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‘Beverly Hills Cop: Axel F’ review: The heat is (back) on

By Nina Metz, Chicago Tribune
Published: July 7, 2024, 6:11am

As we near the quarter-century mark, Hollywood keeps reaching back and drawing ideas from the 20th century, resurrecting “Top Gun,” “Bad Boys” and now “Beverly Hills Cop.” But while two of those blockbusters opened to big box office in theaters, “Beverly Hills Cop: Alex F” is premiering on Netflix. I won’t weigh in on whether the streamer is leaving money on the table — who can say? — but this is exactly the kind of summer popcorn movie that used to (and maybe still does) motivate people to head out to the cineplex.

Instead, this is strictly a living room affair. Eddie Murphy returns in the fourth installment of the franchise as the playful and authority-thwarting Detroit detective Axel Foley, who makes his way back to the sunny climes of Los Angeles when his daughter’s life is threatened. Her name is Jane and she’s a defense attorney (played by “Zola’s” Taylour Paige) who is working a murder case tied to police corruption. The repercussions for taking this client are swift, as she soon finds her car — with her in it — dangling off the side of a parking garage.

Billy (Judge Reinhold), Axel’s pal from the old days, recently left the police department because he too had similar concerns about in-house misconduct. Taggart, his one-time partner (John Ashton), is now the chief and he’s reluctant to believe any of his guys are up to no good. So Billy goes out on his own as a private detective. And he’s the one that gets Jane into this mess. Naturally, he makes a call to Axel. “I’m on the next plane out there,” comes the reply.

It’s worth stepping back to compare this sequel to the 1984 original, because it is directly referenced over and over again, starting with the opening credits. Same music — Glenn Frey’s “The Heat Is On” — and a similar montage of everyday Detroit life. In both movies, this will be the most Black people to appear on screen during the entire running time.

Is Axel still driving that 1970 Chevy Nova from the original? (Squints) Looks close enough. Once again, the opening set piece has Axel hoping to bust some crooks, resulting in a chase. Once again, it ends with a boss unhappy with the chaos that ensued. Arriving on the West Coast, once again Axel finds himself arrested by the Beverly Hills Police Department, where he eventually convinces everyone that this cop from Detroit knows what he’s talking about, even if it involves some rule-breaking. In the original, it was two straight-laced detectives in suits and ties (Billy and Taggart) rolling their eyes at Axel’s antics; now that narrative function is filled by one guy (Joseph Gordon-Levitt).

Guess where Axel stays? Guess. Once again, it’s the Beverly Palms (the fictional hotel played by Millennium Biltmore). That $235 a night room in the original is now going for $940, which outpaces inflation by a couple hundred bucks, but who’s counting? Bronson Pinchot is back as Serge, he of the unplaceable accent and mangling of names. Once again, the movie culminates with a shootout at some jerk’s mansion, where Axel saves the day, but not before getting winged.

Martin Brest directed the first movie and he had a slim resume at the time. Similarly, “Axel F” is the feature film debut of director Mark Molloy, an Australian who comes from the world of commercials. (He took over when directors Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah left to focus on “Batgirl,” the movie Warner Bros. killed last year, even though it was already in the can. Hollywood twists of fate are not for the fainthearted.)

The screenplay is from Will Beall (a former LAPD detective-turned-screenwriter whose credits include “Aquaman”), Kevin Etten (who has a background in comedy as a writer for David Letterman as well as “Workaholics” and “Scrubs”) and Tom Gormican (who co-wrote and directed the recent Nicolas Cage movie “The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent”). You’d think the comedy bona fides here would give the script some punch, but nothing even close to “banana in the tailpipe” will be entering the lexicon this time out. In place of memorable dialogue, more chase scenes. At least they involve unique vehicles: a snow plow, a helicopter, an urban utility buggy used by parking enforcement.

The writers have also devised not one, not two, but three major events to terrorize Jane — the aforementioned car-dangling, an assassination attempt on both her and Axel in the streets of Beverly Hills, and being kidnapped and held at gunpoint. One of these would have been enough. An action comedy can support only so much violence and suspension of disbelief before it curdles.

The original movie was a marvel of storytelling economy fueled by Axel’s loose-limbed ability to morph into different characters depending on the needs of the moment. I always imagined him as the smart kid and class clown who had turned those skills to his advantage outmaneuvering bad guys. The premise works because the films are a series of set pieces that move the plot along, yes, but also give Murphy a chance to play and riff. He’s the master of the jocular comeback. A year after the first movie came out, “Fletch” was in theaters starring Chevy Chase and there’s a similarity there: Both star “Saturday Night Live” alum using their comedic chops in the service of a crime story.

But is the new movie any good, I hear you asking. It’s … alright-ish? Perfectly fine, even. Murphy might be one of the most talented performers of any generation and it’s thrilling to see him back in the role that turned him into a movie star. The supporting players seemingly exist only to exchange lines with the leading man, but there is immense joy in watching Murphy use his wits rather than violence to get out of a sticky situation. When he stumbles upon some thugs rifling through Billy’s office, the film doesn’t expect him to take them on single handed. Instead, he comes up with a distraction, then runs.

But too often the new film traps the character in amber. He launches into one of his phony personalities and then he stops himself; he’s too tired for this nonsense. I wish there was more of that. A guy in his 60s might be over some of the shenanigans he pulled in his 20s. Axel doesn’t complain about his knees or his back or carry reading glasses and there’s not a gray hair on his head. I like that the script doesn’t play into the typical tropes about aging, but he’s operating more or less the same as he always did, rather than a guy who’s learned a few things along the way.

Ultimately the film functions as an elbow to the ribs: “Remember this? Remember how fun it was?”

Within the first 10 minutes, the needle drops include not only “The Heat Is On” but also Bob Seger’s “Take Down” (from the second movie) just to situate us firmly within the BHC sonic universe. By minute 11, we get a few bars of the familiar electronic instrumental track “Axel F” just to underscore the point. The nostalgia doesn’t stop there. The Pointer Sisters’ “Neutron Dance” accompanies yet another chase and you realize the movie is tapping into every melodic sense memory it has at its disposal. And why not? I’m not complaining. I like this music. But the reprise of it all is a conspicuous and intentional stoking of affection for the original in the hopes that audiences will associate the movie with a better one that came out 40 years ago.


2.5 stars (out of 4)

MPA rating: R (for language throughout, violence and brief drug use)

Running time: 1:55

How to watch: Netflix