Remember when action movies were about characters as opposed to special effects? Remember when they were genuinely funny? And remember when they didn’t star Shia LaBoeuf?
It says as much about action movies in the 80s as it does about that genre today that Jerry Bruckeimer and Simpson’s machismo-dazzled and coke-addled work looks like the Coen brothers next to the stuff that fills up today’s multiplexes. Sure, the Bourne franchise has had its moments but, please: Jeremy Renner is no Bruce Willis. Action movies – like most genre movies – just aren’t as fun today as they were in the 80s.
While it would be too simplistic to say that 80s action movies were set in LA and 80s comedies came from New York, this is roughly true and this is for a very simple reason: a lot of comedians lived in Manhattan, thanks partly to Saturday Night Live, which helped to give New York its comedy culture in the 70s and 80s. Action movies, by contrast, were made by the more machismo types based out in LA, like Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer, or by transplanted Brits who ran to Hollywood, such as the late Tony Scott. Obviously, there are plenty of exceptions to this rule but, generally speaking, in the 80s, New York – with its reputation as a crime-ridden surly hell-hole – served as an easy background for laughs while LA – that sunny idyll full of kooks – was a fun place in which to wreak havoc. And being a true New Yorker, I fully endorse both of those attitudes.
Beverly Hills Cop, Die Hard and Lethal Weapon are probably the best known action films from the 80s, certainly among the most successful, and easily among the best, too. They are also so utterly of their type that they feel almost interchangeable: they are all set in Los Angeles (obviously); they are all buddy cop films (even Die Hard becomes a buddy movie when lone wolf Bruce Willis gets a compadre-by-walkie-talkie when he’s stuck inside his wife’s office block); they all feature a renegade cop who is brilliant but Not Good at Taking Orders and is from out of town; the other cop who has the misfortune to be paired with the renegade will be either overly conscientious about the rules, prone to saying things like “I’m too old for this shit”, or both; two of these films are set at Christmas; they all adhere to the classic rule that the bad guy can shoot 50 bullets and no one will get hurt but the good guy will shoot one bullet and immediately get his man; the women are all completely forgettable, there only to be rescued; they all feature bi-racial cop partners.
This last point is quite a key issue for 80s movies, and still has its influence today. I’m not sure where this trope of having a white cop / black cop came from – 48 Hours, perhaps? But what is obvious is that, unless one of the cops was Eddie Murphy, the poor black actor got stuck playing the boring cop while the white actor could gurn it up like they just discovered meth.
Danny Glover does very well with the pretty dreary part he’s given in Lethal Weapon (there’s only so much Reginald VelJohnson can do as Al, stuck outside the building in Die Hard), but this trope does reflect a common tendency in movies, then and now: if there is – by some crazy miracle – someone who’s black in a movie, he’ll get the boring part. You see this today, still, with the few black actors that appear on screen stuck in the role of a judge, a police chief, a deputy mayor. Ostensibly, a figure of authority but, really, a forgettable character who gives the film an air of diversity but in no way threatens to steal the movie from the Caucasian star. On the one hand, yes, great to allow black actors to play something other than drug dealers and criminals, on the other hand, it’s a shame they didn’t and still don’t get more fun parts. There is still, really, only one Eddie Murphy.
And let’s start with Eddie because, first, Beverly Hills Cop (1984) is the earliest of these films but, really, because this is my favourite of these movies and I really, really love Eddie Murphy. Yes, even still today, despite all the bad behaviour offscreen and some terrible acting onscreen. I even forgive him Vampire in Brooklyn because when Eddie was good he was amazing and he was just hitting his stride of amazingness in Beverly Hills Cop. He turned down Ghostbusters to make this film and even though Ghostbusters is – as I might have mentioned before – my favourite film of all time, I think he made the right call. Only the very lucky actors find a role that is so suited to them they are ever after associated with it, no matter how much other good stuff they make. Humphrey Bogart had Sam Spade. Clark Gable had Rhett Butler. Eddie Murphy has Axel Foley and even though I heart Coming to America (and I do – I heart it HARD), Murphy will always be to me more Foley than Akim. (And in defense of modern day Eddie, one word: Bowfinger. That movie just about makes up for all those awful Nutty Professor films in my mind.)
There are some definite problems with Beverly Hills Cop, the main one being that there is too much Judge Reinhold and not nearly enough Paul Reiser, let alone Bronson Pinchot. The weakness of Reinhold throws the movie out of whack because a true 80s cop action movie should be evenly balanced between the pair of cops, as Lethal Weapon managed. The only way around this is if the scene-stealing cop is counter matched with an equally scene-stealing villain and, again, Beverly Hills Cop fails here. Steven Berkoff is just not as jolly as he should be. A fun villain is pretty much crucial to the 80s cop movie, as Alan Rickman understood very well with his performance in Die Hard (although that German accent rivals even Pete Posthelthwaite’s Japanese turn in The Usual Suspects in the ridiculous stakes.) Also, there are too many cops here – bosses of bosses, cop pair one and cop pair two – and it is to the film’s great credit that they somehow don’t get confusing, but they are a bit distracting.
But because Murphy is such a great comedian and such an appealing actor to watch, none of this matters. He easily carries the film on his own, as he presumably wanted. It’s also in Beverly Hills Cop that we see Simpson & Bruckheimer’s modus operandi really beginning to take shape, just a year after releasing Flashdance and two years before Top Gun. Like the best of Bruckheimer and Simpson’s work, Beverly Hills Cop is so much better than what is ostensibly just a stream of music videos should be, and that is because it is, quite simply, a fun movie. There is never a moment in this film that is not fun.
This is not something that you can say about either Lethal Weapon or Die Hard. The latter, for a start, is wayyyy too long and suffers from tedious longeurs, especially when Rickman is offscreen. Willis is great but he’s a tamped down here, having to whisper and limp about on his own. Also, both Lethal Weapon and Die Hard are uncomfortably besotted with violence. The torture scene in Lethal Weapon, when Mel Gibson is being tasered and Glover is getting beaten to bits while his daughter – who appears to be in a silk nightie, for no obvious reason – dangles from a nearby machine, veers offputtingly close to torture porn. In Die Hard, it is considered a happy ending when Al learns to kill again while, similarly, it is seen as a triumph in Lethal Weapon when Riggs (Gibson) convinces Murtagh (Glover) to kill. While Die Hard has the best villain(s) (although Gary Busey’s awful white jumper in Lethal Weapon must get honourable mention here), their motivation is downright bonkers, while Lethal Weapon’s is even worse – Vietnam? What is this, the 70s? Beverly Hills Cop understands that, when it comes to bad guys, keep it simple: drugs. Another problem with Lethal Weapon is that it’s not quite as much fun to watch Gibson act like an out of control loon today as it probably was in the 80s, but that’s hardly the movie’s fault. Incidentally, isn’t it something to see how the Lethal Weapon filmmakers keep making Gibson take his top off, reminding us all that he was once seen as a great heart throb as opposed to the freaky freak he is today, prone to anti-Semitic and misogynistic rantings? And, to a lesser degree, check out Willis with hair! Ah, tempus fugit.
Lethal Weapon is probably the most perfectly balanced of all of these films between the two cops and villains, but is so generic that it now almost looks like a parody (and its clichés have been extensively parodied, such as the desert drop off which was then recreated in The Hangover), which is why it is probably the least memorable of the three. Die Hard is great because of Rickman and the setting (sorry – I really am a massive Willis fan but this is nowhere near his finest hour), and it gets points for featuring some classic 80s actors in small roles, such as Paul Gleason (aka, the principal in The Breakfast Club) as Deputy Police Chief Dwayne and William Atherton (aka, Dickless from Ghostbusters) as the pushy TV reporter. That sideplot about the TV reporters, incidentally, is, I think, brilliant, showing the outside reaction to the hostage taking as well as adding a bit of much needed extra humour to the movie – not even Rickman and his “classical education” jokes can carry a two and half hour film on his own.
But it’s Beverly Hills Cop that, for me, is really the greatest of the three because it is not about the action – it’s about the personality of the star and that is what carries these kinds of movies. For all the mockery that Bruckeheimer & Simpson provoked in the 80s and 90s, they did, at their best, understand that an actor’s charisma is what really holds a film together, not the car crashes. And this is why cop movies and action movies today just don’t hold a candle to the 80s equivalents. No special effect can compete with Murphy when he’s unleashed (“I’m looking for Victor Maitland, the grey haired gentleman, very dark skin, Capricorn”), and, with the noble exception of Nicolas Cage, it’s a rare actor with an outsize personality that is allowed to break through in the far more anodyne and cautious film industry today. Shia LaBoeuf, Jeremy Renner, Chris Evans, Ryan Reynolds: these are our action stars today. Modern times, eh?
Next week’s movie: The Princess Bride