Beverly Hills Cop (1984)

2015 #176
Martin Brest | 105 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | 15 / R

The last time I watched the first entry in a once-popular ’80s comedy cop movie series, it didn’t end well. And that was directed by Richard Donner, of Superman and The Omen fame — Beverly Hills Cop, on the other hand, was helmed by the man who would go on to give us “worst film of all time” contender Gigli. Oh dear. Truth be told, my main reason for watching Beverly Hills Cop is so that I can one day watch Beverly Hills Cop II, directed by Tony Scott, and Beverly Hills Cop III, directed by John Landis. So, I didn’t expect to care for this all that much…

But I actually thought it was really fun. It’s not the funniest movie ever, nor does it have the most thrilling action, or the most engrossing or surprising plot, but it does all those things — well, the first two — well, maybe just the first one — well enough. It’s sort of incessantly likeable.

The term “star vehicle” could have been coined for this film — it’s all about Eddie Murphy as Axel Foley. It’s mad to think he was brought on late in the day, because you just can’t imagine it with anyone else. It’s his performance, his style, that makes the movie worth watching. Without him — with a straightforward lead like Sylvester Stallone, who was originally attached — it would be a painfully rote action/revenge thriller. The plot is no great shakes at all; what works is the fish-out-of-water element of putting Murphy’s black, working-class Detroit cop in white, posh Beverly Hills, plus his engaging performance and humour.

Murphy’s not the only good thing, though. Judge Reinhold and John Ashton make an excellent double act as the pair of cops assigned to keep an eye on Foley in Beverly Hills; Ronny Cox is their amenable boss; Steven Berkoff pretty much just has to turn up to be an excellent villain; Lisa Eilbacher is decent as the girl (presumably changed from being a love interest after they cast a black guy). Her part doesn’t exactly call for a great deal, but she’s fine enough in it; as good as anyone ever is in such a limited role.

There’s also the iconic theme music, Axel F, perhaps better known to The Youth of Today thanks to Crazy Frog (you’d forgotten that, hadn’t you? Sorry). It makes its debut ten minutes into the film during an exciting sequence where… Axel parks his car outside his home. I guess no one knew what they had on their hands… except perhaps composer Harold Faltermeyer, who seems to have written the theme, thought “my work here is done,” and laid it over most of the movie. (That’s unfair — there is other music. Sometimes.)

Beverly Hills Cop’s plot is colour-by-numbers, and sometimes advanced by magic (the way they track Axel and co at the climax just looks like GPS today, but no such system existed in 1984); the mystery is non-existent (even if it wasn’t obvious Berkoff would be the villain, the henchman who did the deed is shown to be in his employ the first time we meet him); Brest’s direction is unremarkably static… you could probably go on. But thanks to Eddie Murphy and the rest of the cast, Beverly Hills Cop winds up a highly watchable, very likeable spot of entertainment.

4 out of 5

This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2015. Read more here.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011)

2015 #35
David Fincher | 158 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA, Sweden & Norway / English | 18 / R

Stieg Larsson’s much-hyped novel comes to the screen for the second time in David Fincher’s much-hyped English-language re-adaptation. Somewhere between the pre-release build-up (do you remember the fuss over the trailer’s release? And all those magazine covers and articles?) and now, something clearly went awry: its UK TV premiere back in March was buried mid-week on ITV2.

If you’ve read or seen a previous version then you know the story, which hasn’t succumbed to a massive reworking for the American remake — it’s still set in Sweden, even. If you don’t, it sees disgraced journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) being invited by the patriarch of the rich Vanger family (Christopher Plummer) to investigate the murder of his beloved niece, which happened 40 years earlier. At the same time, we follow the trials and tribulations of Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara), a troubled twenty-something hacker who must contend with abusive guardians, before eventually teaming up with Mikael to close his investigation. The novel’s original title translates as Men Who Hate Women, and that’s a pretty succinct summary of the grim, violent, nasty places the stories take us.

After an aside into magical character drama and big-business thriller, Fincher has moved back towards more familiar stomping ground here: a boundary-pushing thriller with themes so dark many wouldn’t want to touch it. It also followed hot on the heels of the well-received Swedish screen adaptations of the novels, another reason to stay hands-off; doubly so given that this sticks equally closely to the source novel. The merits of the various versions can be debated ad infinitum, naturally. I’ve not read the novel so can’t compare, but reportedly the Swedish film’s characters are more like those in the book and the plot is even more closely adapted. That said, to a casual viewer, the two films feel very similar in terms of story and character. There are certainly changes, but nothing especially major. For example, the ending has been tweaked — not “completely changed”, as some reports had it, but just streamlined slightly. Some will struggle to even remember the difference if their experience of a previous version was long enough ago. Die hard fans, however, seem to regard it as a massive re-visioning of events. It isn’t.

I could go on with this comparison, but there are plenty enough articles to do that already, and I don’t really want to. Yet it’s quite a hard thing to avoid, purely because the two films materialised so close together. Even distant remakes invite comparison, but when they come out virtually back-to-back it just emphasises the point. So too the fact that the Swedish films were widely and readily available, and that they were acclaimed by both critics and audiences, not cheapo idiomatic versions before the big-budget American one came along. Indeed, though I called it boundary-pushing earlier, few boundaries feel pushed because it’s so close to the Swedish version. Of course, in and of itself — and if you’ve not seen the foreign-language film — there’s a lot of shocking, extreme stuff here. Even for the director who gave us Se7en, this is at times pitch-black material.

And that there is another comparison that dogs the film: Fincher’s previous work. However much of his own touch the director brings to proceedings — and he has produced an incredibly well-made film; in particular, it’s beautifully shot, and there’s a vein of interest to be mined in discussing the fact it was consciously made using a five-act (as opposed to the usual three-act) structure (but not here today, sorry) — it feels unable to innovate or hone the genre in quite the way Se7en or Zodiac did. This is not a movie that will be remembered among the very top-level of his work.

Well, I say that — who knows? Enough films have been reevaluated with time in the history of film that you can’t ever quite be certain. At the moment, the context of comparing it to the Swedish film holds it back, but where that has Noomi Rapace’s performance as Lisbeth in its favour, this has the skill of David Fincher, not to mention a not-half-bad (indeed, Oscar nominated) Lisbeth from Rooney Mara, as well as a quality supporting cast. And the best use of Enya since at least Fellowship of the Ring. Then, from a personal perspective, Se7en and Zodiac are among my most-favourite films, so in that comparison battle Dragon Tattoo almost has a hand tied behind its back. Historical context hasn’t improved since, either, with Fincher’s follow-up being another morally-dark bestselling thriller adaptation, pigeonholing them (for some commentators) as a pair of Fincher-by-numbers placeholders until he comes up with something original again — if he ever does (as naysayers would proclaim).

So my rating may come as a bit of a surprise given the focus of this review, which is primarily my fault for finding it so tough to shrug off all those contexts and comparisons. But hey, that’s something the film itself struggles with in many people’s eyes, too. If the viewer can divorce it from those ties, however, I think it’s still an exceptionally good thriller.

5 out of 5

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is on ITV2 tonight at 11:10pm.