A list of just a few of the movies released in 1984:
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom
None of those films, all of which have achieved at least some level of cultural permanence, was the top box office earner for 1984. That prize went to Martin Brest's Beverly Hills Cop.
Here's the thing about Beverly Hills Cop: it's not a great action movie. Brest's other films - Meet Joe Black, Scent of a Woman, Gigli - confirm that he is not an action director. He also directed Midnight Run, another film that, like Beverly Hills Cop, succeeds on the strength of its comedy rather than its action. Even the best action setpiece in Beverly Hills Cop - the opening scene in which an 18-wheeler full of cigarettes is chased by cop cars, causing mind-boggling collateral damage to a series of rundown Detroit streets - is edited in a way that distances us from the action, with The Pointer Sisters' "Neutron Dance" puncturing all of the pressure out of the scene. The shootout of the climax is no different: the perky synth score diminishes the tension, and when there's no music at all the scene feels even less tense, somehow. There's no mystery or suspense to the movie: we know right off the bat that Victor Maitland (Steven Berkoff) killed Mikey. We know he's going to get his, and we know Axel's gonna give it to him.
And honestly, on the page, Beverly Hills Cop isn't terribly special, either. Some of the jokes as-scripted are great, but the screenplay, as written, reads as a pretty basic fish-out-of-water procedural.
But all of that said, Beverly Hills Cop is an important movie, entirely worthy of its box office success, and that's for exactly one reason: Eddie Murphy's note-perfect performance as Axel Foley.
Murphy is brilliant in so many films: Trading Places, 48 Hours, Coming to America, Harlem Nights and Bowfinger, to name a few (if not all). But for my money, there's no role better suited to him than that of the wise-cracking, warm-hearted Foley, a Detroit cop who travels to Beverly Hills to investigate the death of his best friend and quickly becomes the bane of the polite, rule-abiding Beverly Hills police force.
With the film's tepid action and our own certainty that Maitland is the bad guy whose comeuppance is inevitable, it relies solely on Murphy to define the emotional stakes of the film, and he does that with ease. In the few minutes we see him spend with James Russo's Mikey, we are entirely convinced of their love for each other, their history, the profound significance they hold for one another. Mikey's death affects us because of the way it affects Axel. In about 90 seconds - the scene in which he insists to his boss (Gilbert R. Hill) that he's taking vacation so he can chase down Mikey's killer, and later when he informs their mutual friend Jenny Summers (Lisa Eilbacher) of Mikey's death - we see some of the best dramatic acting of Murphy's career. It's quiet, understated, played out only in his eyes and only lasting a few brief moments before the comedy is restored to the story, but it's enough to make the rest of the film matter in a way that it wouldn't have otherwise.
And when that comedy's restored, it never lets up, thanks again to Murphy, and Murphy alone. Every line delivery is flawless, administered at exactly the right beat to make the best, funniest impact. And many of his best jokes are said to be improvised, with his amazing "super cop" speech a legendary example. That great, chest-shaking, goofy laugh of Murphy's is never better than in Beverly Hills Cop, as the entire town of Beverly Hills is so amusing to him that he must often stop in the street, keel over and grab his stomach to contain his laughter. But it's not a mean-spirited amusement. Axel Foley never alienates the subject from the joke. From his cheerful acceptance of the inexpressible weirdness of Serge (Bronson Pinchot) to the open way he admires the cordial manners of Det. Rosewood (Judge Reinhold) and Sgt. Taggart (John Ashton), Axel Foley just delights in the world. He finds humor everywhere, but he's always eager to let you in on the joke.
He's a pain in the ass and a very good guy, that Axel Foley. After he antagonizes Taggart until he gets one hard, well-deserved punch in the gut from the seasoned sergeant, Foley is quick to let the incident drop when Lt. Bogomil (Ronny Cox) asks him if he'd like to file a report on workplace violence. "Where I'm from, cops don't file charges against other cops." It's not only that he refuses to get Taggart in trouble for hitting him - he's actually impressed that the guy lost his temper and broke polite protocol for once. As he walks out of the station, he pats his stomach appreciatively: "Pretty good punch you got, Taggart." It's another small moment that feels big in the movie: now we know that Axel Foley is a cop's cop, a guy who takes his licks and moves on.
It's an important, subtle distinction: Foley is such a pain in the ass that it would be easy to think of him as combative or needlessly confrontational, but he softens every skirmish with the BHPD - necessary in his quest to avenge Mikey's death - with a little thoughtful humanity. When he sends room service out to distract Taggart and Rosewood before pulling the ol' banana in the tailpipe trick, we believe him later when he tells them that the room service wasn't just a means of misdirection: he's been on stake-outs before, and he knows the pains of fast food and stale coffee. When he strong-arms them into tailing him into a strip club, he goes out of his way to keep them out of trouble with Bogomil, concocting a story that makes Taggart and Rosewood sound like superheroes. He's going to do the right thing by his dead best friend, whatever the cost - but that cost never involves trampling on colleagues that he's quickly grown to respect.
He's charming and hilarious and deeply kind - but he's also tough as steel, in charge of every situation. He's the superhero in that strip club scuffle, his instincts still sharp after a few scotch and sodas. Instead of sneaking around Maitland's off-limits warehouse, he marches right in and starts barking orders to the security team, convincing them they're working for him, getting every piece of information voluntarily handed to him when the guards should be throwing him out on his ass. He's a brilliant cop for the same reasons he's a good person: instincts, charm, an innate sense of justice.
The thing about Axel Foley is that he's so inextricably tied to Eddie Murphy that no one else could ever play him with the same level of success. This isn't a character that was created on the page: he was created on film, in front of our very eyes. After 105 minutes with Axel Foley we know everything we need to know about him: we know how he would respond in hypothetical situations. We know what matters to him. We love him, as Mikey and Jenny and his crotchety boss and soon Taggart and Rosewood and even Bogomil all love him. Beverly Hills Cop lives and dies on his narrow ass, and thanks to him, it not only lives but thrives, three decades later.