Beverly Hills Cop – a classic film?

What constitutes a “classic” film?

I pondered this question – in a vague, gentle, back-of-the-head kind of way – while I was watching Beverly Hills Cop last night. I’ve enjoyed BHC every time I’ve seen it, and yesterday was no exception. Purchasing BHC2 (which I haven’t seen for many a year) for £1.99 from CD-Wow recently provided an excellent excuse to introduce Mrs. Ark to the pleasures of Axel Foley and his escapades in the titular upmarket district of Los Angeles.

This is a film that many would call a classic 80s movie, and indeed it is enormously entertaining. There is of course Eddie Murphy’s brilliant performance, in a career-defining turn; the genius theme tune and score from Harold Faltermeyer; Martin Brest’s crisp direction; the excellent photography in Detroit and Beverly Hills; a great supporting cast; etc etc.

I wouldn’t deny any of these things, but as enjoyable as it is, I couldn’t give it a 5 stars out of 5 rating. A 5 out of 5 for me denotes a perfect film that goes beyond mere technical and artistic excellence – it has something meaningful to say about the world, or society, or life in general. Even as I’m writing this, I’m finding it difficult to put my finger on what makes a film truly 5 star for me. There’s that moment where a film can transcend being mere entertainment, and it actually touches your soul – it makes you see something differently, or gives you an experience you haven’t had before. That’s the indefinable magic of cinema I suppose, and probably why we’re all film fans in the first place.

So, does the word “classic” only denote those films that reach that lofty plane of filmmaking that extends the boundaries of cinema? Not necessarily, I think. Calling BHC a classic of the 80s, or a classic of its genre is dead right.  Films can be classics without necessarily being world-shattering pieces of cinema. BHC turned out to be an excellent genre piece that did everything that was asked of it. It was funny, it had memorable action, memorable bad guys, amusing sidekicks, good music – a prime example of 80s Hollywood. In short, it did everything right without re-inventing the wheel. And in this case, the wheel did not need to be re-invented.

There are several yardsticks by which a film could be defined as a classic: it is groundbreaking or taboo-busting in some way; it might be technically revolutionary; it broke box-office records; or, simply how popular it is with people many years later (look at It’s a Wonderful Life). BHC was extremely popular when it came out and as far as I can tell, remains popular to this day – so much so that a fourth outing is currently being developed with Murphy onboard.

In many ways, the label “classic” is beside the point. A good film is a good film, regardless of whether it qualifies as a “classic” in the mind of the viewer. But it is reassuring to me that a film can be great without being revolutionary. Maybe it makes me feel less guilty for enjoying those films that are just nice and straightforward, or that are, shall we say, less than perfect.

Now, I wonder if BHC2 is an 80s “classic” as well…?

Published by Gavin Midgley

Freelance film journalist, blogger and geek.

2 replies on “Beverly Hills Cop – a classic film?”

  1. They’re both 1980s classics! This, albeit, coming from a guy who once wrote that Greg Beeman’s unfortunate rendezvous with the Corey’s (Mr Haim and Feldman) in License To Drive was a ‘classic’ product of the 1980s.Traditionally, the classic, in whatever field (be it car, painting, or film), is something that has proven its excellence over time. Yet, a classic is as much a TCM TV channel ‘classic’ that is invariably black and white and made prior to 1967, as it is James Cameron’s worst movie Titanic from 1997. The use of the word is probably over-used these days, and perhaps it has lost some of its meaning but I always use it very subjectively. Like if Mac and Me had some profound affect on me as a child, I’d term it a classic, but thankfully it didn’t, so I don’t. Yet, a lot of the films I watched growing up in the 1980s are classics to me because they formed my window on cinema. A film has to prove its worth over time but it doesn’t need to be the greatest, most influential, most successful, most critically-acclaimed piece of work. Citizen Kane is as much a classic as the era-defining Risky Business regardless of quality. Beverly Hills Cop was a big part in Don Simpson’s high-concept legacy, while its sequel was one of the better examples of an ever-increasing franchise culture.

  2. Daniel: very good points. And I would definitely agree that the word “classic” is over-used these days, but then again, after a century of cinema, there are so many films that might be deserving of that label. I wouldn’t call Titanic a “classic” film either, but it made such an impression on so many people, I fear I would be in a minority.

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