The Five Absolutely Essential Eddie Murphy Movies

He was a superstar in the 1980s. But after a shift to family films, he returned with one of his strongest, most revealing performances
The Five Absolutely Essential Eddie Murphy Movies

Welcome to “Five Absolutely Essentials,” an overview of the greatest comedians’ most memorable moments. Mind you, these aren’t necessarily their “best” movies — rather, these are the five films that best represent different aspects of their talent, their ambition, their persona and the artistic risks they’ve taken along the way. If you’re looking for a sense of a comic in all his or her complexity, here’s where to start. 

Some comedians are stars, and then there’s Eddie Murphy. When he arrived on the scene with Saturday Night Live in 1980, all the usual clichés applied: It was like he was shot out of a cannon, you couldn’t take your eyes off him, etc. The guy was incandescent. But SNL was only the beginning, with Murphy quickly becoming one of Hollywood’s biggest draws. Before or since, there’s no comparison to what Murphy achieved in such a short amount of time, influencing generations of comics to come. Now in his 60s, he doesn’t have the same combustible energy of his youth, but he’s still revered as a titan. No one’s taken his crown — all these years later, there’s still no one like him. 

If you could only choose five movies to encapsulate his career, what would they be? Here are my picks, in chronological order…

48 Hrs. (1982)

Still working on SNL at the time, Murphy didn’t have the opportunity to really prepare for his role as Reggie Hammond, a small-time thief who’s let out of prison by a grumpy cop (Nick Nolte) who needs the crook’s help to find his former partner in crime. (In fact, 48 Hrs. was already shooting when Murphy came on board.) But he aced his big-screen debut, showing off the swagger that would soon define his movie career. Where other comics need to find their legs when they make the jump to features, this young twentysomething didn’t seem fazed at all. Very quickly, 48 Hrs. established how we’d forever view Murphy — especially that cascading jackhammer laugh of his. From that moment on, there was no question he was a superstar — even if he did eventually drop his trademark guffaw.

“I don’t laugh like that anymore, somehow it doesn’t come out,” he admitted in 2011. “It’s weird to change something that’s as natural as that. But it started out as a real laugh, then it turned into people laughing because they thought my laugh was funny, and then there were a couple of times where I laughed because I knew it would make people laugh. Then it got weird. People came up to me and said, ‘Do that laugh,’ or if you laugh, someone turns around and goes, ‘Eddie?’ I just stopped doing it.”

Beverly Hills Cop (1984)

Of the different franchises he’s been involved with — The Nutty Professor, Shrek — probably none of them has been so central to his legacy as Beverly Hills Cop, starring him as Axel Foley, a wisecracking Detroit cop who heads to Southern California. Not just phenomenally commercially successful, the film summed up Hollywood in the 1980s: It had a killer premise, it was slickly made, its soundtrack was full of bangers and it mixed action with punchlines. The film laid the groundwork for approximately 10,000 fish-out-of-water action-comedies, and much like some of his fellow SNL cohorts, such as the Ghostbusters contingent, Murphy proved that TV comics had no trouble guiding Hollywood blockbusters.  

Beverly Hills Cop also encapsulated why people loved Murphy, who was trailblazing as a Black actor bringing in the kind of box office usually reserved for white stars. That might seem impossible to believe now, but at the time it was fairly revolutionary, and the film became a sensation, providing the ideal platform for Murphy’s pointed, irreverent humor, the actor wielding a rebellious streak that was both funny and angry. There was an edge to his comedy that was refreshing, and it opened the door to Beverly Hills Cop sequels — which Murphy didn’t like all that much. 

Beverly Hills Cop II was probably the most successful mediocre picture in history,” he said in 1989. “It made $250 million worldwide, and it was a half-assed movie. Cop II was basically a rehash of Cop I, but it wasn’t as spontaneous and funny. … There’s no reason to do (Cop III): I don’t need the money, and it’s not gonna break any new ground. How often can you have Axel Foley talk fast and get into a place he doesn’t belong?” 

Of course, he did end up making a third installment — and now, all these years later, Beverly Hills Cop: Axel Foley is in the works.

Coming to America (1988)

Seemingly just about every Murphy movie in the 1980s was huge, and the hit streak continued with Coming to America, in which he played a naive African prince who visits America in the hopes of finding true love. Because he often played tough, streetwise characters — including in his 1987 stand-up film Eddie Murphy: Raw — his performance as Prince Akeem was markedly different, proving to be one of his sweetest on-screen portrayals. Plus, Coming to America found him playing a credible romantic leading man, which was a new wrinkle for him.

But the film was also important in Murphy’s career because it allowed him to do a whole array of side characters, including a few of the quirky inhabitants of a New York barbershop and the outrageous soul singer Randy Watson. He’d only get more ambitious in this vein for The Nutty Professor and Nutty Professor II: The Klumps, where he brought to life an entire dysfunctional family. You can see Murphy’s creative playfulness in everything from Bowfinger to Norbit: Whenever he has a chance, he’ll happily don makeup or a colorful costume to portray different people in the same movie.

As Murphy’s friend and admirer Chris Rock once put it, “Peter Sellers got tons of credit for doing multiple characters, but that was just him doing him. Eddie is all those wacky family characters he portrays in Coming to America and The Nutty Professor pictures. Eddie should have got multiple Oscars for the multiple characters that he played in those movies alone.”

The Nutty Professor (1996)

All the bad family films that nearly torpedoed Murphy’s career? They happened because of this movie, a remake of the Jerry Lewis classic, which saw him play the kind, nerdy, overweight scientist Sherman Klump, who transforms himself into the sleek, arrogant womanizer Buddy Love. This version of The Nutty Professor was a fascinating study in the two sides of Murphy’s personality, with Buddy representing the arrogant kid who’d been so popular in the 1980s. As for Sherman, that was the Murphy we’d soon see a lot more of: benign, inoffensive, catering to the masses. And since The Nutty Professor did so well commercially and critically, it sparked a crucial pivot in the superstar’s career.

Afterward, Murphy chiefly targeted family audiences, having success with Dr. Dolittle, Shrek and Daddy Day Care. Gone was the R-rated troublemaker — in his place was a guy who often portrayed harried fathers. (Even his loudmouthed Donkey in the Shrek films felt like a tamped-down, kid-friendly version of his old atomic-bomb explosiveness.) He occasionally still took risks — look no further than his Oscar-nominated turn in 2006’s Dreamgirls — but on the whole, Murphy mostly played it safe. The Nutty Professor was a promising start to this chapter, but by the time of The Adventures of Pluto Nash or Imagine That, things were starting to look a bit dire.

Dolemite Is My Name (2019)

After years in the Hollywood wilderness, the Eddie Murphy Comeback began in earnest with this endearing biopic of Rudy Ray Moore, the man who brought us Dolemite. This return to the limelight was something Murphy had been carefully planning. “I didn’t want to just pop back up,” he said in 2019. “I wanted a funny movie to remind them that they liked me. This movie turned out so strong that I figured this is a great way to come back.”

Dolemite Is My Name isn’t terribly dissimilar from a movie like Ed Wood, which also celebrated a naive, in-over-his-head artist who wasn’t going to let anything stop him from realizing his dreams. We watch Moore struggle to get his ultra-low-budget passion project Dolemite off the ground, but the film’s jokes about that inept production are mitigated by one of Murphy’s strongest, warmest performances. There’s something deeply touching about the way he plays Moore, finding compassion for a fellow comic who, unlike himself, wasn’t an overnight success. But what the two men have in common is an undeniable brashness — an unshakeable faith in their talent. Moore had a tough time getting others to see it, but Murphy never did.

As a result, Dolemite Is My Name feels like a bittersweet, parallel-universe portrait of what Murphy’s career could have looked like if he hadn’t burst out of the gate as a superstar. Ironic, then, that this was the movie that reinvigorated his own career, paving the way for a Coming to America sequel, a triumphant return to Saturday Night Live, and soon, another Beverly Hills Cop movie. By showing vulnerability playing someone who never quit on himself, Murphy may have caught his second wind. 

Scroll down for the next article
Forgot Password?