‘Beverly Hills Cop: Axel F.’ Review: Eddie Murphy Works Hard to Act Game in a Sequel Made to Tickle Your Nostalgia

Nostalgia, when it comes to reviving an old movie series, can be axiomatic. Every so often you see a genuine great piece of nostalgia — like “Creed” or the 2009 “Star Trek” reboot or the 2014 “Godzilla.” But then there’s the kind of nostalgia represented by “Beverly Hills Cop: Axel F.” Plotted like a generic police-corruption thriller, lit with cruddy efficiency, pausing every 10 minutes or so for a “light” moment, the movie is no “Beverly Hills Cop.” But it’s better than the ballistic noise orgy that was “Beverly Hills Cop II” (1986) or the clunky retro mess of “Beverly Hills Cop III” (1994), so I guess we should be grateful. And I suspect that a lot of viewers who grew up in the ’80s will be.

Let’s be clear, though, about the level of nostalgia this movie is aiming for. “Axel F.” is studded with moments that are designed to be time-machine triggers, all staged to make you go, “Oh, yeah, I remember that!” Like early on, when Eddie Murphy, as the reckless and redoubtable Detroit cop Axel Foley, commanders a snow plough and speeds through the rainswept streets, smashing cop cars, leaving a trail of addled observers in his wake (“Goddamn Foley!”), the entire overlong sequence pumped up by what may be the most bombastic song ever heard in a “Beverly Hills Cop” movie, Bob Seger’s “Shakedown” (from “B.H. Cop II”), with its cloying syncopated-cool monotony (“Shakedown! Breakdown! Takedown… everybody wants into the crowded line!”).

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Or take the moment when Axel, reunited in Beverly Hills with his estranged daughter, Jane (Taylour Paige), who’s now a defense attorney, defends the cheap maroon suit he’s wearing (“For $39.99 this suit is off the chain, Jane! Hey, that rhymed!”). Or Axel, in his Detroit jacket and Adidas, skulking through a ludicrously baroque mansion brandishing his gun, accompanied by a vaguely hip-hop-ish bass-heavy update of Harold Faltermeyer’s “Axel’s Theme.” Or the checklist of token appearances by actors from “Beverly Hills Cop” (look, it’s Paul Reiser, still lovably disgruntled! It’s Bronson Pinchot’s Serge, still mangling English! It’s Judge Reinhold, looking so lost and haunted you’d never guess he was ever goofy!). In each case, the simple reminder of a situation, a character, a flavor from “Beverly Hills Cop” is supposed to leave us clapping our hands like seals.

What the movie is really out to tap into is that old 1980s “high-powered” life-is-a-blockbuster feeling. The ’80s, at least in popular culture, was the definition of a carefree decade (in terms of movies, it could have been called: How we learned to stop worrying and love the popcorn schlock on steroids). And “Beverly Hills Cop: Axel F.” is engineered to make us feel, for a couple of hours, as carefree now as we did then. That’s why the whole cash-grab tackiness of the movie isn’t necessarily a liability. It’s actually part of the package.

I’ve always thought the story of how the original “Beverly Hills Cop” came to be was significant — that it was conceived as a straight-up police thriller starring Sylvester Stallone, and then, once Eddie Murphy came aboard, it was turned into a comedy. The motormouth effrontery of Murphy’s early-’80s screen personality, back when he still radiated joy in what he was doing, held the movie together, but “Beverly Hills Cop” was always a patchy, catch-as-catch-can hybrid. And now, with “Axel F.,” a parade of watchable clichés (not just retro-cop-thriller clichés but Eddie Murphy clichés) staged by director Mark Molloy in a slovenly utilitarian style, the series comes full circle: the product/schlock of the ’80s meets the product/schlock of Netflix. Welcome to nostalgia minus the soul!

Full disclosure (though it’s one I’ve made before): I’ve never liked the “action comedy” genre. I’m perfectly capable of enjoying a movie like “Bad Boys: Ride or Die” (or, years ago, “The Last Boy Scout,” or “48 HRS.,” which I still think is the “Citizen Kane” of action comedies, and an infinitely better movie than “Beverly Hills Cop”). But I’m sorry, the genre rarely thrills me, because in most cases there’s an annoying contradiction at its center. Watching the “straight” action-crime-movie parts, we’re supposed to feel invested; watching the comedy parts, we’re the opposite of invested — someone like Eddie Murphy mouthing off may crack us up, but he’s also telling us that the whole thing doesn’t matter. So the audience lurches back and forth between “investment” and not giving a damn. When the comedy happens, the plot stops dead (and if the comedy falls flat, that means the whole movie stops dead).

“Bad Boys: Ride or Die” demonstrates how much speed and flair and even surprise can still be applied to action-comedy trash. It’s a far better ride than “Axel F.” But, of course, what we’re here to see is Eddie Murphy, as the sixtysomething but still street-smart Axel, and Murphy, who seemed like a replicant in the last two “B.H. Cop” movies, bestirs himself this time. He’s really trying — to be not just testy but angry, to inject a touch of renegade conviction into the old Axel brashness. But he’s still got a tinge of that eerie late-period Eddie detachment.

Early on, when Axel is seated in the stands at a Red Wings game, where he’s out to foil some thieves, it looks like the film might actually be trying to upgrade the character to the 21st century. Axel does a riff about hockey to the young white cop he’s brought along, and Murphy turns it into a scathing denunciation of white myopia. I chuckled and thought: That’s promising! But then the film drops that idea entirely. Following up on it would have required a script that didn’t sound like it was pasted together out of old drafts.

The movie is built around Axel trying to salvage his relationship with Jane, played by the gifted Taylour Paige with so much standoffish lawyerly efficiency that she really never seems like Axel’s daughter. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, in a beard that makes him look like an Oberlin philosophy professor, is Bobby, the LAPD homicide detective who used to be involved with Jane, and is therefore Axel’s Oedipal rival; this is what sets up the pair’s buddy-cop hostility. Jane is defending an innocent kid who got framed as a cop killer, and the movie is about unearthing the conspiracy, which involves a drug cartel and Kevin Bacon as an officer so smooth you know he’s not on the level.

There are a few funny moments, like when Axel is razzing the difference between his last name and Jane’s, or the scene where he tries to convince a Black parking attendant that they’re both brothers, so can’t he just borrow a car? The scene in a cartel homie bar, with Luis Guzmán as a drug runner singing karaoke, isn’t bad; if you squint, for two minutes you can almost pretend you’re in “48 HRS.” A helicopter escape sequence, with Bobby piloting the chopper along the ground, finds the right fusion of action and yucks. All of this might tickle your nostalgia bone — but, of course, the difference between then and now is that in the 40 years since “Beverly Hills Cop,” there have been 400 action comedies spun out of these same tropes. “Beverly Hills Cop: Axel F.” is just one more of them.

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