If Bad Boys For Life had come out three weeks earlier, it would’ve been the No. 12 movie at the 2019 box office. Instead, the team of Will Smith and Martin Lawrence happened to return to screens during the tiny sliver of 2020 when movie theaters were open and when people felt good about going to them. Bad Boys For Life was a surprisingly decent popcorn flick; in the dumping ground of January, where anything halfway entertaining stands out amidst leftover Oscar-bait and radioactive studio bombs, the third film in the buddy cop series was a hit. Any typical year, a crowd-pleasing legacy sequel like that would’ve quickly been overshadowed by flashier, noisier franchise fare. But because of the plague that hit the United States two months after its release, Bad Boys For Life stands as The Last Blockbuster—the final relic of a time when large crowds of people paid to see movies in theaters.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this. In 2019, movie-theater business was down a bit from the previous year, but the industry was still relatively lucrative. The year 2019 had Avengers: Endgame, which was briefly the highest-grossing film in history. Nine different 2019 motion pictures—all of them franchise entries or reboots or remakes, most of them from Disney—earned upwards of $1 billion at the global box office. It’s hard to imagine when something like that might happen again.
Bad Boys For Life isn’t a small movie by any measure, but it’s not really a big one, either. It’s a self-conscious throwback, a nostalgic good time. In a long-ago era, the Bad Boys franchise had definitely been a big deal. The first Bad Boys came out in 1995, and nobody expected much of this action-comedy from two sitcom stars and a music-video director. Smith and Lawrence had never headlined a movie. Michael Bay had never directed one. Bad Boys did well enough to push everyone toward bigger things—Bay toward expensive blockbusters, Smith toward globally dominant film stardom, Lawrence toward the Big Momma’s House franchise. Seven years later, all three of them reunited for Bad Boys II, which set a whole new bar for overblown action-cinema incoherence.
For years, there was talk of a third Bad Boys. Everyone seemed to be on board, but schedules and budgets made things difficult. Michael Bay was busy, first with the endless Transformers saga and then with the borderline-unwatchable 2019 Netflix escapade 6 Underground, so Bad Boys needed a new director. Joe Carnahan, the dirtbag auteur behind Smokin’ Aces and The Grey, was attached to direct for a while, and he ended up sharing the writing credit with Sally Field’s son Peter Craig and first-time screenwriter Chris Bremner. Eventually, the producers (a group that included Smith) settled on a directing team known as Adil & Bilall.
Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah are Belgian-Moroccan friends who met in film school and who’d never helmed an American picture before Bad Boys For Life. They got the job thanks to Black and Gangsta, a pair of hyperkinetic crime movies that they’d made back home in Belgium. Their direction on Bad Boys For Life works as an extended tribute to the Michael Bay style—the swooping shots, the expensive cars gleaming in the sun, the nonstop slapstick comic relief. The big difference is that Adil & Bilall’s action scenes are relatively legible, which takes away from Bay’s disorienting excess but also means that it looks a whole lot nastier when a car falls on some guy and crushes him. (Bay gets a quick Bad Boys For Life cameo as a wedding DJ. Before I recognized him, I definitely spent a couple of seconds confused as to why this wedding DJ looked so weird.)
In storyline terms, Bad Boys For Life is absolute nonsense. A Mexican crime-boss witch breaks out of prison and sends her son to Florida to get revenge on all the people who busted up her family’s drug ring decades ago. The kid, a dead-eyed and inhuman killing machine, pumps Smith’s Mike Lowrey full of bullets. Once he heals up, Lowrey wants revenge, while Lawrence’s Marcus Burnett wants to retire and enjoy his new grandbaby. After a whole lot of riffing and a few deeply goofy action set pieces, one of them gets his way.
Occasionally, Bad Boys For Life recalls the Fast & Furious movies, the knowingly over-the-top action franchise that surged in the wake of Bad Boys. Lowrey and Burnett do a little globetrotting, going on a revenge mission to Mexico that makes absolutely zero sense for Miami cops. They work with a team of photogenic young supercops—Alexander Ludwig from The Hunger Games, Charles Melton from Riverdale, Vanessa Hudgens from High School Musical. (Hudgens rocks a hairstyle that I can only describe as “Skrillex but cornrows.” Between Bad Boys For Life and Spring Breakers, she really found an unlikely niche in scummy and sensationalistic Florida crime movies.) But really, Bad Boys For Life works as a dose of low-stakes nostalgia. The film exists simply to show Will Smith and Martin Lawrence back together again.
By 2020, Smith’s movie-star record wasn’t quite as impressive as it had once been. In the months before Bad Boys For Life hit theaters, for instance, he had headlined Ang Lee’s sci-fi flop Gemini Man and the perfectly serviceable animated flick Spies In Disguise. But Bad Boys For Life taps into Smith’s easy charm, something that hadn’t been fully evident onscreen since I don’t even know when. (Focus? I Am Legend?)
In present-day terms, Mike Lowrey should be an absolutely loathsome character—a violent, impulsive, rich cop who treats women thoughtlessly and who stays on the police force, even though he doesn’t need a job, because he loves kicking ass. But Smith’s whole motormouth routine is so charming that he can get away with saying some truly gnarly shit: “Raids are supposed to be fun! They’re like field trips with guns!” It probably also helps that Lowrey’s big police-brutality scene involves beating up DJ Khaled. Nobody has ever felt sorry for DJ Khaled.
Martin Lawrence is a different story. Lawrence was a gifted, energetic stand-up comic and sitcom star, but unlike Smith, he never really became an actor. Lawrence had also had personal issues—including a sexual-harassment lawsuit from his former Martin co-star Tisha Campbell—and he’d mostly disappeared from movies in the years before Bad Boys For Life. Other than a fun extended cameo in Harmony Korine’s The Beach Bum, Lawrence hadn’t even taken a movie role since Big Mommas: Like Father, Like Son in 2011. Anytime Bad Boys For Life requires Martin Lawrence to do any emotional heavy lifting, it gets rough.
Fortunately, that rarely happens. Instead, Smith and Lawrence immediately launch into their old Bad Boys dynamic. Smith is the slickly unstoppable prima donna action star, while Lawrence is the pratfalling everyman who’s always in over his head. In the opening scene, Smith speeds a crazy-expensive sports car through crowded streets while Lawrence hammily tries to keep from barfing. (Smith: “That is hand-stitched leather! You better drink it!”) The twist is that they’re not racing off to catch criminals. Instead, they arrive at the delivery room just in time to witness the birth of Burnett’s grandson. There are many more jokes about aging in Bad Boys For Life, and there’s even a half-assed running theme about owning up to old mistakes, but the film is a whole lot more interested in watching Smith and Lawrence relentlessly clowning each other for a couple of hours.
Bad Boys For Life is not, strictly speaking, a good movie. Instead, it’s check-cashing fan service in action. Adil & Bilall chase that old Michael Bay feeling by staging their own versions of Bay’s extravagant shootouts and car chases and nightclub montages. The pro-cop propaganda is out of control, the characters’ decisions make no sense, and the plot twists are about as absurd as they could possibly be. As Burnett says at one point, “This is some telenovela shit!”
But if you head into Bad Boys For Life with sufficiently low expectations, there’s a lot to like: The unpretentious eagerness to please, the jarring R-rated brutality of the action scenes, the impressively cold-blooded villains, the operatic John Woo vibes of the climactic gunfight. It’s ambition-free fun, and January is a great time to pump some ambition-free fun out into the world.
Bad Boys For Life turned out to be exactly what audiences wanted. It’s a quick, painless, functional two hours at the movies. In January, a film like that can historically get some traction. Most of the other films that came out in the first few months of 2020 were relative flops. Robert Downey Jr. chattered at CGI animals in Dolittle. Harrison Ford made friends with a CGI dog in The Call Of The Wild. The year’s one superhero film, the slapsticky and hyper-violent Birds Of Prey, wasn’t the blockbuster that DC clearly expected. Bad Boys For Life dunked on all of them.
Even with its unexpected success, though, nobody expected Bad Boys For Life to be the biggest hit of 2020. The tentpoles—F9, No Time To Die, Black Widow, Eternals, Top Gun: Maverick—were all scheduled to arrive later in the year. But none of those films actually came out in 2020. Instead, a pandemic swept its way into the United States with dizzying speed. Movie theaters shut down. For six consecutive weeks, a low-budget horror indie called The Wretched was the highest-grossing movie in North America, mostly thanks to drive-in screens.
So Bad Boys For Life earns its place in the history books through freakish accident. Its success is an asterisk, and it doesn’t really tell us much about American moviegoing taste, beyond our pervading appetite for familiar comforts. Bad Boys For Life did not leave a cultural impact, and it didn’t dominate the planet. In countries that didn’t bungle the pandemic quite so badly, theaters opened sooner, and Hollywood lost its place at the center of global film culture. At the global box office, the year’s biggest hit wasn’t a Hollywood product; it was the hugely popular Japanese anime adventure Demon Slayer: Mugen Train. (After it finally came to American theaters, Demon Slayer: Mugen Train did pretty well over here, too, pulling in an extra $50 million after dominating in Asia.) Two Chinese spectacles, a war drama called The Eight Hundred and a bucolic anthology called My People, My Country, also outgrossed Bad Boys For Life around the world. The balance of power shifted.
That shift might be permanent. In 2021, American movies have not caught up. Right now, the biggest global hit of 2021 is a Chinese comedy called Hi, Mom; Hollywood’s own F9 is a distant second. As I write this, Bad Boys For Life is the last film to earn more than $200 million at the domestic box office. That’ll change. Black Widow came close. Shang-Chi And The Legend Of The Ten Rings might get there. By all indications, Spider-Man: No Way Home is going to be huge. (It’s not a coincidence that all three of those big hopes are Marvel products.) But it’s increasingly clear that the rest of the world doesn’t need our escapist entertainments, especially when they can make their own.
During the pandemic, American media conglomerates focused more and more on pushing their streaming services. Maybe I should’ve written this column about the Disney+ version of Hamilton, reportedly the most-streamed film of 2020. Or maybe I should’ve written about the second season of The Mandalorian, the TV series that dominated conversation the way a traditional theatrical blockbuster might’ve done a couple of years earlier. Maybe that would tell us more about where things are going. (After the success of Bad Boys For Life, Adil & Bilall have lined up a whole lot of franchise-system work, and all of their projects are being made for streaming services. They’re attached to Beverly Hills Cop 4 for Netflix, Batgirl for HBO Max, and the Ms. Marvel TV series for Disney+.)
If we ever get to the point where it feels completely safe to breathe the same air as hundreds of strangers for hours at a time, blockbuster cinema will still face an uphill battle. Maybe we’re witnessing the end of the blockbuster film as an institution. If that’s the case, it had a good run.
The contender: Other than Bad Boys For Life, the only 2020 North American movie that you could really call a hit is Sonic The Hedgehog, which was better than I thought it would be but which still wasn’t any good. Looking at last year’s 10 biggest theatrical successes, one stands out. Leigh Whannell’s Blumhouse adaptation of The Invisible Man is a tense, freaky horror thriller with a great Elisabeth Moss performance at its center. The Invisible Man works just fine at home, but it was a kickass movie-theater experience. I’m grateful that I got to have that experience, and I would like to have more of those.
Next time: That’s it! We’re caught up! Thanks to everyone who’s been keeping up with this journey through the past 60 years of blockbuster movies. It’s been fun.