Step on It: “Beverly Hills Cop III” and “Speed”

Following the Peter Principle, Beverly Hills Cop III rises to its level of incompetence in its first scene and stays there. Once again, we’re in Detroit, and maverick cop Axel Foley (Eddie Murphy) is staking out a ring of carjackers. Director John Landis, working for the third time with Murphy (after Trading Places and Coming to America), adds a touch that promises a return to the pop-fed wit that distinguished Landis’ Animal House. While Axel crouches outside the garage, mapping out a strategy with some other cops, a pair of rotund mechanics inside begin gyrating and lip-syncing to a Supremes oldie blaring from a tape deck. This sudden musical interlude has a wonderful randomness. But it leads nowhere: In a few minutes, the dancing duo will be machine-gunned to death.

Beverly Hills Cop III is a depressing, abhorrent spectacle — big-studio cynicism incarnate. Products like this roll out of Hollywood every summer, while filmmakers with something valid to say languish in obscurity. In the past, the shrewd barracudas of Tinseltown could put together a lowest-common-denominator package and still manage to come up with something entertaining. I honestly don’t know whom Cop III is meant for, except the executives at Paramount, who have watched their other franchises (the Indiana Jones series, the Star Trek series with the original crew, the Friday the 13th series) come to a close and want to revive the Axel tentpole. Why is Axel returning to Beverly Hills after seven years? The script, credited to Steven E. de Souza, puts Axel on the trail of a corrupt security mogul (Timothy Carhart) who operates a counterfeit ring out of the theme park Wonderworld — a bald swipe at Disneyworld, which has been parodied beyond death, as has the 90210 lifestyle. Axel is returning to Beverly Hills because Eddie Murphy and John Landis need a hit. Cop III is as soulless as they come.

Landis is a past master of contrast, as he showed in the horror-comedy An American Werewolf in London, and in that great elevator scene in The Blues Brothers — Landis kept cutting from the heroes standing in an elevator playing peaceful Muzak to an army of cops outside noisily preparing to nab them. In Beverly Hills Cop III, Landis tries to bounce between action and comedy, but he leans more heavily towards the action, which isn’t very well staged. When Axel, trapped in an amusement-park ride, leaps from one car to another to save a couple of kids, the scene has no snap, no tension, and obviously no plausibility. Landis is good at bashing vehicles together, but any of us could do the same given $60 million. He fails to do what Martin Brest, who directed the first Cop, did so deftly: contrast the streetwise Axel with the foppish pretentiousness of Beverly Hills. The only contrast Landis achieves here is explosion/one-liner/explosion.

Has Eddie Murphy completely lost his comic gifts? He’s occasionally amusing here, but he lets his big, horsey grin do too much of his work. Murphy played straight man to visiting lunatics Bronson Pinchot in Cop I and Gilbert Gottfried in Cop II; he seems to play straight man to everyone in Cop III. Where are the inspired ad-libs that made even the bloated Cop II bearable? Given the chance to score points off a pair of grim-faced Wonderworld security guards the way he did off a couple of cops in the original (“You’re not going to fall for the banana in the tailpipe?”), Axel just cracks a few lame jokes. Cop III does bring back Pinchot as Serge, gallery owner turned weapons dealer (huh?), but this time it’s a breeze for him to steal his scenes from Murphy. The star looks tired, demoralized, in it for the money. Murphy once swore never to make another Beverly Hills Cop movie and never to work with John Landis again. He should have kept both promises.

As if to show Landis and Murphy what a real piece of summer entertainment looks like, former cinematographer Jan De Bont (Die Hard, Basic Instinct) has made his directorial debut with Speed, a gleefully reckless and unabashedly “high concept” summer thriller. The plot? Mad bomber Dennis Hopper has placed an explosive on a Los Angeles bus. When the bus goes above 50 miles an hour, the bomb is armed. If the bus then dips below 50, the bomb goes off. I would like to think that the first-time screenwriter, Graham Yost, lit a cigar and poured himself a cold beer after coming up with this idea; it’s so purely a Hollywood-summer-movie premise that it seems entirely fresh, and the surprise of the movie is that it doesn’t get bogged down in boring, needless subplots or flabby attempts at characterization. That bus, full of passengers, is on the streets and freeways of L.A., and it cannot stop. It must keep going and going, like an Energizer Bunny with a bomb inside the bass drum.

De Bont keeps pounding the drum for two hours; the movie never lets up. Crackerjack cop Jack Traven (Keanu Reeves) manages to board the bus, and he spends most of the film figuring out how to keep the bus going, swerving around and bashing through all the obstacles that the bomber (and De Bont and Yost) leaves in his path. Along for the ride is Annie (Sandra Bullock), a passenger who has recently lost her driver’s license for speeding; naturally, she’s the one who has to take the wheel after the bus driver is put out of action, and Bullock (from last summer’s Demolition Man) takes the wheel of the movie, too. A warm and sane presence, she picks up the slack from her bulked-up co-star Keanu Reeves, who, in his first turn as an action hero, is plausible enough but a bit callow. As for Hopper, he spends most of his screen time in his ratty apartment monitoring the action, but he makes his presence felt throughout the movie — he’s like a psychotic Zeus testing the mettle of Hercules, and this film gives its Hercules far more than twelve labors. I’m sure that Speed, like Die Hard, will be often imitated, never duplicated. It devotes itself to the moment-to-moment ingenuity necessary to keep that bus going, and the movie rockets right along with it. On its own lowbrow terms, Speed is a triumph — a technical exercise so relentless, yet also so light of foot and heart, that it comes close to the summer-movie version of art.

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