Eddie Murphy plays Detroit cop Axel Foley, who sets out for Beverly Hills to investigate the murder of his best friend, Mikey. The hunt leads him to Victor Maitland (Steven Berkoff), purportedly one of the top art dealers in the United States and owner of the “world famous” Hollis Benton Gallery.
We never learn who Hollis and Benton are, but the gallery that bears their names resembles a cross between a hotel lobby, a gift shop and a bar (it has a bar). Axel’s childhood friend Jenny is the gallery director and she has a sassy assistant named Serge (Bronson Pinchot). Serge, who has an exaggerated but indiscernible accent, berates his colleague for showing too much chest hair (“it’s not sexy”), and offers clients a cocktail or an espresso with a lemon twist (did I mention this gallery has a bar?).
Among the art inside the gallery are brightly colored paintings of classical, statuesque figures, surrounded by jagged zig-zags. In the center of the (carpeted!) space is a white dining room table with plaster figurative sculptures à la George Segal seated around it, and dummy heads on rotating plates in front of them. The stairs at the entrance are flanked by random ceramic pots that don’t appear to have anything to do with anything.
We soon learn that big shot art dealer Victor Maitland is evil, of course, and is responsible for Mikey’s death (as well as being a drug smuggler). He is the epitome of entitlement and corruption, and seethes contempt from his very first appearance. Sitting in his art-filled office (wearing a tie and a bathrobe at the same time), he summons a staff of half a dozen goons to do his dirty work.
The art in Beverly Hills Cop is equally unfriendly. Most of it looks like stylized mannequins, a misinterpretation of the Assemblage movement, with a dated ’80s look. All of it is portrayed as weird and alien—the bizarre fetish of a wealthy sociopath. Indeed, the abstract paintings on Maitland’s walls seem to carry the same malevolence as his cronies (one of the canvases is even shot during a gunfight).
Foley, who is Maitland’s antithesis, appears skeptical and uneasy of the art he encounters from the beginning. He only warms up to a sculpture of a woman long enough to pinch her breast. This personality clash is common in Hollywood depictions of the art world. The honest, blue-collar man becomes a fish out of water when he sets foot in the gallery (see Tom Cruise’s character in the 1988 film Cocktail, for instance), merely putting up with the artworks as long as the situation requires.
It’s an easy ploy, as contemporary art’s reputation for being opaque and difficult is partly what makes it the commodity of the elite. Claiming to understand it functions as another status symbol. If only someone would make an action film about legislators trying to defund the arts in our schools, ultimately foiled by an adjunct art teacher with a heart of gold…