‘Bad Boys for Life’ Is the ‘Bad Boys’ Sequel That Absolutely No One Asked For
Will Smith and Martin Lawrence have returned for a third, Michael Bay-less “Bad Boys” movie. Was it worth the 17-year wait?
Will Smith and Martin Lawrence are too old for the absurd buddy-cop action of Bad Boys for Life (in theaters today), and thankfully, they—and the film—know it. That self-awareness, coupled with lively humor and passable set pieces, make this long-delayed third franchise entry a modest surprise, suggesting there’s still some life left in its ‘90s-era brand of goofy banter and chaotic gunfights.
It’s been 17 years since Bad Boys II, a pinnacle of orgiastic mayhem drenched in all sorts of inappropriateness, highlighted by a finale in which Smith and Lawrence’s Miami cops, Mike Lowrey and Marcus Burnett, literally invade Cuba and destroy a mountainside shantytown with their speeding Hummer. It was the epitome of the cinema du Michael Bay (and producer Jerry Bruckheimer)—awe-inspiring in its extravagance and shamefulness—and nothing quite approaches its level of gleeful excess and offensiveness in Bad Boys for Life. Here, the directorial reins have been turned over to Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah (going by the shorthand monikers Adil and Bilall), who approximate the high-gloss, big-budget style of their behind-the-camera predecessor, replete with glistening Florida and Mexican vistas, swooping drone shots, and rotating pans around their protagonists—and, in a cameo as a wedding MC, Bay himself.
In other words, Bad Boys for Life offers the same basic thrills as the two films that came before it, except in a toned-down package. That makes it feel a tad second-rate, but it’s also in keeping with its story, which finds Mike eager to maintain his status as an indestructible playboy detective, but Marcus ready to hang up his firearm—which represents the duo’s virility—and enjoy retirement as a new grandpa. That scenario is complicated by the appearance of Armando (Jacob Scipio), a lethal cartel villain whose evil mother Isabel (Kate del Castillo) has recently broken out of prison, and wants her son to assassinate all those who put her there. Wouldn’t you know it, at the top of her kill list is Mike, and he’s soon gunned down in the streets of Miami in front of Marcus—thus further convincing the latter that it’s time to step away from his law-enforcement career.
Of course, Mike isn’t dying and Marcus isn’t retiring—such drama is merely the catalyst for a story in which the two pair up “one last time” because, per their mantra, they ride together and die together and are bad boys for life. This is well-traversed terrain, and directors Adil and Bilall don’t pretend they’re doing anything but rehashing the same old macho Smith-and-Lawrence nonsense. Except, that is, when they’re aping other popular series—namely Fast and Furious, via a high-tech police squad known as AMMO (get it?) that Mike and Marcus are reluctantly forced to work with by exasperated Captain Howard (Joe Pantoliano). Mike’s former flame Rita (Paola Nuñez) is the leader of this team, which is comprised of a multicultural cast of operatives: hulking Caucasian techie Dorn (Alexander Ludwig); snarky Asian Rafe (Charles Melton); and fearless Latina Kelly (Vanessa Hudgens). Together, they prove to be Mike and Marcus’ new clan, although even stronger familial ties eventually materialize for the heroes, thanks to third-act revelations one can see coming a mile away.
It would be going too far to say that the script (by Chris Bremner, Peter Craig, and Joe Carnahan) is astute, graceful, or inventive; the racially-charged one-liners, in particular, are downright creaky. Bad Boys for Life isn’t a canny beast, but it moves with requisite speed and muscle, and its jabs at Mike and Marcus for being dangerous trigger-happy relics prove to be playful attempts at self-critique. Moreover, it ably breaks up its requisite car chases and shootouts with character-building bits, and at least with Mike, it winds up contributing to a surprising trend for its marquee star. To say anything specific would spoil the film’s bombshells, but suffice it to say, Smith once again finds himself battling—figuratively, and literally—his younger self, thereby rendering this sequel a quasi-Gemini Man 2 about the limits of both badass supermanliness and, by extension, continuing to play one on screen into middle age. It’s like watching a grad school dissertation unfold before one’s very eyes.
That subtext provides a modicum of heft to what’s otherwise a rather routine affair most admirable for not botching its basic obligations to flip cars and stage explosions. Adil and Bilall mimic Bay’s fondness for reflective surfaces and slow-motion, and though they only handle their smash-bang-boom duty with a fraction of his flair, they keep things efficient and coherent. Miami’s nighttime streets sparkle, its nightclubs sizzle, and its sports cars screech and speed through traffic with predictable verve. Throw in some bass-thumping Latin music on the soundtrack, and a few scenes in a monitor-laden control room, and you’ve got what amounts to a play-it-safe “remix” of Smith and Lawrence’s prior exploits.
“Violence is what we do,” says Mike at one point, but Bad Boys for Life is actually best when it cops to the fact that it doesn’t have any new, brutal tricks up its sleeve. The sight of Mike throwing a gun to Marcus—a shout-out to similar moments in the first two franchise installments—and the eyesight-impaired Marcus crazily failing to catch it is far more energized, and amusing, than all the rote punching, kicking, slashing and shooting that fills up the proceedings’ 124-minute runtime. To that end, the film really kicks into gear in its second half, when Lawrence is finally given considerable opportunities to crack wise at his partner. In just a few quips on a plane, Lawrence flashes some of the unique comedic wildness that once made him an above-the-title leading man.
As for Mike, Smith does his usual cocky routine, and as has recently been the case, his physical presence remains formidable (most pleasurable: watching him rough up a butcher played by DJ Khaled) but his stabs at swaggering tough-guy banter come across as strained. Given that Bad Boys for Life is ultimately about how you can’t be the indestructible hero forever, however, that feels strangely—if unintentionally—apt.