Studio sequels tend to skew less towards “more of the same” and more to “the same, but a lot more of it.” The distinction seems small, but it’s pretty key: more of the same suggests a serialized experience in which the scope of the action remains more or less unchanged (like Law & Order) while “the same, but a lot more of it” suggests a raising of the stakes that’s hopefully proportional to the popularity of what’s being sequelized. Neither approach is the gauge of a good movie, mind you, but the current state of blockbuster filmmaking has made the latter approach particularly grotesque and over-the-top.
When it comes to the Bad Boys series, however, we’re faced with a conundrum. Bad Boys 2 is possibly the most overtly bombastic raising-of-the-stakes of the last 20 years, a behemoth buddy cop movie that’s almost entirely about how big every element can get. Bad Boys 2 seemed like a statement from Michael Bay — of course, he then went on to direct many Transformers movies that dwarfed the carnage and visual chaos of that movie by a wide margin. Still, it remains that Bad Boys 2 made its bed and lay in it, more or less shutting the door on a traditional sequel.
I don’t love the Bad Boys franchise the way others do. I find its maximalist aesthetic exhausting after a while, a somewhat tedious (but undeniably impressive, in a perverse way) exercise in watching Bay blow up his toys. Suffice to say that the fact that it was smaller budgeted, directed by two unproven talents, released in January and seemingly leaning hard into the “we’re OLD now!” brand of comedy did not make Bad Boys for Life appear to be a good time at the movies. It seemed like a particularly pathetic clearing of the docket by a studio desperate to run any intellectual property into the ground.
I’m pleased to report that although Bad Boys for Life is pretty much all of the things that I expected it to be, scaling back is a good look for these boys. Less cheerfully nihilistic and more weirdly soulful (!) than its previous incarnation, it’s a valiant attempt to breathe some life into a franchise that purposefully burned its own bridges a while back. Make no mistake: it is 100 per cent useless and somewhat desperate, especially in the ways it tries to loop into the “universe” of the previous films. But if all useless action movies were made with this much care and this much of a visible attempt to do something a little different while also studiously colouring within the lines, it’d be a much healthier landscape for that particular genre.
After 25 years on the force, Mike Lowrey (Will Smith) shows no signs of slowing down. Though his partner Marcus Burnett (Martin Lawrence) is relishing the idea of retiring and spending time with his family, swingin’ bachelor Mike wants to continue flipping Porsches and beating up sources until he drops dead. He certainly comes close to it when he’s gunned down on the street while having a friendly foot race with Marcus. Mike doesn’t die, but he comes close to it, and when he recovers he becomes determined to find out who tried to have him killed. This forces Marcus out of his newfound retirement and our two titular bad boys back in action.
From a pretty rote set-up, Bad Boys for Life slowly finds its way to being pretty objectively strange and unexpected. It finds Marcus having a full blown crisis of faith in trying to repent for his violent ways (surprisingly Scorsesean!). It finds Mike breaking DJ Khaled’s fingers with a meat-tenderizing hammer (surprisingly appeasing!). It’s surprisingly violent without leaning into the mean-spirited nihilsm of the previous film.
Though the bad guys are bad guys in no uncertain terms, Bad Boys for Life spends less time reveling in their evisceration. Directors Adil El Arbi and Bilall Farah (whose biggest credit this side of their native Belgium is probably the 2015 street gang drama Black) hit a good balance between gritty, down-to-the-ground action directing and more fanciful decisions. It’s never not a good idea to fill a shootout with coloured mist of any shade.
It’s certainly not perfect. Indeed, many of its most ambitious decisions prove to be its more annoying ones, like pairing up the boys with a younger crew (played by Vanessa Hudgens, Alexander Ludwig, Paola Nunez and Charles Melton) that screams of Mission: Impossible envy and bogs down the movie some. (I suppose it’s more realistic for cops in their 50s to call for back-up, but no movie requires its stars to hack into the mainframe with a super-yoked hacker. Send that shit back to 1997.)
And, without getting into spoilers, the movie does an admirably thorough job of either ignoring or deconstructing most of what it sets up by the third act in order to deliver — better late than never — an experience that fully fits into nearly anyone’s idea of what a Bad Boys movie should be. (They sing the Bad Boys song a lot in this one, perhaps twice as many times as in both of the previous films combined.)
The type of action movies that were being made in the ’80s and ’90s are gone. No amount of hand-wringing and nostalgia will ever change that. Even if quality action films in that same mold are being made (mainly for the VOD / streaming market), they remain films of their time. In that sense, Bad Boys for Life represents about as perfect a loud, abrasive action movie from 2020 as one can imagine. When you put it up against anemic, tired efforts like The Hitman’s Bodyguard or Skyscraper, it looks very good indeed. It doesn’t have the protagonists tearing ass through a Cuban slum or locking Michael Shannon in the trunk of a car, but maybe some things are better left in the past.
Bad Boys for Life opens in Montreal theatres on Friday, Jan. 20. Watch the trailer below.
For our latest film reviews, please visit our Film section.