The world didn’t need another Bad Boys movie, but the people who make Bad Boys movies needed another Bad Boys movie, so now here’s Bad Boys for Life, in which a somewhat ageless Will Smith and an increasingly paunchy Martin Lawrence reprise their roles as wisecracking, off-the-handle Miami cops Mike Lowrey and Marcus Burnett — 17 years after Bad Boys II, a movie that ended with them launching a whole-ass, oorah invasion of Cuba in order to kill a drug lord and save Gabrielle Union. The question hanging over this third entry is how much our changing times will affect the ethos and aesthetic of a franchise known primarily for putting Michael Bay — he of the upskirt tracking shots and the gonzo car chases and the slo-mo undulating flags and the lustful, lingering shots of heavy-duty weaponry — on the map. And this is, indeed, a somewhat kinder, gentler Bad Boys: less proudly offensive, less extravagant, but still basically the same collection of stylish clichés made palatable by a duo of likable stars with good chemistry.
Bay isn’t helming this time. (He does give his blessing, however, via a cameo appearance as a wedding emcee.) Instead, the directors are the Belgian duo of Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah, who do a fine job adopting the colorful, hyperkinetic Bad Boys house style — swooping over Miami, craning across throbbing nightclubs, and staging action scenes with maximum delirium — while keeping the refried revenge narrative clicking along. This time, Isabel Aretas (Kate del Castillo), a Mexican ex-con experienced in the dark arts and the widow of a deceased drug kingpin, sends her son Armando (Jacob Scipio) to Miami to unearth a buried stash of money and execute a group of local officials, including Mike, as payback for her husband’s death. Armando actually succeeds in gunning down Mike. While one hero lies in the hospital fighting for his life, family man Marcus promises God that if his partner pulls through, he “will put no more violence in this world.” That solemn vow becomes a problem when Mike does pull through and the two of them go on the hunt for the attempted assassin. Rest assured that plenty of violence is put in this world over the due course of the movie.
Back in the day, the Bad Boys films were attempts to push the tried-and-tired cop-buddy thriller into increasingly more ludicrous and offensive territory; they were extravagant and silly and morally dodgy in ways that even over-the-top hits like Lethal Weapon wouldn’t dare match. In the intervening years, however, their thunder has been stolen by other series like the Fast and the Furious franchise, which are often dumber and crazier, but more wholesome and responsible — movies that better fit our current moment of sensory numbness and social hypersensitivity. Bad Boys for Life initially borrows a few pages from that book … and then it borrows a lot of pages from that book, not to mention a couple of chapters from Will Smith’s more recent action disaster Gemini Man. It begins with the pro forma blather between new grandpa Marcus and resolute bachelor Mike about when the latter’s going to settle down, and how they’re too old for this shit, and so on, but eventually goes in all sorts of bizarre new familial directions.
And, shockingly, it’s better for it. Most of Bad Boys for Life is slick, serviceable junk, but it springs to life in the last 30 or so minutes, as new revelations — I won’t say what — not only give the story some newly complicated moral stakes and narrative unpredictability, but also free the otherwise mopey Lawrence to perk up and start talking glorious shit to his co-star. (I wish I could quote some lines here, but they’d be spoilers.) It really is night and day: Even the staging of the action changes, from the film’s earlier frantic, fragmented cuts to lengthy handheld shots that, while they’re still not particularly original, do make for a different, more confident movie. Overall, Bad Boys for Life is probably a wash, but it ends so well that I now find myself not entirely opposed to the idea of a fourth Bad Boys entry. Whatcha gonna do?