It's been 25 years since Michael Bay's first "Bad Boys" film, and 17 years since its sequel. A series of over-the-top buddy-cop action extravaganzas, the franchise revolves around the exploits of Mike Lowery and Marcus Burnett (played by Will Smith and Martin Lawrence), two wise-cracking Miami narcotics detectives whose talent for solving cases is matched only by their flagrant disregard for the law.
Bay's "Bad Boys" films had something of a fascistic streak, with a celebration of police brutality, militarization, and misanthropic cruelty played for laughs. Mike and Marcus regularly beat up their suspects, but we were assured it was OK, because we knew their targets were really bad guys (or at least had important information they wouldn't give up without the incentive of a few bruises and broken bones). In the previous film, the pair even went rogue and invaded another country to perform extrajudicial slaughter, while demolishing an impoverished village in the process.
To be fair, there's often a bit of this ideology baked into many action films of the "Bad Boys" variety, and I'll be the first to admit that I've enjoyed plenty of those movies before. But the "Bad Boys" series has always sat rather uneasily with me, coming as they do wrapped in Bay's gleefully adolescent and knowingly tasteless worldview.
Now comes "Bad Boys for Life," the third installment and the first without Bay as a director — though he maintains producer credit and even makes a cameo appearance. Belgian filmmakers Adil El Arbi and BilallFallah take over directing duties, and they keep up Bay's penchant for excessive destruction and mayhem while working to dial back the blatant racism, misogyny, and homophobia. Credit to the filmmakers for recognizing that those aspects of the series haven't exactly aged well. Which is progress, I guess?
As a result, this one's less nihilistic than "Bad Boys II," which demolished good taste in a hail of gunfire and slow-motion explosions. It even attempts to earn some pathos as Mike and Marcus are forced to reckon with the demons of their past — facing a threat of their own creation.
That threat comes in the form of Miami drug cartel matriarch Isabel Aretas (Kate del Castillo) who's violently escaped from a Mexican prison with the help of her ruthless son Armando (Jacob Scipio), and plans to get revenge on the people who wronged her. Number one on her list is Mike, who she holds responsible for the murder of her kingpin husband and for getting her imprisoned.
The script by Chris Bremner, Peter Craig, and Joe Carnahan leans into the advancing age of its characters (Smith is 51, Lawrence is 54). Mike and Marcus are learning to accept the prospect of getting older and facing their own obsolescence.
Marcus has recently become a grandfather, and he finds himself ready to settle down and embrace retirement. His newfound domesticity has left him conflicted about the legacy of bloodshed he's left behind in his career, and he expresses a desire to not put more violence into the world. This puts him at odds with his partner, who tells him he's happy to keep chasing criminals until the day he dies.
Mike and Marcus get teamed up with a special, hi-tech police unit called AMMO, led by Rita (Paola Núñez), a captain who has romantic history with Mike. The crew is rounded out by a new batch of fresh-faced rookies, played by Vanessa Hudgens, Alexander Ludwig, and Charles Melton, and the addition of teammates occasionally makes this feel a bit like an entry in the "Fast and Furious" series.
Bay's films had a baseline of "pure sensory overload," and in comparison "Boy Boys for Life" is relatively subdued. Queasy politics aside, the film feels a little generic without Bay's distinctive aesthetic. It's a bit more like store brand Bayhem (as the wanton destruction depicted in Bay's films has come to be known) than the real thing, and it takes a long while before things click into gear with a late-film motorcycle chase.
You can feel the directors working to find a place for these characters in the modern action flick landscape. It's always fun to see Smith and Lawrence bicker and argue, and while the dialogue could be sharper, their chemistry goes a long way. And there's a smidge of emotional weight to its story about the ways both heroes and villains are drawn into cycles of revenge.
Arbi and Fallah have a nice handle on the staging of action, working in some snazzy camera work and longer, handheld takes. The violence in "Bad Boys for Life" isn't as cartoonish as the previous films; here it has consequences, even if the characters crack jokes about it.
I appreciated the filmmakers' attempts to bring a relative maturity to these characters, but those efforts strike an uneasy balance with the leftover pieces from the previous films. With a story that still promotes police brutality and the increasing militarization of police forces, its light-heartedness grows more troubling once you dig beneath the surface.
Adam Lubitow is a freelance writer for CITY. Feedback on this article can be directed to [email protected].