Synopsis: Old-school cops Mike Lowery and Marcus Burnett team up to take down the vicious leader of a Miami drug cartel.
Stars: Will Smith, Martin Lawrence, Joe Pantoliano, Paola Nuñez, Jacob Scipio, Kate del Castillo, Vanessa Hudgens, Alexander Ludwig, Charles Melton, Theresa Randle
Director: Adil & Bilall (Adil El Arbi, Bilall Fallah)
Running Length: 123 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review: Though we’re in a time at the movies where it’s popular to revive old favorites that many had thought were done and over, it’s never a good sign to see a high profile movie star bruised by a string of box office duds return to the well of what was once profitable. There was a time when having Will Smith in your film meant assured box office gold but one too many poor choices and a seemingly panicked desperation to be taken seriously as more than an action star led him down a path of wince-inducing downers and stinkbombs. And while Martin Lawrence was never an A-List movie star, his eponymous landmark television show was a gigantic hit and, to be fair, he had his share of box office blockbusters, though none were what you would call challenging art.
When Lawrence and Smith first paired up for Bad Boys in 1995, it was Lawrence that was the bigger star and it showed on screen. Re-watching the film recently it’s interesting to see how the movie, (originally intended as a much squishier comedy for other actors) was tailored around Lawrence’s style and how director Michael Bay (Pain & Gain) treated Smith more like Action Star Ken than as an actor who would go on to net several Oscar nominations. By the time the sequel arrived a full eight years later, the tides had definitely turned and while Lawrence still received top billing, Bad Boys II was Smith’s film all the way. It was longer and louder and absolutely horrible. Returning director Bay took all the rules for making a bigger sequel too literally and delivered a ghastly horror of a movie, turning what was a fun buddy cop film into an offensively gross pile of mush that purported to be all style but was so far out of fashion it wasn’t even self-aware enough to realize it. It made a killing at the box office but fans and critics revolted against it, waylaying any future plans…until now.
Normally, with sequels I’m of the mindset that it’s a good idea to watch the preceding films before catching a new one in theaters (unless we’re talking James Bond) because it helps you spot the consistencies, or lack thereof, throughout the series. You’d be surprised at how good some franchise films are with carrying forward even the smallest of supporting roles through from film to film. However, in the case of getting ready to screen Bad Boys for Life, I think watching Bad Boys II so close to seeing the third film was a mistake. I was so put off by how smarmy that movie was that I went into the new one with a bad taste in my mouth, prepared to see the franchise sink lower. That’s also taking into consideration after a 17 year break it just couldn’t be a good sign Lawrence and Smith had given in and come back to the roles that gave them both their first bona fide hit. Right?
Well, here’s the thing. It turns out Bad Boys for Life is an energetic return to form for the two stars, a reunion that reminds us why their chemistry worked so well back in 1995. By ditching hyper-kinetic director Bay and working with a script that forms the first semblance of a discernible plot in any of the films so far, the duo have righted a ship that was sunk on a massive scale almost two decades ago and given themselves a fine showcase on top of it all. In addition to a fine supply of laughs, there’s genuine heart on display and a dedicated engagement from the stars which only serves to bring audiences closer along on this new rollicking ride.
Though a number of years have passed since we last took to the streets with Mike Lowery (Smith, Gemini Man) and Marcus Burnett (Lawrence, Do the Right Thing), not a lot has changed with the veteran Miami cops. Lowrey is still a fast-driving playboy that takes the fierce protection of his car’s interior as seriously as he does ensuring the streets of the city are free from drug violence. Still claiming he’s going to retire any day, family man Burnett becomes a grandfather at the start of the movie which gives him one more reason to want to ditch the fast lane life Lowrey is addicted to for the more peaceful existence resting in his easy chair. Plans for the future are put on hold, though, when a mysterious woman (Kate del Castillo, The 33) escapes from a Mexican prison and is reunited with her son Armando (Jacob Scipio), whom she dispatches to take ruthless revenge on a series of high profile (and familiar to us) individuals. Spilling her secrets would delve into spoiler-territory but just know the multiple credited screenwriters have given Bad Boys for Life an appealing villain and villainess with an endless supply of cronies that don’t take kindly to any outside interference in their mission.
In previous films, Lowery and Burnett have largely been working on their own but this time they are paired with a young crew from AMMO, an elite squad of specialized officers led by Rita (Paola Nuñez) a former flame of Mike’s that was never fully extinguished. There’s some clear groundwork being set to either create a spin-off for these new officers or keep them around if future installments are called for. I didn’t mind this too much, mostly because Vanessa Hudgens (Second Act), Alexander Ludwig (Lone Survivor), and Charles Melton knew when it was their turn to step up and when it was time to let Smith and Lawrence take center stage.
While I wouldn’t exactly say Smith is revitalized in Bad Boys for Life, he’s surely more on his game than he has been over the past several years. Though he gives in to his bad habits of overselling dramatics in several opportune moments, he’s largely the charming action star that could open a summer movie with little effort and I’m hoping he enjoyed his work on the film because it suits him. Lawrence is the real winner here, with the long-absent comedian making his welcome return to the screen (or public view in general) as a more centered, worldy-wise fella that holds to his convictions. More often than not, the movie shifts gears to his strengths and that’s the wise, more entertaining choice.
I don’t know if it’s just because the two guys are getting older and have been through parenthood but Bad Boys for Life is also noticeably less heavy on the profanity that was so prevalent in the previous pictures. It was non-stop in the second film to the point of pathetic obnoxiousness but the change for 2020 was welcome, if only to make one not feel so bad at the number of children in the theater attending the screening as well. Belgian directors Adil & Bilall instead fill the movie with dynamic action sequences that are true showcases of brilliant stunt work and skilled execution. They may lack in overall ‘pow’ factor that Bay could deliver but on the flip side I found them far easier to follow and stay engaged in. With Bay’s films, they are so overproduced that you tend to want to step away from the movie for fear it may blow up in your face. Adil & Bilall have a big movie on their hands but it has a way of bringing you closer in.
If rumors are true, a fourth film may be in the cards and Bay (who has a cameo in the film) is said to be returning as director. Boy, I hope that isn’t true because I can only imagine how he’d mess up the good thing Smith and Lawrence have got going in this third Bad Boys film. As of now, that’s in the distant future so until that becomes a reality just bask in the glow of a rarity – a successful return to a dormant series that’s been revived with an electric jolt.