Every old fart knows the 80s were the golden era of the big, stupid action movie. As for exactly which of the many bloated, gloriously moronic 80s action movies was the ultimate 80s action movie — well, I’m sure no one agrees on that. Cases can be made for everything from Commando to Die Hard to Bloodsport. For my money, though, the ultimate 80s action movie might be the awesomely boneheaded The Taking of Beverly Hills. It’s not the biggest 80s action movie, and certainly not the best or best known. And in fact, it wasn’t made in the 1980s at all, but came out in that transitional year of 1991 when we had put away our parachute pants but still hadn’t forsaken our billowy Chess King shirts. Despite the production date, however, no other action film contains such a perfect and complete distillation of the 80s attitude as The Taking of Beverly Hills, a movie about a bunch of spoiled millionaires who are taken advantage of by a slightly meaner millionaire until another millionaire steps up to the plate to blow stuff up. It’s the cinematic embodiment of the Me Generation, even more so than Wall Street (which purports to moralize about geed and selfishness) and with way more exploding Rolls Royces. Hell, The Taking of Beverly Hills is like someone got drunk and was like, “What if Wall Street was Die Hard?!?” Even the music, which is dripping with synths and saxophones, is quintessentially 80s.
Star Ken Wahl, who who once shot an uzi at Klaus Kinski while pulling sweet 360s on the ski slopes and listening to Tangerine Dream in the movie The Soldier, stars here as lunkheaded superstar quarterback Boomer Hayes, though I think we’re actually supposed to think he’s somewhat smarter and more sensitive than the average football player — a character trait communicated by having him trade charity guest appearances for sex. Wahl, looking beefier than he did just a few years earlier, never really made it to the upper echelon, or even the second tier for that matter, of action stars, though it’s not necessarily any fault of his. The second tier was occupied by Steven Seagal and Jean Claude Van Damme, and those egos took up a lot of space.
Boomer and his wicked mullet (there was a law at the time that every quarterback, real or fictional, had to sport a mullet) are making an appearance at a posh Beverly Hills charity event also attended by smug millionaire Robert Masterson (the always awesome Robert Davi, who I think has played a smug criminal in every single role he’s ever had). Masterson is the usual “money can’t buy you class” sort of asshole these movies love, so all the people who were born into money can tsk-tsk the uncouthness of the guy who actually earned his millions. Boomer also meets harried cop Ed Kelvin (Matt Frewer), who provides us with the movie’s trite lesson about how all the people who work in Beverly Hills can’t afford to live there, and heiress Laura Sage (Harley Jane Kozak), with whom he will engage in the aforementioned sex-for-donations transaction — and you thought that was going to be between Boomer and Matt Frewer!
Boomer and Laura retire to his mansion to cavort in a bubble bath, where they don’t have to see or hear about poor people. Weirdly, it’s Boomer who does most of the sexy writhing in the bath — score one for equality, but only if you think “sexy writhing” includes flailing your feet around and sculpting yourself some wicked wizard beards out of bubbles. Meanwhile, Officer Kelvin runs across a careening tanker truck that soon crashes and spills toxic chemicals all over the place. A state of emergency is called, and Beverly Hills is evacuated of all its residents — except for Boomer, who was too busy making bubble beards to hear all the sirens or the sounds of his bedmate shouting downstairs and being escorted away by the cops. Then comes the kicker — there is no toxic spill. The entire thing was a ruse orchestrated by a gang of bitter ex-cops who were sick of watching over a bunch of self-centered Beverly Hills millionaires and so have now decided to rob the neighborhood blind. Of course, they didn’t count on that most classic of action movie evil-scheme monkeywrenches — the righteous football player.
Before too long, Boomer has stumbled onto the plot, and in about the same amount of time, Ed Kelvin discovers that his fellow conspirators aren’t as hesitant to shoot innocents in the head as he is. This leads to the confused beat cop teaming up with the quarterback to put an end to the madness. They’re an interesting duo, though Frewer plays his semi-dirty cop a little too whiny for my taste. Neither of them are particularly good at being action heroes. Kelvin is too distraught over a combination of having had a part in the plan, trying to extricate himself from the madness, and worrying about the fact that even if he survives, he’s doing time. Boomer is a football god, but unlike most movies where being a football player equips you with the skills and technical knowledge of a Navy SEAL, it’s obvious he’s in way over his head. As the two alternately try to escape from Beverly Hills or put an end to the robbery scheme, a lot of windows get broken, and a lot of stuff blows up. There will be more tortured football analogies than you could possibly imagine, and at one point Ken Wahl fights a SWAT tank!
Then he gets a bag of ninja throwing stars.
Much of The Taking of Beverly Hills is dumb as a brick, but at the same time, some of it is kind of clever. The robbery scheme is pretty well thought out if entirely implausible, but it’s only implausible in the real world. In the world of action cinema, it’s a perfectly workable scheme. Because Beverly Hills is to Los Angeles what The Vatican is to Rome, it’s the perfect place for the heist. The police department, electrical grid, and phone system are all self-contained. Many of the action movies of the 80s and early 90s spillover could be summarized as “Die Hard in a…” and it’s pretty obvious that The Taking of Beverly Hills is really just “Die Hard in a city,” before Die Hard With a Vengeance was “Die Hard in a city.” And The Taking of Beverly Hills is a better “Die Hard in a city” than Die Hard with a Vengeance was. Even if it’s just a Die Hard clone — complete with a ridiculously convoluted scheme meant to cover a different, even more convoluted scheme — the movie moves along at a quick pace and manages to be, if not actually clever, then at the very least breezily enjoyable.
Director Sydney J. Furie was an accomplished director with a couple classics (including the spectacular Michael Caine spy thriller The IPCRESS File) and a couple not quite classics (the strange Vietnam war soccer movie The Boys in Company C) under his belt, as well as more than a few goofy 80s action films (including Iron Eagle) and one certifiable abomination (Superman IV: The Quest for Peace), though blame for that dung pile is squarely on the shoulders of Christopher Reeves and the Cannon Film Group far more than it is on Furie. For The Taking of Beverly Hills, Furie brought with him his long-time screenwriting collaborator Rick Natkin, who brought with him his sometimes collaborator, David Fuller. You wouldn’t think a movie as mindlessly silly and entertaining as this would need three writers, and you’d be right. It actually had four writers. Somehow, TV writer David J. Burke was thrown into the mix as well.
Usually, the more writers you have on a film, the worse it gets, but this team somehow managed to click, and they keep the plot relatively lean and fast-moving. You have to forgive certain aspects of the film, mind you, chief among them being that the story never really gives us any reason to like Boomer all that much. He’s a rich football player who trades charity appearances for sex, but I guess in the roll call of football player crimes, the fact that the sex he solicits is at least consensual elevates him above most. Still, it’s hard to feel much sympathy for the snotty millionaires getting robbed of things that are insured anyway — yeah, it turns out that the whole scheme has actually been orchestrated by Robert Davi (no spoiler — it’s fucking Robert Davi! Did you think he was going to be a good guy?) so he can shame and bankrupt Laura’s father, who happens to be CEO of the insurance company most of Beverly Hills uses. The script has to have the cop gang senselessly killing people, otherwise, as far as most Americans would be concerned, the crooks would be the good guys.
Ultimately, Boomer succeeds as an action hero because Ken Wahl — and not necessarily because he’s good. Wahl seems perpetually confused throughout the movie. Whether this is intentional or simply the result of Wahl being a bad actor in this instance is unknown and unimportant, because perpetually confused is the exact state of mind a guy like him should be in when caught up in the middle of such an ludicrous criminal scheme. Plus, his Boomer copies the one thing from Die Hard that many clones forget — he’s wounded. When the movie begins, Boomer has been hobbled by a knee injury, and for most of the movie, he’s plagued by the injury that keeps him from being any sort of unstoppable killing machine. He also doesn’t know much about guns (I would say he could learn a thing or two from Plaxico Burress, but all Plaxico did was manage to shoot himself in the leg), and much of his success in fighting the gang of cops comes from luck, knowing the lay of the land, and help from his reluctant sidekick Officer Kelvin. Speaking of which, I have to say that although I like Matt Frewer (Max Headroom, Eureka) a lot, he’s pretty annoying in this. The script’s one misstep is mistaking “whiny and annoying” for comic relief. It is, of course, not the first script to do that, nor would it be the last.
There’s very little to say about the rest of the cast. Former Fear frontman turned competent character actor Lee Ving (Streets of Fire) is basically wasted. I feel like Davi, one of those great “assholes” of the era (though no one is as good at it as William Atherton), is somewhat under-exploited. We know he can be a lot smarmier than he’s allowed to be here. The dame in the story has even less to do than usual, and most of the cops are just there to stand at roadblocks or jump backwards into swimming pools after Ken Wahl throws something at them. The only supporting character of note is Branscombe Richmond — whose real name sounds like he should be one of the millionaire characters in this movie. Richmond is “best known” for his recurring roll as Bobby Sixkiller, Lorenzo Lamas’ buddy in Renegade, but he pops up in all sorts of the more outrageous action films, including Commando, Showdown in Little Tokyo, and the unspeakably awesome Never Too Young to Die. In this one, he’s hooting and hollering and gunning people down and tearing around (and through) Beverly Hills in a SWAT assault vehicle.
Buried somewhere beneath all the exploding and things being thrown (although there are guns everywhere, Boomer is a QB, so naturally he prefers throwing things at people) there might be the hint that The Taking of Beverly Hills is playing itself as a straight-faced satire of the genre. By 1991, 80s action films were obviously self-aware (not that they hadn’t always been a largely tongue-in-cheek genre), so playing one for laughs without drawing attention to the fact really wouldn’t have resulted in a movie substantially different from one that wasn’t satire. Whatever the case, critics and audiences were unkind to The Taking of Beverly Hills. It was pretty roundly savaged by reviewers and never made a splash with viewers. There had apparently been some hope that it would be a hit — someone even tried to make a video game of it back in the day! Too bad it didn’t pan out. I honestly enjoyed the hell out of The Taking of Beverly Hills. It is phenomenally dumb and ridiculous, but always in a highly enjoyable way. There’s massive amounts of (relatively bloodless) carnage, the wanton destruction of lots of luxury items, an uneven but enjoyable cast, a quick pace, and a few laughs. Oh, and ninja stars! I might even consider it a forgotten classic of the genre.
Release Year: 1991 | Country: United States | Starring: Ken Wahl, Matt Frewer, Harley Jane Kozak, Robert Davi, Lee Ving, Branscombe Richmond, Lyman Ward, Michael Bowen, William Prince, Michael Kehoe, Mark Haining, Jason Blicker, Tony Ganios, Ken Swofford | Screenplay: Rick Natkin, David Fuller, David Burke | Director: Sidney J. Furie | Cinematography: Frank E. Johnson | Music: Jan Hammer | Producer: Graham Henderson