‘Beverly Hills Cop: Axel F’ Director Drew on Franchise Iconography — and ‘80s Action Filmmaking — for His Next-Generation Sequel: ‘We Wrecked a Million Cars’

First released in 1984, Martin Brest’s “Beverly Hills Cop” was one of the defining movies of its decade, and a huge stepping stone (along with “48 Hrs.” and “Trading Places”) toward stardom for Eddie Murphy. It not only spawned two sequels over the next decade, but set a template for action comedies that persists today. “Beverly Hills Cop: Axel F” marks the overdue fourth installment in the franchise and introduces with it a director to watch: Mark Molloy.

After beginning his career as a director of commercials for brands like Nike, Google and Apple, Molloy makes his feature debut with “Axel F,” which drew heavily from the first two “Beverly Hills Cop” films while pushing forward the story of its eponymous detective, now father to an equally-driven but estranged daughter (played by “Zola” breakout Taylour Paige).

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While Netflix commemorates the 40th anniversary of Brest’s original with this sequel, Molloy spoke with Variety about how he sought inspiration from 1980s cinema, action-oriented and otherwise, to create the new film’s larger-than-life set pieces, and how the Beverly Hills he saw in that venerated first film set the stage for him to launch his feature directorial career.

The movie plays both Bob Seger’s “Shakedown” and Glenn Frey’s “The Heat Is On” in the first two minutes. In what is now a tradition of “legacyquels,” how did you define the references so that if a viewer knows the movies, they can identify them, without stopping to acknowledge each one?

Those things weren’t in the script, but the essence of those ’80s action comedies was in the script. That’s what I loved. .. I saw how confident it was in the DNA of being a “Beverly Hills Cop” film. And that’s how I sold the picture to Jerry Bruckheimer. I was like, “I want to make an ’80s action comedy — I want to go back to the well.” And I think films from that era were just a bit more real and honest and humble. “Beverly Hills Cop I” and “II” were gritty. I’ve never seen “Beverly Hills Cop III,” actually.

I’d say you’re better off.

I said to Jerry, “I’ve never seen Beverly Hills Cop III.” He said, “Don’t worry about it.” But what I loved was not just the legacy, but the inspiration points that [directors] Marty [Brest] and Tony [Scott] gave me to jump off from. I really wanted to pay honor to them, but also find a way to still progress things. It’s been 40 years since “Beverly Hills Cop,” so I wanted to remind an audience who knew about “Beverly Hills Cop,” but also bring a new audience in, too, through those elements.

Obviously a big part of that is the cast. Were all of the original characters who return in the script already?

Yeah. We then played with their roles within the script, but one of the first things I did was I said, “I want to meet all of the original cast and really just give them a really clear sense of my vision right from the very top.” What really drew me to the script was not just Axel’s character, it was all those characters. It’s been 40 years. It’s fun to think about how their lives and how their relationships have evolved and what fun we can have with that. Axel Foley is such a huge character, but it is his relationship with all those other characters that makes “Beverly Hills Cop” really special.

Eddie had obviously done “Coming 2 America” in some proximity to this film. What were his ideas and what were yours, and how did you guys find an accord?

I wasn’t interested in making a film “just because.” I was like, “What is this going to say that we don’t know about the franchise or about the character?” And I’d never seen Axel vulnerable and I was really interested in that, given the time that’s passed since we last saw his character. And then working with Eddie to find that Axel is still causing chaos — the Detroit City shit magnet that he is — but as a father, that’s what really drew me in. So I really talked to Eddie a lot about that at the very start; luckily, Eddie’s got a lot of kids, so he knows a lot about being a father. But even after all these years, Eddie had such a strong sense of character of Axel in his head. He was so dialed in to who that character was and how he deals with everything, so it was really inspiring for me as a director to come in and work with an actor. And Eddie said to me it’s his most important character he’s ever played. He was just so dialed in.

Taylour Paige is so good as Jane, Axel’s daughter — such a perfect mirror image for all of these different things that drive Eddie’s character. How did you and the two of them find the right dimensionality for their relationship?

I saw Taylour in “Zola” and she was my first choice from the very start. I saw all of those scenes where they’re sitting in a car together, and I was like, “I’ve got to make this sing.” And it wasn’t about wisecracking or making a clone of Axel. She’s lived with this guy her whole life. He just does whatever the fuck he wants. So it was trying to find someone who has a great contrast to Axel, and when I saw a spark in her eye and a stoicism, and I was like, “Taylour can go toe-to-toe with Eddie.” And then I just harassed her until we got her. She’s amazing.

The action in the movie is big — having a snowplow barreling through the streets of Detroit. Then having a chase scene down the middle of Melrose. After that, a helicopter chase in downtown Los Angeles. How much of that destruction were you able to shoot practically?

First of all, Will Beall did a brilliant job on the page writing those action scenes. But when I came into pitch to Jerry, my pitch to Netflix was, “I want to do everything in camera.” These days, a lot of films with so much CGI and cameras flying around and everything, that sense of danger and stakes goes out the window — everything feels a little bit perfect. No one makes mistakes anymore, and I love mistakes. I took a lot of inspiration from those great ’70s, ’80s, ’90s action sequences where you’re on the edge of your seat. … It’s much more visceral because you’re like, “Shit, I think the camera gets hit!” or something wrong happens. It was hard — much harder than getting a green screen out. But we did everything for real — we flew helicopters down the street. We wrecked a million cars in Detroit. All the driving sequences: they’re all real. I just wanted to get back that grit and that honesty that we know from those films and give audiences something a little bit different.

Were the sequences that Will created already very Los-Angeles-centric?

Some of that was on the page, but I was adamant about L.A. being a character. I remember the first time I watched “Beverly Hills Cop,” I was a young kid in Australia, and this world of Beverly Hills felt so exotic to me. Tony [also] did it incredibly in “Beverly Hills Cop II” — he just painted L.A. with that golden light and the sun, and not as much smog these days as it was back then. But also, there’s Detroit and L.A., and that’s a big part of the storytelling too. So even when we were scouting, I was going from Detroit, and then the next day I’d be on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, and I was like, “These are two of the most opposite places in America.” So I really wanted to bring that into the storytelling because I think it’s a big part of that fish out of water story.

What was the visual palette that you drew upon to create that invoked that ’80s style?

Those films like “Beverly Hills Cop,” “To Live and Die in L.A.,” “Thief,” I just wanted to go back to them, to that honesty. We shot everything on these old zooms, the same ones that they probably would’ve used back then. So it was just going back to keep things really simple, concise storytelling and frame L.A. in a really beautiful way. I got those images ingrained into my head of L.A. with the palm trees and a bit of smog — that texture in the air and that harsh sunlight coming down. I wanted to go back to that all, simple but beautiful.

You got Lorne Balfe to do the score, which beautifully evokes Harold Faltermeyer’s original music. What sort of plan did you come up with to deploy those iconic themes, and then determine where you needed to update them?

To get asked to direct “Beverly Hills Cop” is one thing, but then you have “Axel F.” It’s this golden jewel that someone gives you, and they’re like, “…And you can use this in your film.” The whole soundtrack from the first two films is so brilliant. What Harold [Faltermeyer] did on those first two films is brilliant. So I felt so honored to be able to use that. And then how to take the essence of that, but still evolve it into something that the audience hasn’t heard. And Lorne did such an incredible job. There’s some great moments, like when they’re walking around the docks in LA, where there is a score in the back of your head that is perfect for that. I had the scores of both the two original films with me on set all the time, and occasionally I just played them on set as we were doing it. And then we took those first two soundtracks as a jumping-off point.

This installment was gestating for decades before it came together. How much did Eddie feel like this was a cathartic story for this character, and how much did it prompt him to say, “I could play this character until I’m 85 years old”?

The reason this hasn’t been made is because the script hasn’t been right. And that’s the brilliance of being able to work with Jerry Bruckheimer, because Jerry he got the script right, and that’s when Eddie come on board, and that’s why I come on board. And I think it’s going to take that again. This character, Eddie has the utmost respect for it, and so it’s going to take a great script to get this going again.

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