It has been seventeen years since Bad Boys II. Directed with trademark mayhem by Michael Bay, that film ends with Mike (Will Smith) and Marcus (Martin Lawrence) effectively invading Cuba in pursuit of a drug dealer. It is a tedious exercise, excessive and cruel for its own sake. Roger Ebert’s pan of the film astutely observes, “The heroes… are egotistical monsters, concerned only with their power, their one-liners, their weapons, their cars, their desires.” Bay, Smith, and Lawrence would probably by saying “it’s supposed to be fun,” except the filmmaking craft is not enough to suspend Ebert’s disbelief. Their excess was effectively skewered in Hot Fuzz, a film that loves action spectacle enough to critique it.
What I’m saying is that in terms of genre and history, those seventeen years might as well be seventy years. So much has changed in the action landscape that any throwback franchise should probably change along with it. John Wick, The Fast and the Furious, plus Mission: Impossible push the genre’s spectacle and change how an action hero can behave. In all that context, Bad Boys for Life is unabashedly retrograde. These heroes are still egotistical monsters, incurious about due process or even their own mortality. Jokes and skulls are cracked without much thought – this film is a series of moments strung together, without much attention to the greater whole. This is why you might have a deadly fight scene, a stupid one-liner, and a maudlin character moment within seconds of each other.
Mike and Marcus are a bit older now, and it shows. Lawrence does not have a physically demanding role, to the point it is hard to remember he was once an action star, and Smith’s “don’t give a fuck” attitude veers toward an ill-advised midlife crisis. That could have been material for a thoughtful update to these characters – even Lethal Weapon 4 took this idea with more wit and care – except the script treats the “Bad boys for life” code as a personality trait. At one point, Marcus retires from the police (the film makes no attempt to explain why two middle aged men never advanced their careers), and Mike cajoles him out of it basically by bullying him. I’m not opposed to action heroes without complexity, or even chauvinism as a defining characteristic. But if that’s all there is, the conceit quickly loses its appeal.
At first, anyway, one thing in favor of Bad Boys for Life is that Michael Bay did not direct it (he does appear in a cameo). Instead, Belgian filmmakers Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah handle the chaos. There are the requisite chases, shoot-outs, and explosions, although little attention is paid toward space and movement. All the action is meant to showcase and occasionally mock Mike/Marcus as they make their way through another dangerous criminal syndicate. Little attention is paid to their adversaries, as if Arbi and Fallah have no other purpose besides placating the egos of their stars. Sure, there are some nice reversals, like when Mike and Marcus drive around in a minivan, but the film lets us know they’re not being serious about such indignities. After going through the motions about the merits of settling down, Arbi and Fallah quickly return to the violence, which is bloodier and more brutal than your average action film. Maybe that’s because it is presented without as much style.
The bad boys do not exist in a vacuum. Joe Pantoliano reprises his role as Mike and Marcus’ permanently aggrieved boss – he rationalizes their chaos, to the chagrin of civilians all over Miami – and there is a new unit of more sophisticated, less action-oriented policemen and women. They’re meant as foil for Mike and Marcus, as they have temerity to use techniques like observation and surveillance. It is an interesting dynamic, one that puts Mike and Marcus in a semi-plausible context, except these smarter cops ultimately have no choice but to acquiesce to the action required of them. What’s even more bizarre is how Vanessa Hudgens plays one of these cops, and she has so little to do. She has third billing after Smith and Lawrence, so I cannot help but wonder if she was part of a subplot that was left on the cutting room floor.
Transgressive mayhem is the appeal to Bad Boys. Mike and Marcus exist in a universe without interrogation rooms, or even the ACLU. They do seem aware of American racism, although “Black lives matter” rhetoric has not made its way to Miami. Perhaps Michael Bay’s exaggeration was well-suited to this material. It was so over-the-top, so lacking in taste or coherence, that sensory overload is the only way to appreciate what happens. Bad Boys for Life has a sentimental streak that undercuts their attempts at bravado, including silly ploy twists that are so implausible that they can only be explained by Will Smith’s personal obsession with a very specific idea. No healthy or normal person would internalize the creed “Bad boys for life,” and this dumb movie cannot even muster the case for Mike and Marcus to buy it.