What’s the point of making a Bad Boys movie without Michael Bay? Assuming that there was a point to these things, beyond giving the Wesleyan-educated frat-guy auteur an opportunity to show his portfolio of camera moves. The first one, which starred Martin Lawrence and Will Smith as a couple of wisecracking Miami narcs, hit theaters almost 25 years ago; it was Smith’s first action-hero role and Bay’s debut as a film director after a successful career in commercials and music videos. Even by the relative terms of Bay movies, it’s pretty dull—a subpar Tony Scott imitation with a forgettable plot. But it made a lot of money, allowing Bay to make The Rock, a bona fide classic of over-the-top ’90s blockbuster cheese.
With its self-aggrandizing roman numeral, 2003’s Bad Boys II was the definition of a super-sized sequel—an overlong piece of Guantanamized George W. Bush-era maximalism and a prime example of that brand of oversaturated, expensive, pyrotechnic visual clusterfuck that would come to be known as “Bayhem.” In fact, Bad Boys II cost so much to make that it technically flopped. It contains the single most notorious sequence in Bay’s filmography: a climactic chase in which a screaming yellow Hummer crashes through a shantytown, obliterating everything in its path. It’s exactly the kind of movie that right-thinking people are supposed to turn their nose up at as conspicuously as possible—and yet it has stretches that are funny, visually plastic, and even exhilarating.
Bay isn’t completely absent from Bad Boys For Life, a sequel that finds detectives Mike Lowrey (Smith) and Marcus Burnett (Lawrence) contemplating middle age: He has a cameo as a wedding emcee. One can’t help but feel that his replacements, the Belgian directors Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah, know that they are destined to be overshadowed (or out-glared) by their name-brand predecessor. They quote Bay Boys’ iconic shot of a plane flying over a giant, dilapidated “Miami” sign and pay homage to Bay’s habit of swooping the camera at a low angle toward the characters as they exit a sports car.
El Arbi and Fallah (credited as “Adil & Bilall”) have a few tricks of their own, but for the most part, they remain unobtrusive and fanboyish. In the early going, their Hollywood debut plays like an extended tribute to the R-rated action comedies of the 1990s: the vintage Don Simpson/Jerry Bruckheimer Films logo, the tobacco-filtered establishing shots, the credits set in ITC Machine. (Look it up. You may not know the name of this typeface, but for a particular generation of viewers, it represents an entire category of entertainment.)
The difference, of course, is that Smith and Lawrence are nowhere near their prime. Apart from a scene-stealing appearance in Harmony Korine’s The Beach Bum, the latter hasn’t been in a movie in almost a decade. And their characters are getting old, too. They are introduced racing through the streets in Miami in a Porsche—though, as it turns out, they aren’t pursuing another suspect, but rushing to the hospital for the birth of Marcus’ first grandchild. The father is the same mush-mouthed teen that Mike and Marcus intimidated the bejesus out of Bad Boys II, which is a cute touch.
Yes, this is another one of those movies in which stars reprise their career-making personas to enact a meta PSA about the aging process: Your back will go bad, your knees will give out, and you won’t be able to get it up. Of course, it’s never women who star in such films, because even the best and wisest of these mid- to three-quarter-life ego death trips aren’t really about aging at all, but about the supposed qualities of being a man. Which means that we have gone far enough down the rabbit hole of nostalgically recycled Hollywood IP for Sony to decide that it was a good idea to make an introspective Bad Boys movie.
Not that it’s too introspective; this is still a film that consists in large part of shouting, shooting, and reckless driving with no regard for bystanders. It does, however, spend a large part of its opening stretch hammering the point that Mike and Marcus might just be too old for the job. They’re action guys in a high-tech world, and they look like dinosaurs when compared to AMMO, a team of bright young things overseen by Mike’s ex Rita (Paola Nuñez). Even their dyspeptic boss, Captain Howard (Joe Pantoliano), looks worse for wear. Though it’s not all bad. Because Bad Boys For Life is a Sony product, Captain Howard is now the proud owner of a Sony a7 Full Frame Mirrorless Digital Camera, which he carries with him in several scenes. Pantoliano is a mensch for acting his one big scene with that thing around his neck.
The plot is set into motion by the arrival of Armando (Jacob Scipio), the son of a Mexican drug kingpin that Mike put away back in the ’90s. Under instructions from his sinister mother, Isabel (Kate del Castillo), Armando has come to Miami to kill the men responsible for his father’s downfall. He manages to get a few bullets into Mike in a drive-by, which is enough to put him on life support for a time, leading Marcus to retire and make a promise to God to never hurt another human being in exchange for his friend’s life. Eventually, Mike recovers and sets out to find Armando the only way he knows how, all but forcing his old partner to come along. (Marcus’ refusal to wield a gun might be a funny idea in a more slapsticky action comedy, but the movie forgets about it for a while and then drops it after a couple of scenes.)
Although it never settles into a solid groove in terms of either comedy or pacing, Bad Boys For Life does offer a good amount of surprisingly grisly violence, including an extended scene depicting Isabel’s escape from a Mexican prison (probably the most confidently directed sequence in the film) and a number of splattery deaths—by impalement, defenestration, and the crushing force of having a car dropped on one’s head. At one point, Mike takes a heavy-duty meat tenderizer to the knuckles of a Tesla-driving informant played by DJ Khaled, who is billed as “Khaled (DJ Khaled) Khaled” in the opening credits.
Will middle-aged Mike get the better of the younger Armando? Will he convince Marcus to un-retire and take up the gun and badge? Will the Bad Boys teach the computer-obsessed millennials of the AMMO crew the value of good old-fashioned police work (i.e., unregulated brutality)? Look, the title of the film is Bad Boys For Life, and it is not a reference to the prison sentence that Mike and Marcus would presumably be handed if they were ever brought to justice for their crimes.
Strange as it may sound, the wanton destruction seemed less out of place in Bad Boys II, a bombastic film that rarely attempted to conceal its director’s contempt for humanity. Although it has its moments of macho bluster (Joe Carnahan, a specialist in the stuff, co-wrote the script), Bad Boys For Life is at times clumsily sentimental, eventually taking a left turn into the bizarre territory of a Will Smith star text. Both of its predecessors were basically star vehicles: the first for sitcom-star Lawrence, with Smith (who was still some years away from becoming a bankable leading man) playing second banana; the second a chance for Smith to prove that he still knew how to swear. At the risk of spoiling too much, it should be noted that Bad Boys For Life has a surprising amount in common with last year’s Gemini Man. Except that the chase scenes in Gemini Man were a lot better.
El Arbi and Fallah find a few opportunities to turn the camera on its side in interesting ways, and pull off a crosscutting gag that owes more to Edgar Wright’s parodies of Bay in Hot Fuzz than to the real thing. And yet, even in these instants, their sense of movement is as awkward as the convoluted plot, which is at one point compared (not inaccurately) to a telenovela. Bantering back and forth, Lawrence and Smith manage to recreate some of their screen chemistry—though not enough to make anyone want to go on another bumpy ride.