Bad Boys is truly an enigma of a series. The original film released in 1995 was a low-budget vehicle for sitcom stars Martin Lawrence and Will Smith to bring their comedy chops to a cinematic canvas. Super producer Jerry Bruckheimer enlisted a young music video director for his feature debut—Michael Bay. It’s really just a vehicle for this comedic duo to show off their back-and-forth with Bay’s classic style interlaced throughout. Despite it not being a critical darling, it was a commercial hit. Released in 2003, Bad Boys II was a completely different beast. With nearly nine times the budget, it’s Bay at his most Bay. It’s a vile, insincere, nasty and hyperactive film in every way. It was largely derided by critics, but has developed a cult following and garnered some reappraisal over the years. As for me, unfiltered non-Transformers Bay is something I can get behind, in both an ironic and unironic way.
The filmic landscape has changed so much since the second film was released where other action franchises have blossomed. Bad Boys has never been about the characters or mythology that would sustain a long-running series a la Fast & Furious. For a third to work more than just being crazy Michael Bay film again, it would require him to be more self-aware and thoughtful than he’s ever been. Bay must’ve realised this because the reigns have been handed to young Belgian duo Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah. And with that, as much as I enjoy the first two, this is Bad Boys evolved. As much as I’m surprised to say this actively works as a continuation of this series, I definitely didn’t expect to call this heartfelt and thoughtful.
Marcus (Martin Lawrence) and Mike (Will Smith) are back, and for the first time, they’re past their prime. While Marcus wants to retire and accept his new duties as a grandfather, Mike still wants to hunt down criminals until he can’t anymore. He’s still got the fire in the belly, but Marcus knows they’re not the hotshot kings of Miami anymore. When crime syndicate matriarch Isabel Aretas (Kate di Castillo) enlists her son Armando (Jacob Scipio) to eliminate Mike and the people connected to an old case which landed her in prison, Mike has to team up with onetime lover (Paola Nuñez) and her fresh-faced team of young law-enforcement unit known as AMMO to take them out.
There’s a moment early on in this film which completely caught me off guard in every way. It was the moment where I realised that this was actually going to be something which takes risks from a story and character perspective—not exactly something I expect in a Bad Boys film. Chris Bremner, Peter Craig (The Town, Blood Father) and Joe Carnahan’s (Smokin’ Aces, The Grey) screenplay is able to give actual depth to Mike due to this inciting incident and not put him on a pedestal. As an aging duo, both Marcus and Mike have to come to terms with their own morality. Mike may have devoted his life to being a great cop, but he’s never got to truly experience family like Marcus has. Even Marcus himself is forced to reckon with the rampant violence he’s caused in the past. Some of this is played for comedy obviously, but I didn’t exactly expect this level of depth. It’s also relieving that the screenplay never fully tries to pit the old guard of Marcus and Mike against the new guard of AMMO. There’s playful jabs and back-and-forth, but it’s never overly on-the-nose, which is what I was expecting.
El Arbi and Fallah are clearly paying homage to Bay’s style and the action films of the 90s, albeit with the abrasive edges sanded off. There’s not nearly as much harsh, fast cutting and mean-spirited puerile humour as in the second film, but it still employs his trademark oversaturated colour palette and sweeping, grand camera direction. Bay’s latest film 6 Underground is honestly more reminiscent of Bad Boys II than this film is stylistically. It does feel a bit too VFX heavy in the third act, but the film thankfully aims to follow Bay’s approach of practical over VFX throughout, and for inexperienced directors the action is well done. Said action pops visually thanks to cinematographer Robrecht Heyvaert—who employed a similarly oversaturated and colourful aesthetic in Revenge last year.
I don’t know if it was intentional, but once the third act amps up, it felt very Fast & Furious in how soap opera-like in the progression of its story. It’s clear Bremner, Craig and Carnahan were aware of this from a writing perspective because even Marcus describes such revelations as ‘some telenovela shit’. It’s just strange seeing characters with little real depth in the first two being overloaded with backstory, mythology and depth.
From a dramatic perspective, it’s Martin Lawrence who does surprisingly fantastic work throughout. As much as Smith is considered a global movie star, he’s proven he has dramatic chops, but Lawrence…not so much. There’s more than one scene in this where he has to strongly emote, and it was honestly surprising to see. I do wish Smith had stronger chemistry with Núñez as their romantic link is a big driver of the film despite him doing strong work in the film.
So much of the draw of this franchise is the comedic chemistry between the two leads. Prior to filming, Lawrence and Smith were concerned that they wouldn’t gel as naturally, but that fear would’ve been extinguished immediately because they’re absolutely fantastic together once again. I can’t say every joke lands to its maximum potential, but as I’d hoped, there’s many fun comedic beats amongst the drama and spectacle.
Bad Boys for Life shouldn’t have worked. Considering the 17-year layoff and the fact that long awaited sequels working is somewhat of a rare commodity, it’s clear everyone involved really wanted to continue this series strongly. It’s always hard to go straight into the big-budget landscape coming from an indie background, but El Arbi and Fallah do a really good job in paying homage to the past while evolving this franchise. No, it’s not reinventing the action blockbuster rulebook by any stretch of the imagination, but this may be the platonic ideal of a Bad Boys film. I didn’t expect that.
Bad Boys for Life is in cinemas now.