"Beverly Hills Cop" combines Eddie Murphy, the hottest young comedian, with a sure-footed wunderkind director, Marty Brest, working on a script that, like "Ghostbusters," invigorates the comedy with zippy action. Of course, in the movies, such sure things inevitably fail, so the surprise of "Beverly Hills Cop" is that it actually works. Chock full of yocks, shocks, and socks, it's a crowd-pleasing entertainment for the holiday season.

Murphy plays Axel Foley, a reckless Detroit detective whose best buddy from a joy-riding childhood is knocked off by two hit men from Beverly Hills.Warned off the case by his superiors, Foley decides to investigate on his own -- he takes two weeks' vacation and heads for the coast.

Cruising along underneath the palm trees in a battered Chevy Nova, dressed in a style that returns the word "sweatshirt" to its roots, Foley sticks out amid the assiduous chic of Beverly Hills like a suckling pig at a bar mitzvah. When he slides uninvited into the ritzy offices of his suspect, a prominent art dealer (the nastily unctuous Steven Berkoff), a troop of silk-suited musclemen throws him through a plate-glass window; in this world, that's what the low-rent Foley deserves, and the police tell him so -- they charge him with disturbing the peace. "What's the charge for getting thrown out of a car?" Foley asks. "Jaywalking?"

Foley is an outsider, a picaresque hero adventuring in a foreign land; director Brest uses the contrast to satirize L.A.'s gilded hypocrisy. The movie is studded with sly racial and sexual gibes, and Brest's world is peopled with bizarre eccentrics, such as Serge, pronounced "Sayarzzh," (played with bravura swishiness by Bronson Pinchot), a nutty Iranian art dealer who plies his customers with espresso and lemon. A remarkably unobtrusive director, Brest finds his comedy in situation and character, rather than pratfalls or bon mots; he shoots his comic sequences in long, deceptively careless takes, allowing his actors the elbowroom to build rhythm and mood.

In "Beverly Hills Cop," this relaxed, breathable style creates the perfect atmosphere for a string of classic Murphy sketches. Murphy is a monologuist in the stand-up tradition -- when he plays off other characters, it is, through mimickry, in a dialogue with himself. And unlike fellow Saturday Night Live alum Bill Murray, whose stance is otherwordly -- he's the Eternal Spectator -- Murphy succeeds because he's rooted in common sense: he always seems more real than the people around him. Flashing his Studebakergrille smile, Murphy uses his luxurious, braying laugh as a signature announcing how full of life he is. At times a pungent satirist of popular culture, Murphy nevertheless draws his best comedy from real life, particularly from our attitudes toward race -- his strategy is to draw us in with caricatures (like his Buckwheat shtick), with the message, "I'm a racist, you're a racist."

But just when his complacency has made us comfortable, Murphy can be powerfully menacing, particularly in these cop movies, as when he tore up a bar in "48 Hrs.," or when he barges into an exclusive club in "Beverly Hills Cop." Murphy's performance elucidates the fear underlying racist stereotypes; his laughs detonate deep inside us.

This comedy of racial attitudes is played out in "Beverly Hills Cop" through Foley's relationship with the local gendarmerie, whom he tries to enlist in his cause. Foley teaches the buttoned-up bobbies that loosening up isn't only fun, it's the key to good police work. By the end of "Beverly Hills Cop," these Hollywood squares have learned that corruption is the best defense. Ronny Cox is fine as the hard-nosed lieutenant trapped by the bureaucracy, and John Ashton is engagingly morose as one of his underlings.

The burly, mustachioed Ashton is the Hardy to Judge Reinhold's Laurel. And since there's no movement in Foley's character (he knows the score from the beginning), Reinhold's Detective Billy Rosewood becomes the center of the movie. Fresh-faced and a nonpareil eye-roller, Reinhold personifies the type of moral superiority peculiar to blandness; bobbing his head forward when he talks, he's a bird feeding it's young -- it's as if he's trying to force his words into the other characters' ears. As Billy learns Foley's corner-cutting style, "Beverly Hills Cop" becomes a sort of prequel to "48 Hrs.," with Billy the "before" picture of the Nick Nolte character.

Which is not to say there aren't flaws in "Beverly Hills Cop." Lisa Eilbacher, as Foley's buddy Jenny Summers, is kewpie-doll adorable, and has a body that would make a Nautilus machine cry uncle; but she's a talented actress too, and might have been used for more than decoration. Murphy fails as a serious actor -- between comic riffs, he's as flat and winded as a prizefighter between rounds. And Brest's attitude toward the plot can be annoyingly casual -- he's utterly arbitrary in moving his characters from A to B. In the way he hurries through his reverse angle shots, he evinces a certain boredom with the cop-drama format -- he's much more interested in the comic embroidery around the edges.

Brest's worst tendency has been his habit of letting the camera hang around too long, and there's none of that in "Beverly Hills Cop" -- you can almost see producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer ("Flashdance") standing over him with whips in their hands, screaming "Faster! Faster!" The result is a movie that can be wonderfully languid and wonderfully breakneck as well, a formula movie so gleefully bedizened with quirks that it always seems better than it is.

"Beverly Hills Cop," opening today at area theaters, is rated R for violence, consistent profanity and brief nudity.