Film - Eddie Murphy's Eighties

Eddie Murphy

Steve Taylor-Bryant takes a look at the eighties films of Eddie Murphy and the fact that everything he touched turned to gold…

"The royal penis is clean, your Highness."

With a laugh like an out of tune foghorn, Eddie Murphy woke up the 1980's and showed, like Richard Pryor before him, that an outrageous stand-up comedian could also have unlimited star potential on the big screen. The casting of Nick Nolte and Eddie Murphy in 48 Hours along with a ridiculous plot is one of those lucky Hollywood moments that shouldn't have worked but, in hindsight, looks like a stroke of genius.

White hard line cop Jack Cates (Nolte) is on the trail of a killer who took out his colleagues when he is forced to babysit a black two-bit criminal in the shape of Reggie Hammond. Hammond is bailed to Cates custody for 48 hours much to Cates’ dislike (insert early 80's racist cop humour here) but, knowing the cop killer has stolen money, Hammond is more than willing to help.

Eddie Murphy
I'm not goin' in for all that macho shit, Jack. I was great. Should have my dick bronzed.
I've always liked Nolte. He's similar in style to Jack Nicholson, in that Nolte plays Nolte very well. The uncomfortable relationship between a white policeman and a black criminal is played out very well by both participants and Murphy's comic timing brought a fantastic debut to eighties celluloid and one of Nolte's best performances. After Golden Globe nominations for his portrayal of Hammond, Murphy had set the bar very high for himself but cleared it in magnificent style in his next on screen caper.

Trading Places is still as funny now as it was in 1983 and probably more relevant given what has been going on in our financial institutions recently. Two brothers, Randolph and Mortimer (the excellent Ralph Bellamy and Don Ameche) who own Duke and Duke a commodities brokerage, make a bet with each other that Louis Winthorpe III (Dan Aykroyd), a very posh and extravagant employee and the petty criminal Billy Ray Valentine (Murphy) couldn’t swap lives. They arrange for Winthorpe to be fired and found in quite a compromising position by his fiancée which leaves him down and out and destitute, whilst they have Valentine take on the role of investment banker and have the life that Winthorpe once had.

Eddie Murphy
When I was a kid, if we wanted bubbles, we had to fart in the tub.
The storyline is a simple one but proof that perfect casting can make anything work. Aykroyd has quite an accomplished back catalogue but Trading Places is right up there with Ghostbusters and The Blues Brothers. Ameche and Bellamy are superb throughout and Murphy just steals the show ahead of Denholm Elliot’s Coleman.

Murphy then moved onto Best Defence which I am yet to see as well as continuing with Saturday Night Live until in 1984 he took on the role of a lifetime and the one that really launched him as the face of 1980’s movies – Axel Foley in Beverly Hills Cop.

Mikey (James Russo), a friend of Axel’s is from California and visits Detroit where Foley is a police detective. When Mikey is gunned down by an assassin named Zack (the always evil Jonathan Banks), Foley trails him to Beverly Hills where he discovers Zack works for a drug cartel boss Victor Maitland (Steven Berkoff) who also happens to own an art gallery as a front which is managed by Foley’s friend Jenny (Lisa Eilbacher). Beverly Hills policeman work differently to Detroit coppers so the BHPD chief Lt. Bogomil (Ronny Cox) doesn’t trust Foley’s intentions and tasks Detective Billy Rosewood (eighties legend Judge Rienhold) and his partner Sgt Taggart (John Ashton) to watch over Foley and keep him from causing any trouble, which doesn’t happen as Axel Foley sets about making sure Zack and Victor pay for murdering his friend.

Eddie Murphy
Donny, run and tell Miss Summers that, uh, Mister Achmed Foley is here to see her...
Cop films are two-a-penny, cop dramas are also flooded into the film market, but rarely is there such a mixture of both that works so astonishingly well as Beverly Hills Cop. Murphy brought a dark and emotional edge to the comedy he was more well known for, that transcended any normal policeman performance in a film. Reinhold and Ashton ground the humour and script which allows Murphy to get carried away with Foley as a character, producing possibly the best action comedy of the entire decade.

After Beverly Hills Cop any project taken by Murphy was guaranteed bums on seats but didn’t necessarily bring with it any guarantee that the newfound fortune and fame would keep Murphy performing consistently but rest might. It was two years until we saw Eddie Murphy again in the 1986 hit comedy The Golden Child.

Eddie Murphy plays Chandler Jarrell who is a detective that specialises in lost children. He is informed he is the chosen one and picked to search for a young Buddhist Mystic supposedly taken by an evil sorcerer. Jarrell really doesn’t believe in the occult and religious magic but as he searches for the young boy he uncovers a lot of ritual acts and demon worship.

Eddie Murphy
Only a man whose heart is pure can wield the knife, and only a man whose ass is narrow can get down these steps. And if mine's is such an ass, then I shall have it.
The Golden Child was panned by critics and film viewers alike upon release but in time I have grown to like the movie. It certainly doesn’t rank up there with Murphy’s best but it certainly isn’t the worst film ever made.

Reigniting the wave of euphoria he had gotten earlier in his relatively short career was next for Murphy with the much anticipated sequel to Beverly Hills Cop. I am not a huge fan of sequels and can probably count on one hand those films that have enhanced the franchise created by the original movie, Beverly Hills Cop II is definitely one those films.

When Lt. Bogomil is gunned down and near-fatally wounded Taggart and Rosewood (Ashton and Reinhold) bring Axel Foley back to Beverly Hills to help them find out who tried to kill Bogmil and catch the Alphabet criminal that seems to be tied to the act.

Eddie Murphy
How the fuck can you steal a house? This...my uncle's house!
BH2 was stunning. Back were the original cast that gelled so well in the first film, a close friend of Foley is shot which allows Murphy to retain that darker edge of the first film and make his performance all about a personal vendetta. Reinhold was his usual 1980’s star but the surprise was, for me, how much better Ashton was as Taggart. He stole more scenes than I thought he would and his section of being Gerald Ford was comedy gold. We would have to wait until another decade to see if the third instalment was a good (it wasn’t) and we are still awaiting the fourth to be released at the time of writing this.

By the time 1987 and BH2 had passed the decade was coming to an end and the world around us was changing. Murphy wouldn’t become prolific in his releases until the 1990’s but the end of the 80’s still saw a television special where Murphy played, along with various roles, James Brown. But there was still time to release two more films. Would 1998’s royal adventure Coming to America perform better than Golden Child? Could Murphy be more than just Axel Foley? Yes, yes he could.

Coming to America saw Murphy bring his Saturday Night Live thoughts to the story he wrote and was the first of many films where we would see Murphy play multiple characters, alongside America’s very popular (at the time) Arsenio Hall. Coming to America saw Prince Akeem of Zamunda turning 21 years of age and on the orders of his father, King Jaffe Joffer (James Earl Jones), he must marry. Akeem doesn’t want to marry another African woman he has never met and decides to move the promised land of America to search for a wife of his own choosing. After flipping a coin with his personal aide Semmi (Hall) it is decided they will travel to New York City and end up in the Queens district. He meets Lisa (Shari Headly) and falls in love, despite her being with Mr. “Soul Glo” Darryl. Akeem eventually returns to Zamunda and marries Lisa.

Eddie Murphy
What do you know from funny, ya bastard?
Hall and Murphy basically play out a very long SNL sketch. Akeem, the soul singer Randy Watson, and Barbershop duo Saul and Clarence saw Murphy show his impression talents as he moved the story along as multiple characters, his Jewish customer Saul a particular highlight. Maybe not the most classic of films but certainly a fantastic view into a performer’s mind.

The 1980’s ended with Murphy taking on writing, directing and performing duties alongside his hero Richard Pryor in Harlem Nights.

Murphy played Quick who as an orphaned seven year old saves the life of gambling king Sugar Ray (Pryor). Twenty years later Sugar Ray and his surrogate son Quick run a casino with a brothel attached in 1930’s Harlem, New York. Sugar Ray and Quick must protect their business from the rising families in organised crime as well as corrupt police officers.

Eddie Murphy
Oh, he proposed to her four times already, said he would leave his wife & kids and convert from Catholic to Baptist. Now you know that's some mean pussy to make a man change gods.
The film was crucified upon release with both Murphy’s directing and screenplay marked out for horrendous criticism. The film itself is not great and certainly was never going to win any awards but looking back and rewatching for this article, I feel happy in my thoughts that Harlem Nights is in fact a real gem of a movie. Forget intellectual writing, that was never going to be Murphy’s strong point, and forget the direction, as not all film stars have Clint Eastwood’s abilities behind a lens. Just marvel if you will at two of the world’s best stand-ups on-screen together and reminisce at the world we could have had more of.

Image - IMDb.