The Golden Child

May 18, 2012

Two years have passed since Eddie Murphy’s Beverly Hills Cop vaulted into the company of the 10 most popular films ever made. In those two years, Murphy has kept busy, touring with his stand-up routine, making a pop album, and setting up his own movie production company.

The Golden Child is the first product of his new company, and it arrives with some pretty hefty expectations. Murphy’s track record has been impressive, and he seems to have canny instincts for what an audience wants.

Thus The Golden Child must prompt some head-scratching. It retains Murphy’s wise-cracking character, of course. That’s to be expected. But it plants him in the middle of an outlandish story that begins in Tibet and ends with a battle for the future of the world as we know it.

If that sounds peculiar, be assured it is only the tip of the narrative iceberg. The film opens with a scene of a child (J.L. Reate), a round little thing with luminous eyes and magical powers, being kidnapped from a Himalayan temple by a severe-looking fellow (Charles Dance, from Jewel in the Crown) who has the backing of the devil himself.

The deal is, this kid is the savior of the world or some jazz like that, and the evil ones want to kill him. The good ones, led by the exotic Charlotte Lewis, need to find The Chosen One, a man who will find the child and save the world.

Who else, you say, but Eddie Murphy, as the scene shifts to Los Angeles and Murphy is tapped for the job. The film veers from Murphy’s street humor to the supernatural events of the search for the kid. It’s a very odd mix, heavy with special effects (not particularly distinguished) and kung fu fighting.

Why did Murphy choose this project? His humor works best in the gritty, realistic world of 48 HRS. and Beverly Hills Cop, and while a side trip to Nepal offers a few opportunities for culture-shock gags, it is not his natural element.

Even the kookiness of the story would be acceptable if the film had any kind of crackle. But it’s lamely directed by Michael Ritchie, whose career continues to slide into hackdom (his previous films were Chevy Chase’s Fletch and Goldie Hawn’s Wildcats). He seems entirely absent from this movie, except as someone to point the camera at Eddie and let the star improvise.

Actually, given the subject matter, that directorial scheme may have been a good idea. The fact is that many of Murphy’s riffs are funny. The film barely exists, but Murphy himself has lost none of his timing, nor his gift for audience rapport. Every once in a while, he glances at the camera, as though to say, “Stay with me on this. I know where I’m going.”

Paramount Pictures was reportedly nervous about this odd film. It had good reason, but the movie is going to make some money, even if it doesn’t top Cop. Besides, Paramount can breathe easy knowing that Murphy has two releases scheduled for 1987: a concert film and Beverly Hills Cop II. With that promised, he’s allowed the occasional oddball project.

First published in the Herald, December 1986

In fact, it opened huge and made a lot of money—the audience desperately wanted Eddie. This was one of those moments when somebody’s career is so hot it absolutely does not matter what the actual movie is (see also Michael J. Fox, Secret of My Success). Maybe it served as an early indication of the fantasy element that comes into a curious number of Murphy’s movies.

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Coming to America

April 5, 2012

In his new movie, Coming to America, Eddie Murphy plays an African prince whose marriage is to be arranged by his parents. The king and queen, played regally by James Earl Jones and Madge Sinclair, have chosen a beautiful girl who has been raised to serve the prince and obey him unquestioningly. But wait. Our hero halts the proceedings. He wants a woman with an independent mind, a voice of her own. “Only a dog is to obey,” he says.

How could it be. Has Eddie Murphy’s consciousness been raised? The megapopular actor-comedian has been criticized of late (especially for his aptly titled concert movie, Eddie Murphy Raw) for demeaning and/or adolescent attitudes about women. But in Coming to America, Murphy wipes away some of the sourness of those criticisms with a sweet and likable movie.

The concept here is a reliable one. A privileged man, in this case Murphy’s Prince Akeem of the mythical kingdom of Zamunda, resists the idea of an arranged marriage and pretends to be a commoner in order to find a wife. This premise is so familiar that we all know what will happen—he’ll romance the woman, she’ll find out he isn’t what he seems to be, they’ll reconcile by the end.

Prince Akeem and his sidekick (Arsenio Hall) travel to the likeliest place to find the bride of a future king: Queens. New York, that is, where they spot the daughter (Shari Headley) of a fast-food maven (John Amos). She’s a dream, says Akeem, and the two Zamundians land jobs cooking French fries just to be near her.

The set-up, which includes an opening sequence in a lavish studio version of an African palace, contains some workable comic situations, although this movie is decidedly low-key. Murphy and director John Landis (they previously teamed on Trading Places) avoid the boffo laughs of a Beverly Hills Cop in favor of a more gently amusing tone. (One of the funniest moments here is a Trading Places in-joke involving that film’s Ralph Bellamy and Don Ameche.)

In some ways this is nice, and in some ways it means Coming to America isn’t as funny as Eddie’s usual. But the most agreeable result of this approach is that this film becomes Murphy’s first real romantic comedy, with smooches and sweet talk and slow dancing to a jukebox. It’s a role Murphy handles suavely, and he’s quite appealing as an innocent, a change from his hipster guise.

The film also provides the opportunity for Murphy and Hall to essay kooky character roles, under heavy makeup. Some of Murphy’s funniest moments come when he’s romping through these alternate incarnations: a loquacious barber, an ancient Jewish character, and a supremely over-the-hill singer who mangles a Whitney Houston song as he lunges about the stage in a powder-blue tuxedo, fronting his band, the Sexual Chocolate.

First published in the Herald, June 1988

It wasn’t the “earlier, funnier” Eddie Murphy, but it did mark a pleasant enough way to spend a summer evening at the multiplex in ’88. Landis and Murphy had a falling-out after the picture, although they later did Beverly Hills Cop 3, which didn’t work out for either man.


Best Defense

July 11, 2011

Strategic Murphy: Best Defense

The characters in Best Defense are concerned with building a tiny part that will control the defense systems of a new tank. So there’s a lot of talk about getting the right design, making sure it will work in the heat of battle, and all that.

I wonder if the people making this movie ever talked about their film in those terms. Best Defense is an embarrassing misfire, a film in which nobody seems to know what’s going on—on or offscreen.

It has to do with an unlucky engineer (Dudley Moore) whose design of a gyro for a new tank is a flop. Just after a disastrous test, he meets a stranger in a Mexican restaurant who turns out to be an engineer who’s actually solved the gyro problem—and he’s about to give it to a Russian spy. Except that he changes heart, drops the crucial info into Dudley’s briefcase, and disappears.

So Moore “discovers” the gyro in the end, but after he’s gotten the credit, and saved his company with it, new problems crop up. The thing may not work in battle after all. And, more immediately, the KGB man would like to get his gyro back.

Cut into this main plot is an episode that takes place two years later. The finished tank is being tested in the Kuwait desert by a lieutenant (Eddie Murphy) who manages, as the tank self-destructs, to steer the machine into the middle of a real war. The suspense here is: Will Moore change the part so that it will work in battle—and save Murphy and his crew?

If you think Paramount Pictures is gonna kill off Eddie Murphy, then your view of the economic realities of filmmaking is off-target. But if the attempted surprise doesn’t come off, what is Eddie Murphy doing here?

It’s a nothing part, and Murphy, an extremely funny fellow, contributes zilch to it. He’s billed as “Strategic Guest Star,” and rightly so, since his role takes up relatively little screen time. But Paramount is featuring him prominently in its ads, as though he had a full-fledged starring part.

Now, a lot of people are going to be disappointed when they come to the movie and don’t get Eddie. But Paramount probably figures this unfunny movie will generate bad word-of-mouth anyway—so if they emphasize Murphy’s presence, they can clean up in the first couple of weeks of release, and then have the film die a quick death.

Murphy’s poorness doesn’t stand out, because everybody’s pretty bad—except David Rasche, who plays the hep-talk spy with a comic ferociousness. As you watch the film, you realize that the tank turns into an unwitting metaphor for the movie itself. It’s flying apart at the seams, going in every direction but the right one and desperately in need of someone in charge. Filmmakers Gloria Katz and Willard Huyck may latch on to another good project, but they should probably put someone else in the driver’s seat—or director’s chair.

First published in the Herald, July 20, 1984

To answer the question implicitly posed in the final paragraph, Huyck and Katz next made the legendary  bomb Howard the Duck, and that movie’s nowhere near as bad as Best Defense. Eddie Murphy has expressed his embarrassment about this one; I remember seeing him on a talk show just before Beverly Hills Cop came out and he assured the audience that this would make up for Best Defense. Of course one feels bad for Dudley Moore, too. For being prescient about the whole war-in-Kuwait thing, the film must merit some retrospective points, as long as I don’t have to watch it again.


Beverly Hills Cop

April 5, 2011

You can take this one to the bank, folks: Eddie Murphy stands to reign supreme over this Christmas movie season. Advance word on his new film promised as much, and there’s nothing in the film itself to contradict the predictions.

Beverly Hills Cop is a variant on Clint Eastwood’s Coogan’s Bluff. Eastwood was a country cop gone to the big city in that film. Here, Murphy is a streetwise Detroit policeman who undergoes culture shock in the frour-frou restaurants and art galleries of Beverly Hills.

He’s there—against the orders of his Detroit superiors—to investigate the murder of a pal. With the help of a childhood friend (Lisa Eilbacher) and the reluctant aid of two local cops (one dopey: Judge Reinhold; one grumpy: John Ashton), he insolently tracks down a big shot (steely Steven Berkoff) who ordered the pal’s rub-out.

If that synopsis sounds too somber, don’t fret. Murphy is in high comic gear, and remember that 48 HRS was a hard-nosed copy/comedy movie that had people rolling in the aisles. Beverly Hills Cop isn’t as consistently good as 48 HRS, or Murphy’s other gonzo hit, Trading Places, but it’s a shrewdly mounted piece of commercial movie making.

Murphy, it is reported, makes up his own dialogue while staying within the dictates of a scene. If that’s true, his directors should tell him to keep on inventing, because he’s obviously got a precise sense of what makes him funny. Cop gives him plenty of opportunity to roll out his cocky brand of street bravado, even if some of the routines are vaguely familiar.

For instance, there’s a scene in which he rides herd over a quivering troupe of customs workers that’s held over from his superb barroom takeover in 48 HRS. And he’s starting to overuse his trademark wheezy laugh (Lisa Eilbacher imitates it at one point). But it doesn’t matter too much, because Murphy owns the screen when he’s on, and—like the characters he plays—he can get away with just about anything.

Director Martin Brest (of Going in Style) has filled in the cracks of the plot with weird little behavioral doodads for the supporting players. The fuzz who are supposed to keep tabs on Murphy during his stay are conventionally but effectively given comic personalities (At one point, Murphy sends them room service—while they’re sitting in a car parked outside his hotel, supposedly spying on him).

Odder still is the receptionist at Eilbacher’s art gallery, a young man of ambiguous ancestry and sexual persuasion (Bronson Pinchot, the inventor of the “Memo Minder” in Risky Business); and a hotel worker (Damon Wayans) who, with ingratiating good cheer, gives Murphy a pair of bananas.

Beverly Hills Cop would’ve grossed a bundle and a half without these diversions, but it’s nice that somebody cared to try to make a real movie, rather than a simple star vehicle. It’s nothing great, but this film is going to make Eddie Murphy’s loyal contingent of fans mighty well pleased.

First published in the Herald, December 8, 1984

The “turn the camera on Eddie and let him riff” technique was still working at this point; later, it wouldn’t (see Harlem Nights). Interesting about Martin Brest. He had made a very nice film, Going in Style, and then this became a smash, and he turned to a Kubrickian pace for his production output (nothing since 2003’s Gigli). Beverly Hills Cop II, of course, brought in Tony Scott as director, and the rest is the 1980s.


Harlem Nights

January 26, 2011

The opening credits are rather ominous, at least in retrospect: “Paramount Pictures Presents/In Association with Eddie Murphy Productions/A Film by Eddie Murphy/Eddie Murphy/Richard Pryor/Harlem Nights.” That’s a lot of Eddie Murphys. And there are two yet to go before the credit roll is over: “Executive Producer” and “Written and Directed by.”

Murphy, a conglomerate unto himself and a very talented fellow, appears to have overreached this time. Harlem Nights is obviously a cherished project, but the movie doesn’t seem to know what to do with itself. It looks like a film made by a man who wasn’t required to answer to anybody.

Murphy plays Quick, the adopted son of a classy Harlem nightclub owner named Sugar Ray (played by Murphy’s lifelong idol, Richard Pryor). Their business is flourishing in the late 1930s, until Manhattan’s crime lord (Michael Lerner) decides to take a bite. He sends his top henchman, a crooked cop (Danny Aiello), to threaten Sugar Ray or close him down.

All of this is the setup for Sugar Ray’s response, which is to unleash an elaborate retaliation along the lines of The Sting, while Quick romances the bad guy’s mistress (Jasmine Guy).

It is a bizarre movie. A scene will begin like something out of Beverly Hills Cop only to end up looking like Once Upon a Time in America. A lot of characters are killed in ways that are evidently supposed to be funny, but come off as peculiar.

An index of the film’s failure is the period design. The costumes are great, the music is beautifully chosen, the cars are vintage. But the behavior and language of the characters is absolutely rooted in the ’80s. There’s no effort to weed out anachronisms, or to conjure a sense of what Harlem must have felt like in the 1930s (despite a couple of authentic supporting performances by Redd Foxx and Della Reese). Everything is breezily superficial.

Two sequences come to mind as original. One is the prologue, in which Murphy’s character, as a child, first comes to Pryor and coolly shoots an adversary dead. The second is a boxing scene in which the black world champion is fighting a great white hope; as each boxer lands blows, the different halves of the crowd jump to their feet—exactly one half is white, the other black.

Among its other problems, Harlem Nights comes off as awfully mean-spirited toward women. This has been a criticism of Murphy before, but he seemed to be maturing pleasantly with his previous film, Coming to America, which was a charming love story. Harlem Nights is a step back in almost every way, and it displays no evidence that Murphy has any kind of touch as a director. Worst of all, he’s accomplished the unthinkable. He has made Eddie Murphy not funny.

First published in the Herald, November 18, 1989

A real dud. Pryor’s career, which had been a skyrocket earlier in the decade, was now winding down for a variety of sad reasons (he’d had his own self-directed flop a couple of years before this—Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life is Calling—which at least had some strange energy to it).