The Third Coming of Eddie…?
In December of last year some news filtered out of Hollywood concerning an upcoming sequel. Nothing new there you might say, but this wasn’t just any old sequel. This was confirmation of a project that couldn’t fail to raise an excited grin. On and off for so many years, Beverly Hills Cop IV had finally been given the green light. Now this is the sort of comedy comeback sequel that I usually abhor. With the exception of Bill & Ted III and, until the recent death of Harold Ramis, Ghostbusters III, not even the most epic case of blind nostalgia either warrants or could save the vast majority of such follow-ups. However, a quick scan of the article only increased my enthusiasm. Legendary producer Jerry Bruckheimer, who oversaw Beverly Hills Cop & BHC II, is back at Paramount and said to be involved. Brett Ratner, no stranger to the action/comedy genre as the man in the chair for the Rush Hour series, is attached to direct. Most importantly, the titular Cop is back: Detective Axel Foley, to be reprised once again by the one and only Eddie Murphy. By this point I was almost giddy with anticipation.
Of course it didn’t take long for this romantic, nostalgia-tinted view to wear off, leaving me with the cold hard facts of the situation: none of the three big guns involved have made anything with even a hint of real quality in years. Since the turn of the century the vast majority of Bruckheimer’s productions at both Touchstone and Disney, starting with 2001’s Pearl Harbor, have been nothing short of horrible. Ratner hasn’t done much better, helming a steady stream of nonsense over the same period. As of this year he is yet to top the first two Rush Hour films, the second of which was released in 2001. And then there’s Murphy. One of Hollywood’s biggest stars during the 1980s, his gradual demise on-screen since the late 90s has left him with little credibility and, sadly, the status of ‘has been’. Having realised this, quickly revised speculation of a far more realistic nature was formed; culminating in the rather more sceptical conclusion that Beverly Hills Cop IV could be absolutely awful.
For Eddie Murphy, one of the undisputed heavyweights of 80s comedy, BHC IV is likely to be a watershed moment during a brilliant, yet inconsistent time on the big screen. Unless he has something else major in the pipeline, this could be his first front and centre-starring role in a film that the movie-going public is actually aware of since Meet Dave (2008). On top of that, it will be the first film anyone over the age of eighteen at the time of release will have genuinely taken him seriously in since Dreamgirls, which came out in late 2006. Going on eight years is a long time to be on the backburner in Hollywood, especially when, voice work aside, you have to go back another seven years to find his previous critically acclaimed live-action performance, 1999’s Bowfinger.
Can Murphy get back to the top, both in terms of critically acclaimed pictures and personal performance? His gradual downward spiral, spike infused with quality but ultimately one way, offers some insight, particularly when viewed from the top. After all, that is essentially where he started. Indeed, it’s easy to forget just how much of an impact he made when he burst on to the screen in the early 80s. The standout star amongst the second generation cast of Saturday Night Live, Murphy is credited as having gone a long way towards hauling the show back from the brink of mediocrity. His amateur-like nature and infectious charisma won audiences over and made him a household name.
In turn, his success aided the recognition and progression of African-American actors in what was, at the time, both a white-dominated atmosphere at SNL and a largely white industry overall. Murphy, young and headstrong, was utterly fearless, commenting years later, “There’s this little box that African-American actors have to work in, in the first place, and I was able to rise above that box.”His first feature film, 48 Hrs., released at the peak of his SNL powers in 1982, pushed the boundaries still further. On the surface the film may have been a buddy action/comedy flick, but underneath it was dark, moody and hard-hitting. Playing opposite Nick Nolte, whose character was, well, racist, Murphy became, in his own words, “the first black actor to take charge in a white world onscreen…people had never seen that before”. In other words his character, Reggie Hammond, fucked things up, at one point taking on a bar of rednecks and making them bitch down to him one by one. In a great article published a few years ago, Bill Simmons discusses the racial connotations of Murphy’s early impact in both television and film in greater detail, including the reaction of black cinemagoers to 48 Hrs. They laughed and they cheered, while the redneck scene “practically caused a riot”.
Around the same time, Nolte became too ill to fulfil his hosting duties on SNL. Murphy stepped up in more ways one. He took the job of host and tore the roof off the place, putting himself all but on top of the world in the process. For a fair while he didn’t come down. In fact, he went higher. In 1983 he co-starred with another SNL veteran, Dan Akroyd, in hit comedy Trading Places, which he followed up in 1984 with Beverly Hills Cop. While 48 Hrs. and Trading Places were successful, BHC was on another level, taking more than two and a half times the amount Trading Places did in the domestic market. The only disadvantage for fans was that his commitment to BHC meant Murphy was unable to take up Akroyd’s offer to co-star with himself, Ramis and Bill Murray in Ghostbusters, not that it had a negative impact on Murphy’s career. Indeed, theease with which he transferred from the small screen to the silver screen no doubt contributed to the phenomenal, ever increasing critical and commercial success of his early pictures. The already high expectations only got higher with each passing performance. Murphy had no ceiling and he didn’t disappoint. His early screen presence seemed so natural, enabling him to show off the development of a range that went further than basic comedy. His performances remained balanced to perfection, with his well-established comedic talent continuing to come across well as the 80s progressed, the catalyst being his record-breaking hit stand-up film Raw, shot in 1987. At the same time Tony Scott got the best out of his darker side in Beverley Hills Cop II, which came out the same year and was a rare example of a sequel being better than the original.
Just when it seemed he could do no wrong however, the end of the decade saw Murphy began to slip from his peak. No one would have predicted as much upon the release of 1988’s Coming to America. Featuring the debut of his inspired multi-character routines and an excellent supporting cast topped by Arsenio Hall; it remains one of Murphy’s finest films to date. His personal performance displayed not only genuine comic craft, but also a satisfyingly subtle approach to the conveyance of his character’s emotional side in relation to the love story at the heart of the picture. Having also provided the original story for Coming to America, Murphy decided to go all the way the following year, writing and co-starring in his sole directorial feature, Harlem Nights, alongside his idol, comedy legend Richard Pryor. To say it turned out badly is an understatement, with pretty much everything about it falling flat. While the film did well on paper from a commercial standpoint, taking over three times its budget in the form of $95m worldwide, it was seen as a let down by the studio in comparison to Murphy’s previous hits. Critics universally slated it and from then on Murphy played it safe by deserting directing and backing away from any potentially challenging roles for years to come. In hindsight it’s clear to see that, after so many critically acclaimed pictures, critical failure hit him hard.
The first half of the 90s was, for the most part, a rather tragic transition period for Murphy. Although his films continued to make money, his projects were uninspired and consisted primarily of lazy ideas and performances from an actor who appeared to be treading water with easy hits – usually a sign that a performer is past their creative and proactive peak. Another 48 Hrs. (1990) and Beverley Hills Cop III (1994) are clear examples of this. Both fall a long way short of their predecessors’ quality and feature Murphy phoning in below par displays in major big screen appearances for the first time in his career. Reggie Hammond and Axel Foley pull you through the respective pictures due to love for the characters, but it’s the ghosts of their earlier, classic incarnations that do so, rather than anything original or captivating on Murphy’s part.
Part of the reason seems to be that Murphy was simply waiting until he could get out of the long-haul contract tying him to Paramount at the time. Upon completion of 1995’s Vampire in Brooklyn he was a free man, and set about putting together his Second Coming with The Nutty Professor, released in 1996 to a very positive critical reception and global success, grossing just shy of $275m. Murphy was back on his game, returning to the multi-character strategy first demonstrated in Coming to America and delivering an energetic, witty and touching performance in amongst the numerous well-timed sight gags and instances of slapstick. Arguably the most accessible film he’d made up until that point, it’s broad appeal also contributed to a new generation – those born in the mid to late 80s – experiencing a Murphy comedy for the first time and becoming firm fans. This was a double edged sword for older fans however, as while for one moment it looked like the great man was back, his Second Coming ended up taking him down the path of child entertainer rather than producing a newly-matured performer with a substantial range. Indeed, watching Metro (1997), his last action/cop-type film, it’s painfully evident that at the time he was not in a good place when it came to anything requiring a straight face. Watching him wave his gun around while shouting at Michael Rapaport is, ironically, completely comical at times.
The next ten years saw Murphy excel in the recording booth, providing memorable voiceover performances as Mushu the dragon in Disney’s Mulan (1997) and Donkey in Shrek (2001) alongside Mike Myers. Numerous sequels would follow the latter, with Murphy happy to contribute for what he likely saw as very easy money. Having said that, despite the overall quality of the later Shrek films quickly nose-diving, Donkey was always a highlight. With the success of The Nutty Professor, Mulan and his first foray into all-out, live-action family entertainment, Dr. Dolittle (1998), Murphy seemed willing to try being a mature comedy actor once again. Life (1998) was rather hit-and-miss, a shame as it was the only time he shared the screen with Martin Lawrence, who was one of the hottest comedy actors going in the late 90s. Bowfinger (1999) however, saw the Eddie of old re-emerge. Playing opposite another legend in the form of Steve Martin, Murphy looked at home as he put in his best all round performance since Coming to America. Ultimately however, his family films were making far more money at the box office, prompting a five-year hiatus from anything that, with the exception of Shrek, could be considered good. A quick look at his filmography during the early to mid-00s reveals the depths to which he was willing to sink, including Showtime (2002), an embarrassing waste of a film featuring another bloated star treading water in the field of casual-comedy, Robert De Niro. It’s difficult to blame Murphy for this stage of his career. After all, it was easy money. Then came a brief but glorious moment in 2006, when the Third Coming appeared to be upon us….
Dreamgirls is an overrated picture to say the least. When transferring a stage musical to the big screen, the key is to move away from the prevalent stage format of continuous, drawn out musical numbers that doesn’t allow the audience to breath or screen actors do their thing. On stage this sort of style is tried and tested, but on screen it usually ends up detracting from both the story and the film as a whole. At first Dreamgirls plays things to perfection, allowing the natural Motown-esque backdrop to develop of its own accord with musical performances wisely grounded in reality. Murphy is the star at his point. James ‘Thunder’ Early truly is a captivating character, made so not only by Murphy’s classic charisma and easy charm, but also, perhaps more surprisingly to audiences in 2006, his fantastic lead vocals and conveyance of Jimmy’s haunting emotional collapse as he slips from the stage into heroin addiction. It’s no coincidence that the proceedings are lacking when Murphy is off screen, at which time the picture descends into unnecessary big number after number during a large chunk of the middle section of the film. When he returns, with Jimmy on the brink, he delivers one of the finest scenes of his career – Jimmy’s mental breakdown during an impromptu rap live on national television, whilst those who once supported him are now embarrassed to be seen with him as they attempt to hide their own demons and bask in the glory of their perceived pristine success. Despite picking up a Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actor, Murphy lost out on the Academy Award to Alan Arkin, who took the coveted prize for his turn in Little Miss Sunshine. Whilst Murphy undeniably stole the show in Dreamgirls, both his performance and character feel underused and detached from the rest of the film, with both parties suffering as a result. Whilst no one could have complained had he won it, one can see why the Academy passed over both Murphy and, with the exception of Jennifer Hudson, Dreamgirls as a whole in early 2007.
The biggest let down associated with Murphy’s performance in Dreamgirls wasn’t the lack of an Oscar, but the fact that he went straight back to churning the same childish nonsense that he was peddling beforehand. Norbit (2007) was nominated for six Golden Raspberry Awards, winning three. Murphy took home Worst Actor, and while the GRs were nothing new to him, the fact that he got one so soon after an Oscar nomination speaks volumes about his career choices. It’s even been suggested that the presence of copious amounts of Norbit promotional material around the time of the Oscars had a hand in the Academy’s decision. How much of a hand is difficult to say, but it can’t have done him any favours. Sandwiched in between the third and fourth Shrek films (2007 and 2010), which by this point were always going to be successful regardless of Murphy’s performance, were two other disasters, Meet Dave (2008) and Imagine That (2009). Under the direction of Brett Ratner and in the company of Ben Stiller and Casey Affleck however, Murphy won praise for his lively display in the comedy/crime flick Tower Heist, released in late 2011. He looked up for it again, likely spurred on by a willingness to perform in the presence of the big names around him. Although the film itself wasn’t rated all that highly, critics welcomed a dose of old school Eddie with open arms and, like myself, will be hoping it’s a sign of things to come with Beverley Hills Cop IV and beyond.
Eddie Murphy no doubt has the ability to make or break any film he commits to. BHC IV, along with the subsequent five years or so, are his chance to produce performances that could salvage not only a character and motion picture series he holds dear, but also, in the long term, his career. Underlying potential for success does therefore exist. All three big guns involved with his first major project in years have something to prove, but while Bruckheimer and Ratner will no doubt play an important part in terms of both updating the series and recapturing the old magic, in this case the majority of the responsibility lies with its star. Even in his mid-50s, Murphy is certainly capable of being taken seriously again as an actor – to excel in comedy and take another run at challenging, well-written roles, as well as potentially one day claiming the Academy Award many still feel he deserved in 2007. This is why I have faith. In fact, I’m going to get the bandwagon rolling right now. Feel free to hop on, for the true Third Coming of Eddie has officially been prophesised.