The two previous Bad Boys films represent the extremes of two different kinds of action movies. The first, released in 1995, had the basic structure of a buddy cop picture but for some reason overloaded on boring plot details. The second, released eight years later, became infamous for overloading on gunfire, lowbrow humor and relentless movement. Whatever charm the Bad Boys movies have (the candy-colored lenses used to shoot Miami, gritty action scenes or the chemistry between stars Martin Lawrence and Will Smith), they’re either overused or lacking. But there’s still potential in Bad Boys and somehow, after 20 years, someone finally used it right. Even better, that someone isn’t Michael Bay!
Bad Boys for Life is well aware that its old. Not only an old franchise, but with old men as its lead characters. Detective Marcus Burnett (Lawrence) is a grandfather and is now retiring from the Miami Police Department, much to the annoyance of his longtime partner, Detective Mike Lowrey (Smith). While Marcus feels the fear of dying in the line of duty now more than ever, Mike wants to wear sharp suits and run down bad guys until he needs a walker. But a deadly Mexican drug pusher (Jacob Scipio) and his mysterious mother (Kate del Castillo) start killing law officials and want Mike dead. With the help of Lieutenant Rita (Paola Núñez) and a collection of hungry newbies (Vanessa Hudgens, Alexander Ludwig and Charles Melton), Mike and Marcus team-up one more time to dish out justice their own nasty way.
With the weight of being a sequel to a franchise whose prior beliefs are way out of style in 2020, the best thing previous director Bay could’ve done is actually leave the director’s chair. That position is now split between Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah (Snowfall), who have amazingly made the most professional and unironically enjoyable entry in the franchise. The look of Bay is still in the movie thanks to the lush orange dayglow sunlight and beaming neon nightlife captured by cinematographer Robrecht Heyvaert (Revenge). What Arbi, Fallah, and Heyvaert do to make Bad Boys for Life their own is not overload each frame with bullets, butts and boom. The pacing of the movie is a steady give-and-take between action and character development, with the action scenes well executed but thankfully not overstaying their welcome. Arbi and Fallah don’t resort to shaky cam or sudden movement to hold the audience’s attention, instead showing their strong use of slo-mo and Heyvaert’s focused color scheme and lighting to create controlled scenes instead of constant noise. It’s also a relief that editors Dan Lebental (Iron Man) and Peter McNulty (The Master) don’t cut scenes to bits in favor of letting them flow. The movie does overstay its welcome in the final explosive moments of its 123-minute runtime, but only due to it going back to an over-the-top finale instead of something more restrained.
The movie is certainly more restrained thanks to a strong script from Joe Carnahan (Narc), Peter Craig (The Town) and Chris Bremner (The Wedding Ringer). Craig and Carnahan are also credited for the story which is grittier and more grounded than the prior two entries. There’s still the franchise staple of drug cartels and gang double-crosses, but the real crux of the story is Mike and Marcus handling their age. Ever the macho tough guy, Mike gets the slightest chink in his armor and spirals into obsession over proving his worth. The best scene in the movie is when he first confronts Marcus about helping him track down the killer, literally shaking in desperation over trying to recover. And then there’s Marcus, who sees Mike as close as family and would never put him at risk again. For all the masculine posing in typical buddy cop movies, it’s rare to see vulnerability as such a prevalent theme. Even as the movie runs out of gas in its final act, its commitment to a theme that serves its old stars so well is commendable. It’s also a relief to have less low-brow humor and successful bits of physical comedy this time around.
The original key element of Bad Boys is also well intact the third time around as Smith and Lawrence’s chemistry is strong as ever. Whereas the duo acted like they were annoyed with each other in the last two movies, here they act like each other’s therapist as they deal with old age. It’s like if Grumpy Old Men were a cop movie with Lawrence as usual taking the comedic beats. Lawrence’s breaks between movies has served him well as seen with his more relaxed performance. When he’s not forced to try to make the movie funny, Lawrence’s everyman persona makes him extremely likable. The hefty material in the script goes to Smith and boy did he need it. Smith’s late-career output hasn’t been stellar, but there has always been potential for him to change his typical light and likable character choices into older hardened badasses (something he might’ve been going for in last October’s failed tech demo Gemini Man). But here he has something to work with, perhaps even something mirror his real-life career (a once-unstoppable megastar who’s off his game). Smith brings the right amount of grit to the role while still holding his own as a gun-toting action star. This clearly isn’t just a safe franchise retread for him, he cares about Mike’s development and keeping him human. Even the obligatory love interest, backed by a feisty performance from Núñez, gives Mike something to fight fore aside from poses. This is the kind of character Smith needs to shoot for in the future: shades of his classic charisma but walking and talking with something to prove.
The best thing about Bad Boys for Life is that it’s not desperate to be liked, it’s just naturally entertaining. The action is fun but not bloated, the dialogue is funny but not desperate and the actors understand what’s being asked of them without trying to stand out. As big studio action blockbusters and overdue franchise sequels go, it’s a shock that this is as good as it is. Of course there’s already talks of an unnecessary fourth movie and yes, the movie does sequel bait at the end, but at least Bad Boys for Life warrants its own existence through actual enjoyment. Much like the wedding of Marcus’s daughter to good ol’ Reggie (who yes, is also back and might actually look 30 this time), Bad Boys for Life is a heartfelt homecoming and maturation of sorts.