Axel F attempts a new spin on renegade police.

“You fucked up a perfectly good lie,” Eddie Murphy’s Axel Foley says to two Beverly Hills police officers in the smash 1984 hit Beverly Hills Cop. Foley, a Detroit police officer conducting his own freelance investigation in California, just convinced the two straitlaced local officers to join him in a strip club, where Foley foiled an attempted robbery. Covering everyone, he tells the BHPD lieutenant that in fact it was “supercops” Billy Rosewood (Judge Reinhold) and John Taggart (John Ashton) who made the bust. When the abashed officers admit that Foley did it all, Foley is befuddled. “I’m trying to figure you guys out, but I haven’t yet,” he says. “But it’s cool.”

It’s hard to overstate how famous the first Beverly Hills Cop made Eddie Murphy. The movie topped the box office for 13 straight weeks, from December 1984 to March 1985, and became the highest-grossing R-rated movie in history. Murphy made a triumphant return to host Saturday Night Live; he made Paramount piles of money; he made an album so dead-serious that his cover photo—Eddie leaning against a white piano—was taken by Annie Leibovitz. (He was so popular that not even releasing the execrable song “Party All the Time” could make him less popular.)

The movie that made all this happen was one of the great Hollywood star vehicles of all time, a movie custom-designed to showcase Eddie Murphy’s strengths: his motormouthed wisecracking, his blue-collar smarts, his high spirits, his cool. It did all this while making him that icon of 1980s movie toughness: the maverick cop. Axel Foley’s Blackness is expertly played off the white-bread cops he encounters in Beverly Hills. Foley knows how they do things in Detroit, so when he lands in the fantasyland of Beverly Hills, he makes it his mission to teach the by-the-book department what it takes to crack a real crime in a real city.

Axel F is the first movie in the series to consider the revolutionary notion that cops lying and covering up their misdeeds might be bad.

You might not remember this the way you remember Serge’s mincing malapropisms or Murphy’s infectious laugh, but the narrative arc of the first Beverly Hills Cop is, literally, Foley demonstrating to the Beverly Hills officers the power of breaking the rules: talking his way into warehouses without a warrant, disobeying direct orders, charging into a house with gun drawn, and covering up all the misconduct he happened to commit while battling a drug-smuggling art gallery owner. After the movie’s climactic shootout, Foley congratulates that same BHPD lieutenant—not for saving lives, but for lying his ass off to the chief.

The first sequels maintained the original’s assertion that police work, when done correctly—that is, with a healthy disregard for stuffy regulations—is a force for good. In 1987’s Beverly Hills Cop II, Foley, Rosewood, and Taggart are forced to deal with a bureaucrat who’s been installed as the chief—a moron who, everyone agrees, doesn’t know anything about real police work. (Despite his meddling, the buddy cops still manage to foil a burglary ring and kill all the bad guys.) In 1994’s Beverly Hills Cop III, the villains are a dirty Secret Service agent and the corrupt head of security for an amusement park, but the cops themselves fight doggedly—machine-gunning security guards, etc.—to bring them down.

Thirty years later, Beverly Hills Cop: Axel F arrives in an entirely different moment for police officers on screen. These days, it is hard to imagine a studio designing a vehicle for a rising young Black star-in-the-making in which he played a cop. A superhero? Sure. A guy with a badge and a gun? No way. And at a time when the spotlight on police is not highlighting their heroism but revealing their flaws, Axel F becomes the first movie in the series to consider the revolutionary notion that cops lying and covering up their misdeeds might be bad.

Axel F’s opening sequence posits Axel Foley less as an officer of the law and more as a mascot of the city of Detroit, driving around in his crappy car, waving to his pals out on the street, and good-naturedly taking shit from kids. After the de rigueur opening shootout and car chase, Foley’s long-suffering chief, played by Paul Reiser, falls on his sword to save Axel’s career—not because he thinks that Detroit needs Officer Axel Foley, but because he thinks that Axel Foley needs the job. Foley may be a dinosaur of a cop, but he’s got nothing else in his life.

Foley heads back to California because his buddy Rosewood tells him that Foley’s estranged daughter, Jane (Taylour Paige), is in trouble. She’s an attorney trying to clear an accused cop-killer who she believes was framed. Rosewood agrees and has fallen out with the chief, his old partner Taggart, over Rosewood’s claims that a narcotics task force led by Cade Grant (Kevin Bacon) is corrupt.

The movie’s story, by former Los Angeles detective Will Beall, is both convoluted and as simple as can be. Through all the twists and turns, never for a second do we doubt that Jane and Rosewood have it right. From his first appearance on screen, Bacon is hilariously untrustworthy. (“He’s the first police captain I’ve ever seen in $2,000 Gucci shoes,” Foley observes.) With Rosewood and Taggart mostly sidelined due to oldness and unfamousness, the movie gives Cade Grant an opposing force in the BHPD in the form of Bobby Abbott (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), an enlightened, by-the-book detective who’s trying to untangle the murder case—and who’s willing to follow the evidence where it leads.

If the dramatic arc of Beverly Hills Cop was Axel teaching Rosewood and Taggart that it’s OK to lie sometimes when you’re a cop—that you don’t have to do everything by the book—the dramatic arc of Beverly Hills Cop: Axel F is Axel discovering the nearly unchecked power of a cop who’s willing to lie about everything. A crooked cop in a position of power can make lots of people’s lives difficult: the fall guy stuck in prison, accused of a crime he didn’t commit; Jane, dangled out the window by masked men; Foley himself, ambushed on an L.A. street by gunmen sent by Grant.

When Foley asks Grant about the freelance thugs he uses for his departmental dirty work, Grant smirks—and reminds Foley of the creative policing in his own history. “You know what I’m talking about, Axel,” he says. “You’re no altar boy yourself.” Grant claims that he’s under enormous pressure to solve the murder of one of his task force’s officers, and what will he do to secure the necessary evidence? “I will do whatever it takes,” he says. It takes planting drugs in Bobby Abbott’s car; it takes kidnapping Jane; it takes torturing Billy Rosewood.

It’s not that Axel Foley is unaware of the concept of police misconduct. (While getting arrested by beat officers who order him not to reach for his badge, he cracks, “I been a cop for 30 years. I’ve been Black a whole lot longer. Trust me, I know better.”) It’s that he—like the movie—makes a distinction between a real bad cop and a good bad cop who sometimes breaks every single rule, but for the right reasons. This is a delicate distinction to pull off, and it’s no match for the demands of the old-fashioned action-comedy. By the time Foley and his two partners, Bobby and Billy, lead a wild police chase down L.A. freeways, the movie’s having a good old time. “Never been on this end of a pursuit before,” Abbott mutters. “It’s an acquired taste,” says Rosewood, grinning like a madman. “Has he taken you to a strip club yet?”

In the movie’s final faceoff, as Foley and Grant point guns at each other, Grant tries to erase the distinction between them once and for all. “We’re just a couple of lonely old cops,” he says. “What are we gonna do? Kill each other? What’s the point in that?”

“Ain’t nobody trying to hear that shit you talking,” Foley barks. “You’re not a cop. You’re a criminal!”

In the year 2024, I’m not convinced quite so many viewers are going to be interested in parsing the differences between Axel Foley and Cade Grant. It’s been three decades since the last Beverly Hills Cop movie, long enough for a sea change in the way viewers think about police—hell, long enough for the real-life officer who played Axel Foley’s boss to be accused, himself, of being a corrupt cop. I’m sure Beverly Hills Cop: Axel F will be perfectly successful for Netflix, drawing an audience hungry for nostalgia—nostalgia the movie serves up willingly. It’s nostalgic for the era of big movie stars whose personality can carry a whole movie. It’s nostalgic for the big gunfights of the 1980s, our heroes taking out machine-gun-toting bad guys with deadeye aim. Most of all—despite its gestures toward the complicated present—it’s nostalgic for a time when the audience believed there could be such a thing as a good bad cop. I wonder if the audience will believe that now.

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