper.

The montage takes in the car plant, but lingers on the poverty and burned out buildings. Rightly or not, Detroit is a kind of cinema shorthand for grime, crime and hopelessness.

Interestingly, the early action scenes don’t hide away the city’s real life residents. You can see them lining the streets looking on – and why shouldn’t they, when they feature so heavily in the opening credits?

They’re key to the contrast that underpins the movie. Detroit is poor and predominantly Black. Beverly Hills – when we get there – is rich and white. Foley is the bridge between the two.

In Detroit, he’s a passionate cop stymied by background and environment. But once he gets to California, he outsmarts the local cops and saves the city from a violent crime lord.

This is pretty significant for 1990s cinema, by the way. Murphy is a Black protagonist in a mainstream film at a time when this was rare (and remains so, let’s be honest). Not only that, but he has a Black boss. Inspector Todd (Gil Hill) was also a real-life Detroit cop before being cast in the movie.

Is Axel Foley a screw-up?

Foley has potential, but he’s never going to make it in Detroit. His friends include jailbird Mikey Tandino, who reveals Foley also has history as a joyrider.

Unlike Foley, however, Tandino hasn’t cleaned up his act. In fact, he’s been stealing from gangster, Victor Maitland. Maitland has Tandino murdered in retribution – an act that sends Foley careering across country for vengeance.

“You want to play cowboy cop, do it in someone else’s precinct.” Which is exactly what Foley does.

Tandino doesn’t feature much after this point. Sure, he’s the reason for the movie, but Foley doesn’t make much reference to him after the finale’s big shoot out. Neither do we see their mutual friend Jenny Summers again after she’s held hostage. Shrug.

Anyway, once in Beverly Hills, Foley becomes a genius of almost incandescent brilliance. He can smell crime before it happens. He follows his hunches and unearths the evidence no one else can spot. And of course he pulls off the most audacious scams all in the pursuit of justice. What’s not to like?

And yet, back in down-and-out Detroit, Foley’s actually a bit of a screw-up. How do we know this? Because Todd is always gunning for him.

After the cigarette sting goes wrong, Jeff tells him “Todd’s after you. He said it’s your worst fuck-up ever.” Amusingly, when Todd catches up with him, he chews his ear off about going undercover without authorisation, telling him: “You want to play cowboy cop, do it in someone else’s precinct.” Which is exactly what Foley does.

That’s not all Todd says. “I’m tired of taking the heat for you,” he explains. In other words, this isn’t Foley’s first disaster-themed rodeo.

From one cowboy cop to another: why does John McClane smoke?

From zero to hero

When the film flips over to Beverly Hills, it also reverses the movie’s earlier momentum.

There’s another sound-tracked city tour – there’s even a second set of Michael Jackson clones walking down the street (it’s easy to miss them the first-time round in the opening credits). The big difference is that, here, the sun is shining and the streets are almost paved with cash.

Different city, yes, but Foley is the same guy: his first act is to con the Beverly Palm Hotel into giving him a suite worth $235 a night.

Foley is made in Beverly Hills. Once free of the negative pull of Detroit, his scams pay off and his boss (Bogomil) becomes more forgiving. Free of Detroit, Foley is legitimately a successful cop rather than a cheeky screw-up.

This makes BHC as much a rags-to-riches tale as a cop movie. And, as usual, it relies on mirroring – i.e., contrasts and reversals:

  • The film begins and ends with a crazy car chase and a crashed van/truck. However, the final shoot-out vindicates Foley’s failure the first time round.
  • Foley’s apartment at the beginning is grim2. But the film ends with him quite at home at the Beverly Palms Hotel (and stocking up on bathrobes).
  • Similarly, Foley has an aggressive boss and no work friends when the movie begins. By the end, he’s bonded with Taggart, Rosewood AND Lt. Bogomil.
  • Inspector Todd and Bogomil are negative images of each other. One is foul-mouthed and permanently about to rupture a vein. The other wears a suit and barely sweats.

Travelling to Beverly Hills puts Foley in a very subtle kind of alternative reality.

The film knowingly exploits this, btw, finding laughs in things that work differently, as though Foley has gone to Bogotá and not Beverly Hills (Serge’s espresso, for instance).

Winning the postcode lottery

You’ve probably heard of the idea of the postcode lottery that restricts or grants access to healthcare and education according to where you live. Somewhat unexpectedly, it’s at the heart of this classic 80s movie.

Money, education, civic pride, professional resources are a circle of opportunities, not a straight line. In other words, they influence each other.

What does this mean for Axel Foley? Well, he’s a good cop held back from achieving his full potential by a city that’s been ignored, overlooked and mistreated.

Once he trades up his zip code, he’s given the opportunity to succeed, instead of being schooled in failure and conformity.

Incidentally, how do we really know Foley is the hero by the end? Because he stays true to his roots and returns to Detroit, despite the considerable charms of California.

And, of course, he’s not taken in by money, either. Out here, his scams mock social norms and, particularly, expectations about treating rich people differently or reverentially.

Foley as an outsider and tourist – and therefore a source of mischief – can invert the rules, whether barging into a fancy members’ club or ridiculing the concept of tiny coffee. When prestige is so superficial, it makes perfect sense that his friends are both cops and ex-cons.

It also explains why Foley is the perfect fit in Beverly Hills, a city in which even the police are blinded by – or turn a blind eye – to privilege. As clowns and jesters always have done, however, Foley knocks the high and mighty down a peg. He treats the good hearted as friends, but gangsters like scoundrels – and that’s social levelling in action.


Beverly Hills Cop (1984), directed by Martin Brest

Other films similar to Beverly Hills Cop
  • Trading Places (Eddie Murphy taking on white privilege and wealth)
  • Jumpin’ Jack Flash (outsiders, comedy)
  • Lethal Weapon, Die Hard (1980s, smart-mouthed maverick cops)

Picture credit: Ashlee Attebery