“We ride together, we die together” never really made that much sense as a slogan, did it? Regardless, the line that epitomized the appeal of Bad Boys, the uber-violent action buddy cop franchise that turned Martin Lawrence and Will Smith into movie stars back in the mid-90s. Smith and Lawrence– now fiftysomethings– are back for a third go-round with surprising and enjoyable new tricks.
In 2003, the eight years between Bad Boys seemed like an eternity. But there’s been seventeen years between Bad Boys II and Bad Boys For Life—the former hit theaters before an iPhone ever existed, just as the so-called War On Terror was hitting full swing and a wide-eyed Beyonce embarked on a nascent solo career. If the buddy cop genre was on life support in the early 2000s, the formula is almost completely post-mortem in 2020; most buddy cop flicks in more recent times have been subversive spoofs (like 2010s The Other Guys) or unfunny one-offs (like the forgettable CHiPs).
This time around, Mike Lowry (Smith) and Marcus Burnett (Lawrence) face the realities of middle age. Burnett is happy to waltz into retirement and into “Papa” territory, exhausted from chasing kingpins. Lowry, on the other hand, is ever more of an adrenaline junkie than in the past; addicted to the thrill and holding on to a “bulletproof” playboy image that’s getting sadder and sadder—particularly when he’s forced to admit he wrecked a promising relationship with fellow officer Rita (Paola Nunez) and every time he peppers his bravado with Millennial-speak like “Turn up” and “One Hunnid.”
Lowry’s disappointment in Burnett’s desire to leave the force turns into something harsher after a shooting forces Mike to take stock and Marcus distances himself from his old partner. Of course, this is all just a set up for the duo to reconnect in the face of tragedy—along with a gaggle of new recruits led by Rita; including a computer geek who may or may not be a killing machine, a young tough guy who hates Lowry for apparently no reason, and Vanessa Hudgens.
It’s fun, violent escapism that doesn’t ask too much of anyone.
Bad Boys For Life has more heart than the lunkheaded Bad Boys II, directors Adil El Arbi and Bilall Ballah don’t forego the departed Michael Bay’s formula for punchlines and hyperkinetic violence; there’s an opening knife sequence that’s almost gratuitously graphic, and an action set-piece on a bridge that may be the most ambitious in the series. There’s only a passing mention of Burnett’s sister (played by Gabrielle Union in the previous film) and an obligatory callback to II’s funniest moment involving his daughter, but a lot of the movie’s emotional core sits with Smith’s Mike Lowry. Smith plays his first action star with an almost meta-level of intensity.
He’s the sum of all Will Smith’s Will Smithiness in one character and gets to play with the idea of Lowry’s machismo persona. Together with the recognition that Lawrence isn’t really an action star (the film smartly turns his affinity for sitting and watching as Smith jumps headfirst into heroics into a running gag), it’s a good turn for the characters and helps elevate the second half of the movie after a somewhat rote first half.
As the film’s “big bad,” Telenovela action star Kate del Castillo isn’t given a whole lot to do, nor is Jacob Scipio as Armas, as her son and steely hitman, who is on the hunt for Lowry. Reliably familiar support from Theresa Randle as Burnett’s long-suffering wife and Joe Pantoliano as the perpetually-flustered police captain Conrad Howard reminds everyone that this is a Bad Boys flick, and the actors clearly relish jumping back into their long-standing roles.
But these films always work best when Smith and Lawrence get to quip lines back-and-forth while dodging bullets, and the easy partnership between the two remains intact, even when the film lags under its own clichés or the sentiment borders on silly. There’s a twist that feels especially contrived and so many self-referential moments where Marcus and Mike seem to almost know that they’re in a movie about Marcus and Mike (who say “Bad boys for life” as a wedding toast, really?), but there’s a breeziness to the proceedings that feels more in line with the easy fun of the 1995 original—as opposed to the frenetically hyperactive feel of its sequel.
Anyone who is excited to see Bad Boys For Life wants to go into it for what these movies have always managed to give their fans; just enough comedy sprinkled with just enough to story to justify eye-popping action sequences and RoboCop-levels of bloodshed. The buddy cop genre was always predictable, but the best of it—classics like Lethal Weapon, Beverly Hills Cop and, yes, the first Bad Boys film—has always been a fun night at the movies.
In that regard, Bad Boys For Life doesn’t disappoint. It’s coasting on the easygoing partnership of Smith and Lawrence, as it always has. 25 years ago, they were two of the biggest stars on television, making a somewhat unlikely leap to action stardom in a movie initially written for then-Saturday Night Live comedians Dana Carvey and Jon Lovitz that was being directed by a guy most people had never heard of. We may be a vastly different audience today than we were in the 1990s or 2000s, but there’s some fun in watching how different Mike and Marcus are too.
Franchises like Rush Hour and Lethal Weapon seem like big blockbuster brands of yesteryear, as a whole generation of moviegoers have grown up with vast comic book spectacles or rapid-chase car flicks overpopulated with musclebound tough guys. As such, Bad Boys For Life stands as a sort of throwback in popcorn entertainment; that reliable action-comedy that coasts on the chemistry and charisma of its leads—more so than otherworldly special effects or universe-building.
The constant mentions of “One last time” statements remind the audience that this could be the final go-round for Mike and Marcus. Big box office returns can reroute retirements, but if this is indeed the grand finale for Bad Boys, there are worse ways to go out. In a world where Lethal Weapon 4 and Rush Hour 3 exist (with talk of another in the Chris Tucker/Jackie Chan series coming down the pike), Bad Boys For Life should be praised for what it does manage to do so well. It’s fun, violent escapism that doesn’t ask too much of anyone. And sometimes that’s really all we need these movies to be.
Bad Boys For Life opens in theaters Friday, January 17.
Director(s): Adil El Arbi, Bilall Fallah
Starring: Will Smith, Martin Lawrence, Vanessa Hudgens, Jacob Scipio, Alexander Ludwig, Kate del Castillo, Joe Pantoliano, Charles Melton, Paola Núñez, Nicky Jam, DJ Khaled.