by Philip Price
Director: Adil El Arbi & Bilall Fallah
Starring: Will Smith, Martin Lawrence & Vanessa Hudgens
Runtime: 2 hours & 4 minutes
As an individual who holds a special place in their heart for what was the pinnacle of everything a 16-year-old boy could want from a movie it always felt something like destiny that “Bad Boys II” arrived in theaters eight years after the original in the summer of 2003 shortly after I turned 16. “Bad Boys II” was undoubtedly one of the first R-rated features I saw in theaters and I saw it simply on the basis of loving both Will Smith and Martin Lawrence (I'd bought the DVD of Lawrence's live stand-up show, “Runteldat,” the year before and Smith had always felt near and dear to me as my dad exposed myself and my siblings to The Fresh Prince and Jazzy Jeff's records at such a young age that they would lead to my brothers and I performing his songs at our elementary school talent shows) and so, with no point of reference for why there was a roman numeral in the title I saw “Bad Boys II” multiple times that summer. The fact it was a sequel to a movie I hadn't seen didn't matter. What I witnessed was Lawrence and Smith unhinged and completely free to do, say and act however they wanted and while I didn't yet know who Michael Bay was I can remember thinking after seeing “Bad Boys II” that I loved the style of the movie; not just the grandiosity of it, but the saturated look of every moment as we didn't just take it at face value that the movie took place in Miami because the movie made us feel like we were IN Miami...and the movement of the camera-while calling attention to itself, certainly-was still some of the coolest, most inventive camera work I'd seen up until that point. Cut to seventeen years later and for one reason or another a third ‘Bad Boys’ film never materialized until now. Is it kind of a shame Smith and Lawrence didn't make another ‘Bad Boys’ flick in their forties thus saving the appropriate title of “Bad Boys For Life” for the fourth installment that could very well be the film we now have as the third in the series instead? Yeah, it's kind of a bummer, but the extended break also admittedly marks the return of Lawrence and Smith to the big screen as these characters as something truly special and something that-just as I'm beginning to genuinely feel older and rapidly approaching the age Smith was when he made “Bad Boys II” - no other franchise could have done at this moment in time as “Bad Boys for Life” both takes me back to what it felt like during that youthful summer when the sun never felt like it would set while also bringing me into the present and reminding me how critical it is that we keep moving forward and don't get too caught up in the past.
For those not lucky enough to have an emotional tie or nostalgic connection to the property, “Bad Boys for Life” will likely prove to be nothing more than a run of the mill buddy cop film with some solid chemistry to admire between its two leads, but as someone who feels molded not necessarily by the characters or ideas the franchise spouts, but by the energy it exudes and the insight into the singular vision of certain filmmakers like Bay, “Bad Boys for Life” is a welcome addition to both stars filmography as it not only works on a base level of ticking all the boxes each ‘Bad Boys’ film should tick, but it also works as an examination of where these two men are at in their lives as cops, as fathers, as partners and how these broad actions and sustained relationships will ultimately define their legacy. In other words, “Bad Boys for Life” gives Mike Lowery (Smith) and Marcus Burnett (Lawrence) real-world obstacles to grapple with yet remains relatively light on its feet so as to not bring the mood of the party down too much; instead nudging both the characters and the audience into acknowledging that while the party can't last forever we should simply feel lucky the party ever started at all.
Part of the journey is the end as Robert Downey Jr.'s Iron Man would say and to that extent franchise newcomers Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah who are directing from a script originated by Joe Carnahan (“The Grey”) along with Peter Craig and Chris Bremner pick-up with Lowery and Burnett in real time, seventeen years later as they are brought face to face with some new issues (getting older, retirement, passing the baton to the next generation) and some old ones (drug cartels, a difference in how they approach situations, giving Joe Pantoliano's Captain Howard a heart attack) as a new threat arrives in Miami as personified by Isabel Aretas (Kate del Castillo) and her son, Armando (Jacob Scipio), the newly appointed leaders of the vicious Miami drug cartel who have a personal agenda against Mr. Lowery and several other high-up government officials in the city. While Mike is as primed and ready as ever (the 2020 Porsche Taycan is his luxury car of choice this time around) Marcus is set to retire as he has recently become a grandfather and wants to enjoy days being home with his family, helping to raise his grandchildren and finally getting some of that "quality time" with the wife, Theresa (once again played by Theresa Randle). As these things go though, Marcus is pulled back into the fray "one last time" in order to help Mike bring down Aretas and the cartel as they team up with the newly created AMMO elite team made up of young hot shots such as Kelly (Vanessa Hudgens), Dorn (Alexander Ludwig) and Rafe (Charles Melton) as led by Rita (Paola Nuñez) a Captain who Mike clearly has a history with of which neither of them want to discuss, but which neither of them can seem to let go of either.
Needless to say, there is a lot going on in “Bad Boys for Life,” but El Arbi and Fallah navigate the waters of the nearby Atlantic with a surprisingly assured hand as they don't necessarily mimic that of what Bay did with the first two films, but they definitely draw from the style and presence of the location in the same way (even if some of this was shot in Atlanta) as everything that occurs around our two leads is both hyper-stylized while containing such a high-octane level of kinetic energy that-even for those who recognize the tropes of the buddy cop bit-can't help but to be swept up in the pace of the plot and the intermittent action set pieces that, to the credit of the filmmakers, are much more comprehensive than that of what Bay evolved into over the course of his ‘Transformers’ tenure. Moreover, what separates “Bad Boys for Life” from its predecessors even further is the fact that it not only mines our heroes personal lives for jokes, but it treats them-arguably for the first time-as sources of pain and conflict that bleed over into the actions they take daily on the job. Sure, Lawrence's Marcus has always been the one to be more cautious and less hasty while Mike has always taken up the role of the loose cannon, but it becomes evident very early on in Carnahan's screenplay that these default archetypes aren't something these two can play out forever or at least, in the fashion they are accustomed to. What I truly appreciate about “Bad Boys for Life” though, is its willingness to say "no" and this is in regards both to the arc of the characters and resurrecting old jokes just for the sake of a callback. There is a scene in which Smith's Mike literally begs for his partner to come out of retirement to help him with this one last job, but Marcus refuses and knows he has to refuse because as much as he wants to believe his partner he knows this won't be the last time. While, yes, Marcus of course ends up re-joining Mike on "one last mission" there is strong enough reasoning to support this turn in the character while still allowing for Marcus to maintain his position of being wise enough to know when the time has come to close one chapter and begin another. Smith's Mike doesn't comprehend these ideas or maybe he doesn't care to even try and grasp the concept of mortality, but as the film continues to unfold it becomes all the more impressive how the film forces these truths into Mike's face as it seems what it's been getting at the entire time is the source, the place from which Mike's obsession with the badge and the gun derives.
I don't want to make “Bad Boys for Life” sound too pontifical because it's still very much a ninety-minute buddy comedy blown up to two hours that is bolstered by well-executed set pieces and the undeniable chemistry at the heart of it, but I have to imagine that even without a pre-existing connection to the characters or previous films that one might be moved at the depths the film goes to here in an attempt to try and humanize our protagonists rather than simply relegating them to cartoons ready to jump on a scene and shoot some folks before breaking into song. Carnahan's script uses the 25 year’s worth of history between the characters to draw out the conflict they face in this new film and the companionship that inevitably brings them back together. Sure, the way in which the plot eventually wraps itself back around feels a little too safe, but in an age of cinematic universes and a world where “The Fast & the Furious” has become a behemoth of a franchise this is to be somewhat expected. Does “Bad Boys for Life” do the thing where it makes us look back at the previous films with renewed perspectives even though when those films were made the performers had no awareness of what are now canon facets? Yeah, it definitely does and are Hudgens, Ludwig and Melton being brought in with the hopes of creating a likely spin-off franchise featuring the new generation of Miami detectives? Definitely, but while there are a few hoops to jump through here in terms of legalities for being a franchise in the year 2020 the level of enjoyment one gets out of the film as a whole is still the bottom line and while it's almost a foregone conclusion that Smith and Lawrence will deliver in these roles they really do deliver in these roles once again. Neither actor misses a beat and even more relieving is the fact the chemistry and the relationship doesn't feel stale. These guys have been partners for going on 30 years and through the three films we have seen this partnership in its infancy, its prime and now in its back half as real decisions have to be made concerning where the two of them want to see this partnership lead. Through this, Lawrence is as sharp as he ever has been; spitting out one-liners left and right with ten times the amount of hits than misses whereas Smith (who is now 51 by the way) is as smooth and charismatic as ever even if he is realizing time leaves no man behind, not even the great Mike Lowery. The bottom line being that “Bad Boys for Life” successfully replicates the aura and energy of the first two films and thus delivers a fun, entertaining ride with one of our (or at least my) favorite on screen duos while offering some surprising layers to a relationship that could have possibly been played out by this point. “Bad Boys for Life” isn't waxing poetic on ephemerality and legacy, but it's considering them among the explosions, laughs, car chases and cuss words and really...what more could you ask for?