`Cop Iii': Though Murphy's A Draw, There Oughta Be A Law

Movie review

XX "Beverly Hills Cop III," with Eddie Murphy, Judge Reinhold, Hector Elizondo, Theresa Randle, Timothy Carhart. Directed by John Landis, from a screenplay by Steven E. De Souza. "R" - Restricted, because of violence, profanity. -----------------------------------------------------------------

As I watched a preview screening of "Beverly Hills Cop III" last Thursday, my thoughts kept wandering back to two nights earlier, when ABC broadcast the flawless season finale of "NYPD Blue." As the series brilliantly tied up an emotional loose end from several episodes earlier, it packed more tension, plot and compelling drama into 47 minutes than "Beverly Hills Cop III" could ever hope to claim.

It's arguably unfair to compare apples and oranges: "NYPD Blue" is a mature, morally conscious and intelligently organic drama that can develop plotlines over several hours. "Cop III," as it's being informally billed, is a long-delayed installment in an action-comedy franchise, designed for wide demographics with a simplistic plot, a few standard big-screen thrills and the guaranteed draw of Eddie Murphy reprising his most phenomenally popular role.

But the comparison is useful in illustrating the difference between writers and directors who serve a pure motive of quality, as opposed to John Landis and Steven E. De Souza - respectively, the director and writer of "Cop II" - who are willingly enslaved to a pre-fabricated property that's so familiar it doesn't need opening credits. Suffering the symptoms of sequelitis, they have fashioned a soulless slab of entertainment that uses the distraction of lavish production to conceal its profit-driven emptiness.

That's a real shame, because as maverick Detroit cop Axel Foley, Murphy is back in fine form, comfortable in the role that made him a superstar and allows him to shift from decent actor to action hero and savvy comedian with casual aplomb. In a sequel that downplays (but does not sanitize) the violent malice of "Cop II," Murphy still has the qualities of a superstar.

It's de Souza's gratingly routine screenplay that lets Murphy down, concerning a counterfeiting operation that draws Murphy from Detroit (where the top villain has killed Murphy's boss), to WonderWorld, a lavish Disneyland-like theme park that hides a funny-money outfit run by the park's icy chief of security (Timothy Carhart).

It all makes about as much sense as playing baseball in ice skates, but WonderWorld is one of those frantic locations (partly incorporating Paramount's Great America amusement park) that work like a mammoth Rube Goldberg device of action and stunts, subscribing to the disproved "Last Action Hero" theory that bigger is necessarily better. A tepid love interest for Murphy (played by disgruntled park employee Theresa Randle) only compounds the problem.

To compensate, "Cop III" falls back on the familiar, reuniting Murphy with Judge Reinhold as his only Beverly Hills police ally, and paying a return visit to "Cop I" scene-stealer Bronson Pinchot as Serge, the fawning high-fashion foreigner who's now pitching upscale urban weaponry in a chi-chi "survival boutique." The scene is absurdly redundant, but it's a tribute to Pinchot (and to Murphy's business instincts) that it's also the movie's runaway comic highlight.

Elsewhere, Landis relies on routine action - and cameos by such noted filmmakers as George Lucas, John Singleton, Martha Coolidge and others - to hide the fact that there's no engine under his movie's hood.