|photo by David Shankbone|
In honor of Coming 2 America being released this weekend, I thought we would look back at the career of Eddie Murphy.
At one time, Murphy was one of the biggest box office draws in the world. He is an accomplished comedian, actor, action star, and singer. His early films captured his often raunchy and raw (pun intended) humor. Over the years pivoted to family-friendly films, but as of late has been returning to his earlier style. I can say that his appearance on Saturday Night Live a year ago was one of the funniest episodes of the program in years.
I understand if there are some who find his vulgar humor to be too much to enjoy. I respect that judgment, but I find that unlike a lot of comedianse who use vulgarity, Murphy's jokes actually have insight and wit about them.
Also a little known fact about Murphy is that he is actually a baptized Catholic.
There are a number of his films that I have not seen that I've heard should be on this list, like 48 Hours or Dreamgirls. But of the films of his that I have seen, here are my Top 10
10. Dolemite is My Name
This movie reminded me of Ed Wood, where a man who lacks talent and skill wins over the audience with sheer enthusiasm. There is a bit too much vulgarity and nudity for this to rank higher on the list.
9. The Distinguished Gentleman
(from my list of Top 10 Political Movies) This a fun and light-hearted comedy about a con man who worms his way into the US House of Representatives and tries to live high on the hog the way life-long bureaucrats do. Murphy is charming and funny in this, though the script doesn't play to his strengths as much at it should. Rather veering into total cynicism, this film gives a glimpse at how our system can work with some good people in it.
8. Harlem Nights
Murphy directed this period piece that is a bit too long and too dark. But it has a fantastic cast and some hilarious bits. My favorite is a stupid gag where three gangsters are shooting at Murphy's character with dozens of rounds of tommy gun bullets, with one one of them punctuating each volley with a tiny pistol shot. It's something that doesn't sounds like it will work on paper, but still has me cracking up.
I try not to use the world iconic too often, but Murphy's Donkey is iconic. As generations go by, this might actually be his most lasting legacy as children to this day still love Shrek, but most of all, they love Donkey. While the direction and animation of the character play a big role, it's Murphy's strong comedic voice that give the character the personality that people have fallen in love with for decades.
6. Eddie Murphy: Raw
To be sure, there is a lot of foul language and descriptions of immoral behavior in this stand up special. But his impression of Bill Cosby and Richard Pryor are burned into my memory. Those bits are not only incredibly funny, but get to the heart of Murphy's comedic style: vulgarity alone cannot make good comedy. A lot of comedians try to shock their audiences with profanity. Murphy does, but he is smart enough to know that there has to be some actual insight in the joke or it will have nothing behind it. It would be nothing but empty edginess.
5. Trading Places
Here, Murphy works his comedic magic with Dany Akkroyd. Murphy could have easily played his Billy Ray Valentine as a caricature, but you can actually see his transformation from a man getting by on street smarts to someone who starts to get swallowed up by the lifestyle of the rich elite.
4. Beverly Hills Cop
This is the movie that solidified Murphy's presence as a movie star. In a role that was originally supposed to go to Sylvester Stallone, Murphy made the movie his own. The film is a fantastic showcase for Murphy as an action star, while showing he can pull off comedy and drama with equal skill. The scene where he bluffs his way into a rich hotel still holds up as hysterical. This fish-out-of-water murder mystery works so well for many reasons. One of them is that it allows the cops of Beverly Hills to be actually characters. Captain Bogomil could have been a simple empty antagonist, but instead the script allows for a bit more complexity for Murphy's Axl Foley to navigate. It gives the movie a feeling of being smarter than your average action/comedy.
3. Beverly Hills Cop II
This was the highest grossing film of 1987, a year that saw the release of such films as Predator, The Untouchables, Platoon, Lethal Weapon, Dragnet, Robocop, Crocodile Dundii, Three Men and a Baby, Fatal Attraction, Dirty Dancing, The Lost Boys, Spaceballs, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, The Running Man, Plane, Trains, and Automobiles, The Princess Bride, and Three Amigos.
Beverly Hills Cop II beat them all at the box office. And it is one of the few sequels that is better than the first. A big improvement is in the action direction. Tony Scott, director Top Gun and Crimson Tide, makes the action slick and exciting. The movie works because the chemistry and history of the characters adds to the dynamic and makes the scenes fly. And Murphy was still at the height of his game. The scene where he steals a house is something that you can really only imagine Murphy pulling off.
2. The Golden Child
This movie is often overlooked and was not well received, but it is still one of my favorite Murphy films. Here, Murphy is chosen to save a mystical boy whose fate will determine the fate of the world. This is the kind of story where the incongruity between the protagonist and the plot could make or break it, and Murphy does an amazing job. The tone of the movie keeps shifting from comedy to action to horror to fantasy and Murphy is able to adapt to everything the script needs. I love watching him face off against the mighty Charles Dance as both men approach the scenes completely differently and yet that difference is where the entertainment lies.
1. Coming To America
Murphy does something so bold here: he plays the straight man. His Prince Akeem has some humorous moments, but Murphy plays him with dignity and manners. The genius of the piece is that Murphy and Aresino Hall also play the comic relief. Murphy is able to have his cake and eat it too by playing both the charming, romantic, dramatic lead and being the silly, foul-mouthed funny characters. Look at the scene where Akeem gets his princly braid cut. Murphy plays against himself to pitch perfect humor that the punch line still has me reeling. And that isn't to say that he oversteps in his roles. The entire cast is fantastic. The movie is filled with great performances by Hall, James Earl Jones, Paul Bates, Madge Sinclair, Frankie Faison, John Amos, Eric La Salle, Allison Dean, and Shari Headley. Every scene works and every scene is funny. That is why it is his best movie.