There is one thing that becomes abundantly clear when watching Bad Boys for Life and that is the simple fact that Michael Bay is one of the best action directors working when he cares about what he’s making (when he doesn’t it’s another story). See, the long-delayed third film in the series is the closest thing we will ever get to a Michael Bay film made by someone else. Others may take over other franchises he’s directed but the Bad Boys films are so completely and utterly Michael Bay that this is the rare chance to see someone try to make a movie only he could make. It just isn’t the same.
Maybe that’s not a bad thing, though. To be fair, directors Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah have delivered a perfectly fun action movie that stands on its own and surprisingly takes the franchise into some dark and emotional places. It’s not as good as Michael Bay but that doesn’t make it bad.
Bad Boys for Life
Director: Adil El Arbi, Bilall Fallah
Release Date: January 17, 2020
Bad Boys for Life admirably picks up around 18 years after the second film while also wisely ignoring most the absurdity that was that movie (Invade Cuba!). Mike Lowry (Will Smith) is still a playboy cop with plenty of money and Marcus Burnett (Martin Lawrence) is still a family man but they’ve both aged, a fact the movie plays with instead of ignoring. When a threat of Mike’s past nearly kills him it shakes up their lives of stopping crime and killing bad guys, causing friction between the two partners as Marcus believes their rampant ways are catching up to them and Mike wants to keep going. Mike, hellbent on revenge, partners with his ex-girlfriend Rita (Paola Nuñez) and her crack team of cyber-hacker cops. Mayhem ensues.
The strength of all these movies has always been the chemistry between Lawrence and Smith and that still seems to be going strong despite the pair not having worked together for nearly 20 years. The banter between the two is crisp and while the one-liners might not zing like they use to they still hit. When the pair are together on screen, bouncing off one another the movie is at it’s best. It’s a bit odd then that they separate the two for a solid chunk of the film as they focus in on the revenge/retirement plotlines completely separately. Still, that doesn’t last forever and once the bad boys are back together the movie works. What’s surprising is that the relationship is not solely fist bumps and toxic masculinity this time around. There’s actual depth here.
It’s too bad Lawrence struggles at times with the emotional side of things. Where Smith delivers the new depth of his character with the conviction of a man who has gone on to be an Oscar nominee, there are moments during the movie where it feels like Lawrence is still stuck as the walking gag that he was in the second film. It’s too bad, as a switch between his usual comic performance to a more grounded delivery could have increased the emotional impact of the more dramatic scenes, but instead we’re stuck wondering if we should be laughing or crying.
And that is officially a paragraph more than I expected to be writing about the acting and emotions in a Bad Boys film. Given the absolutely batshit nature of the second movie and the first film’s buddy-cop setup it almost feels weird that this third film goes so hard into themes of family, love, and devotion. It’s Bad Boys re-imagined for a more woke audience and it plays out surprisingly well. The relationship between the two leads already has history and their struggle with aging, life, and death is delved into relatively deeply for an action movie. There are actual moments of sacrifice and feeling here as characters that were once treated as punchlines develop into humans. Of course, there’s still stupid comedic moments and Smith and Lawrence banter non-stop but this film actually pauses to take some time to be about something.
It is honestly weird. The shift in expectation leads to a feeling that the first half of the film is a bit slow. There’s really only one major action sequence for the first third of the movie and it’s not even anything that impressive. Sitting down for a Bad Boys movie and being given 15 minutes of character development is a shock to the system that led me to feel like the movie was dragging but in retrospect actually delivered a better film on the whole. It’s also a harsh contrast to have the movie actually call out the mass murder these two cops perpetrate and dive into it, even at a very cursory level.
Despite not quite having the same flair for action as Michael Bay, Arbi and Fallah manage to capture some of the magic of a Bay film while somehow updating it to modern day sensibilities. There are plenty of fun call backs for fans of the series both within the plot itself and in their direction (spin that camera, spin it good) but more impressive is the stuff they ditch. There are moments in this movie where Bay would have spent entire minutes panning over a woman’s body but Arbi and Fallah almost comically refuse to do so saving its one slow pan for a moment when it’s dramatically relevant. The rampant homophobia and racist tones of the first two films are gone now, replaced with actual characters.
All this is layered on top of action that works. While the sequences might be fewer and more spread out than Bad Boys II, which was basically one long two hour action scene, when they do get going they are enjoyable. More focused on gory shootouts than fast cars and explosions the film still delivers on all fronts. There’s nothing that truly stands out as new or invigorating in terms of action sequences but they all work. The film’s finale is especially tense and coherent action is not always a given — even for the likes of Bay — so it should be applauded when found.
It may sound like Bad Boys for Life is some deep, introspective movie from this review. Nothing could be further from the truth. This is not Marriage Story or some lame attempt like Joker at commentary on society. It is, however, an action movie with a bit of heart put into it. Half this praise may simply be coming from the fact that it’s so surprising it’s there. On re-watch the movie may, with the benefit of foreknowledge, feel much less fresh but upon that first watching, when you’re expecting nothing but bullets, explosions, and breasts, Bad Boys for Life has all of that and then some more. Hopefully it is for life.