Hollywood has finally solved its Eddie Murphy problem

Eddie Murphy is back on screens with the legacy sequel ‘Beverly Hills Cop: Axel F’ (Getty/iStock)
Eddie Murphy is back on screens with the legacy sequel ‘Beverly Hills Cop: Axel F’ (Getty/iStock)

What makes a movie star disappear? Most of the time, when one of the most recognisable faces simply suddenly drops off the cinematic map, there’s a good reason for it – whether that’s offscreen scandals (Kevin Spacey, for instance), or a flop so execrable that their reputation is immolated overnight (Mike Myers’s putrid The Love Guru). But when it comes to celebrity vanishing acts, there have been few so mysterious, and so unwelcome, as that of Eddie Murphy.

This week, Murphy can be seen back on screens with what is probably his highest-profile project in a decade: Netflix’s Beverly Hills Cop: Axel F, a legacy sequel picking up some three decades after 1994’s Beverly Hills Cop III. For the first time in a very long while, Murphy is back in action mode, as the wise-cracking renegade police detective Axel Foley. It wasn’t Murphy’s breakthrough role – when he embarked on his first zeitgeist-seizing runout as Foley in 1984, he had already starred in 48 Hrs. and Trading Places, had rebuilt Saturday Night Live in his own sensational image, and had released Eddie Murphy: Delirious, still to date one of the most watched and significant stand-up comedy specials ever put to film. But the original Beverly Hills Cop was a new high, for Murphy and the action-comedy genre as a whole. It showcased much of what made him such a star: his charm; his charisma; that singular, infectious laugh. Everything that followed – the run of hit family comedies, cult classics such as Bowfinger, voice-work in the industry-changing Shrek franchise – was built on its foundations. Getting out of the Eddie Murphy business was one of Hollywood’s great modern mistakes. What a relief it is they’ve bought back in.

So where did he go? Between the release of the fourth Shrek film, Shrek Forever After, in 2010, and his first Netflix venture in 2019, Murphy appeared in just three films: crime caper Tower Heist (2011), critically panned fantasy-comedy A Thousand Words (2012), and the sober indie drama Mr Church (2016). The Eddie Murphy renaissance began in earnest in 2019, when he starred in the superlative Blaxploitation riff Dolemite is My Name. His subsequent efforts haven’t been quite so compelling – straight-to-streaming sequel Coming 2 America, iffy culture-clash comedy You People, effects-heavy Christmas comedy Candy Cane Lane, and, now, Axel F. It ought to be a little dispiriting to see Murphy stuck in sequel mode – Shrek 5 and a Donkey-centric spin-off are both supposedly in production – but the fact is it’s just a delight to have him back. The 2010s was the first decade in which bona fide movie stars seemed to be in short supply. His return to the fore is more than just a victory lap. It’s a much-needed corrective for an industry that’s spent years haemorrhaging energy through an Eddie Murphy-shaped hole.

Significantly, Murphy’s comeback has also highlighted his sheer irreplaceability as an actor. Conventional showbiz wisdom dictates that a so-called triple threat – a performer who can act, sing and dance proficiently – is a thing to inspire awe, a rare and precious anomaly. It is hard to quantify just how many threats Murphy contains; suffice it to say that “triple” won’t cut it. Even if we focus solely on his live-action film acting, he is a performer of incredible and often under-acknowledged range. Part of the beauty of Axel Foley is his credibility as an action hero, despite the glib, sassy exterior; that Murphy has repeatedly cited Bruce Lee as an inspiration is telling. All of which made his exile from the film industry all the more puzzling – and his absence all the more keenly felt. Though Axel F cannot hold a candle to Martin Brest’s electrified 1984 original, it is a potent reminder of Murphy’s incredible skill set, his inimitable magnetism. The film would be worth watching anyway for its affable throwback action, and the return of lesser-spotted co-stars John Ashton and Judge Reinhold, but Murphy’s performance is still the big draw.

Also telling is the fact that, no matter how hard it’s tried, Hollywood has been unable to anoint a suitable successor, a younger Black comedy star who can carry a blockbuster on their back. There are a few who are undoubtedly in the conversation, of course: for a while, it seemed like Chris Rock – whom Murphy actually gave his break in the movies, with a role in Beverly Hills Cop II – was poised to fill a similar role. Likewise Kevin Hart, a peppery and popular performer with the ability to pack stadia for his comedy shows. But both pale in comparison to Murphy: comparisons are often unfair and end up doing them no favours. At 63, Murphy is ageing out of the sort of dynamic leading man roles he once devoured – in Axel F, he just about manages to recapture his youthful zeal while tempering it with some time-worn gravitas – but the lack of a younger equivalent is glaring.

It should be noted, of course, that part of the reason for Murphy’s retreat from the industry was due to the perceived shoddiness of some of his Noughties fare. For a while – let’s call it the era of Norbit – his brand became synonymous with a certain lowbrow sensibility. He was making movies for the masses, and critical flowers grew fewer and further between. But, to quote an old footballing truism: form is temporary, and class is permanent. What’s more, the absolute paucity of A-list comedy vehicles – as well as a gradual generational shift in the demographic of the critical establishment, towards a more populist mindset – has only goosed Murphy’s reputation in the years he’s been gone. As has been the case with Adam Sandler (reportedly the world’s highest-paid actor of 2023), there seems to be a renewed appreciation in conventionally higher-brow circles for actors who are able to reliably, and skillfully, deliver audiences a good old time.

Perhaps the most invigorating thing about Axel F is just the confirmation that Murphy still has gas in the tank. It may not be a late-career masterpiece, and few are predicting that Shrek 5 will be either (though, spiritingly, the recent Shrek spin-off Puss in Boots: The Last Wish was a roaring success). But what matters is that Murphy is back on screens, throwing himself at the wall until something sticks. Something will stick eventually, of course. It has to – he’s Eddie Murphy.

‘Beverly Hills Cop: Axel F’ is streaming now on Netflix