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…?