Beverly Hills Cop

Years ago one of my friends ironically purcahsed a Christ action figure. She did this not because the idea of enshrining Christ in plastic was funny to her - although it is kind of amusing to take this omnipotent figure and reduce him to the same level as a mere superhero. No, she did it because the accessory that accompanied Christ in his blister packaging was a scale replica of the ten commandment tablets - which was funny because Christ actually overturned the 10 commandments in favor of a more generalized "love your God and love your neighbor" in Ephesians 2:15. (Thanks Google!) This toy appealed to her sense of irony because it was meant to promote religious behavior, but by incorrectly equating Christ with Moses, it was actually promoting religious ignorance.

A lot of 80's cop movies are coming from a similarly muddled place. They exist in a moralistic world where the need for justice is absolute, but the contempt for "doing things by the book" (or "the book" in general) is also absolute - which is crazy, because "the book" actually refers to "the law", and the law is how most rational human beings pursue justice. Unfortunately, those movies don't seem to recognize that they're built on contradictory principles, because they present their law breaking heroes without any sense of irony.

Take for example Beverly Hills Cop. The titular police officer is Axel Foley, a Detroit undercover officer who is always one step away from getting kicked off the force because of his bad attitude and his blunders. One night an old friend visits Axel, and the two of them go out drinking. When they return to Axel's house at the end of the night they are met by some thugs who knock Axel out and kill his friend. When Axel wakes up, he demands to be put in charge of the investigation, but the chief tells him no - he's too close to it, too emotional. So Axel sneaks off to California to do it his own way.

Alright, fine: Axel wants justice for his friend. That's understandable. But once he's in Beverly Hills he absolutely can't wait for the local cops to get search warrants to investigate the guy he thinks is responsible for his friends murder, so he takes things into his own hands... then when the California police tell him to knock it off he actively sabotages them. (Because it's a comedy he puts a banana in the tail pipe of their car, amongst other shenanigans.) If Axel's plan was to get vengeance for his friend by murdering his killer then I would get it - in that case he would have no choice but to be a vigilante. But he's not setting out to kill anyone - he's trying to solve a case. So why can't he let the the local cops meticulously build a case that it will be strong enough to win when they get to court? Axel has to know that a judge is not going to allow any of his ill-gotten evidence to enter the official record.

Look: I understand how this genre works, and I understand that asking Axel to do real police work instead of something cool is pretty silly. However, what's bothering me is not that this movie is unrealistic - of course it's unrealistic! - it's that this movie is unrealistic and ignorant.  Films like Death Wish do not take place in our world - they take place on some more abstract plane, where the issue is not about the law, it's about morality; the issue is less about putting away the bad guys as it is about scourging the Earth of capital E Evil. I'm not totally comfortable with that world view, but I can understand the moral argument it's making. In contrast, Beverly Hills Cop explicitly sets itself in our world by making it clear that there is a legal precedence that Axel should be following - but then it just waves it away. 

I think it's problematic that Beverly Hills Cop advances the idea that the problem with our legal system is that there's too much "doing things by the books" and we would be better off with more Axel Foleys who are committed to getting the job done, legality be damned. But when we first meet Axel he's in the middle of a botched sting, and his superior officer makes it clear that he regularly screws up his investigations. He got lucky on the main case in the movie because the villain was importing counterfeit bonds and those are so rare they are easier to track - but would Axel have any luck with a more typical case? I have some real problems with writing this guy a blank check just because he's funny and ballsy.

Of course, this is a movie, so things work out fine for Axel in the end - but they only work out fine because Axel kills the bad guy in self defense during the film's climax. Once the bad guy is dead there is no trial, and because there is no trial there is no issue with all of Axel's illegal evidence, therefore Axel's counterproductive behavior doesn't come back around to bite him in the ass. Once you start to unravel that chain of logic, you start to see that this film shares the same violent heart of a Death Wish, because it's only possible ending is Axel murdering someone - but Beverly Hills Cop doesn't want to be honest about it's interior darkness. It wants to make it look like Axel's just a nice guy trying to do the right thing by his friend, but really, the only thing he's doing is stalking another human being with an eye towards vengeance. In this case, it worked out okay because he happened to be on the trail of the right guy - but what happens if he suspects the wrong guy?

I don't think the constant waving away of "the book" would bother me if I had any sense that people actually understood what "the book" was. Unfortunately, a lot of the people that love to rant about how broken the system is don't seem to understand what the system actually is - and I think that's because they've been getting their information from claptrap films like Beverly Hills Cop, where "the book" is something that only the square people follow. Unfortunately, you can't throw away the book that lightly, because we actually need laws so we don't descend into winner-take-all anarchy. After all, there's a reason why people still believe in the 10 Commandments even though Jesus overturned them 2,000 years ago - it's because our world makes more sense when we follow the specific words of the book instead of just deciding that it's cool if we just do our own thing on our own terms.

Winner: Draw

Beverly Hills Cop on IMDB