At 33, Eddie Murphy is no longer the motormouth rebel who dazzled audiences on Saturday Night Live and in 48 HRS. and Beverly Hills Cop. That Murphy was hungry, a star on the make. He didn't just entertain us, he wowed us with his impudent bravado, his mimicry and speed, his awesome confidence in front of the camera. He always seemed a beat ahead of everyone else (both his costars and the audience), and the way he got off on his own naughty-boy virtuosity was infectious. The thrill of a Murphy comedy even a shoddy excuse for one, like The Golden Child was that we never knew what would pop out of his mouth next.
Along the way, something happened to Murphy: He stopped taking pleasure in his own talent, and the audience's enjoyment fizzled away too. The Eddie Murphy who skulks, swaggers, and mostly fires guns through Beverly Hills Cop III is like a replicant version of his former self. When he spews out lines in a rapid-fire bluster or stretches his mouth into that big, horsey grin, you don't quite believe that he wants to do it. It's just a job now, a blockbuster obligation; the joyless proficiency with which he goes through the motions is depressing to behold. If anything, he looks vaguely bored, as though the very act of telling a joke were now beneath him.
It might have helped if Beverly Hills Cop III actually had a few jokes. Though not quite the fiasco of revved-up gunplay that Beverly Hills Cop II was, this new movie, directed by John ''Rock-'em Sock-'em'' Landis, is just a clunky action thriller, with occasional comic moments rationed out to the audience like stray crumbs. Investigating a murder, Axel Foley (Murphy), the renegade Detroit police detective, arrives in Los Angeles and infiltrates a popular theme park called WonderWorld. There, he sniffs out a counterfeit ring run by the dullest collection of sinister white guys since George Bush's cabinet. The plot is generic nonsense, and by now it's just a threadbare pretense that Foley is a ''fish out of water'' in high-swank L.A. At this point, Murphy looks like he owns the place.
A Beverly Hills Cop movie hardly requires a great plot, of course. All it needs is a dozen zesty sequences of Axel mouthing off, talking his way into places he doesn't belong. But the script, by Steven E. de Souza (Die Hard), is witless. It sets up funny situations, such as Axel disguising himself as jolly, big-bottomed Okey-Dokey, one of the wacky WonderWorld characters, and then gives the star virtually nothing to say. Landis stages one elaborate sequence in which Axel, hundreds of feet in the air, leaps from car to car on a high-flying carnival ride. It's an amusing ideaAxel as impromptu acrobat but if Murphy had been given some lines to go with the stunt work, he might have brought down the house. For the most part, Landis seems to prefer bullet-spattered mayhem to comedy. It's as if he thought mayhem itself were funny as if he were sniggering at the decadence of what he got paid to do.
What's most dispiriting about Beverly Hills Cop III is the way its mechanistic cloddishness works in tandem with Murphy's indifference. Inevitably, some will say that his time has passed, that his greased-lightning effrontery is just a relic of the '80s. But that's too easy an explanation for his decline (as if quick-draw insult humor lived and died with the Reagan era). The most gifted comic performer of his generation, Eddie Murphy has become both more than a comic and less a victim of his own desire to be a superstar demigod, beyond the reach of his fans. That he no longer makes us laugh seems, on some level, a perversely willful failure. If he were still funny, he'd have to acknowledge that he was once one of us.