Halfway through Bad Boys For Life – Sony’s revival of a buddy cop franchise which debuted its last new movie 17 years ago – Will Smith’s age-defying Detective Mike Lowery looks out on the bustling activity and bright lights of Miami nightlife from the deck of his gorgeous condo. An aerial shot establishes that this character, an island unto himself who put off having a family for too long and has now lost his partner/best friend Marcus (Martin Lawrence) to retirement, lives in a high rise which is practically its own island, seemingly jetting up from the ocean floor to tower over Miami’s Biscayne Bay.
Lowery stands stiff as a statue, taking it all in, presumably reflecting on, spoiler, the recent death of a colleague. Suddenly, Marcus joins him on the deck, entering from the right side of the frame. Cinematographer Robrecht Heyvaert moves in on the two-shot. The phrase “bad boys for life” is uttered. Marcus agrees to come out of retirement for one last job. The guy’s fist bump. Then they both turn their backs to the camera and simply stare out into the middle distance.
It’s oddly powerful. It’s also fairly ridiculous – Does Marcus have a key to the apartment? Did Mike know he was coming because he doesn’t look at all surprised? What are they even looking at? – and quite hilarious, the type of movie trailer-ready scene you can easily imagine them filming on the very first day of production or perhaps even earlier. You don’t even need to have written the script yet to film a scene like that. In the first new Bad Boys movie in nearly two decades, of course Mike and Marcus are going to be in their “three days to retirement” phase, closer to their end than their beginning and primed for one last job.
Bad Boys for Life’s fun twist on the expected is the characters start at very different places emotionally, with Mike boasting about chasing down bad guys until he’s 100 and Marcus longing to play out the clock as the proudest grandpa in the land. There’s a certain meta-fictional aspect to it all:
Will Smith stopped aging two decades ago and is still plying his trade as a world-famous action star (or at least trying to – sorry, Gemini Man) while Martin Lawrence has been all but retired for nearly a decade, with his surprise cameo in last year’s The Beach Bum serving as his first film role since 2011’s Big Mommas: Like Father, Like Son. Absence, in this case, has let us forget Lawrence’s past cinematic sins (looking at you, Wild Hogs) and simply enjoy his knack for action movie one-liners, the perfect comic relief partner to Smith’s over-determined hero.
Just as importantly, however, is another kind of absence felt in Bad Boys for Life. Although he actually appears on-screen for a brief cameo as a wedding MC, Michael Bay – the golden-haired director of the first two films in the franchise – has stepped aside. He is not a credited director, writer, or producer of Bad Boys for Life. He’s just a guy who wishes them well and put in a day on set for a little cameo.
Taking Bay’s place behind the camera are Adil El Armi and Bilall Fallah, relative unknown Belgian filmmakers who – ready to feel old? – were 7 and 9-years-old respectively when the first Bad Boys came out. They prove surprisingly capable replacements, honoring Bay’s knack for over-the-top action while also dragging the franchise into 2020, injecting some new video-game-inspired visual flairs while giving Mike and Marcus their own, diverse team of specialists (Vanessa Hudgens, Charles Melton, Paola Nunez). There’s even an effort to undercut certain tropes, like why can’t a buff dude like Alexander Ludwig be the guy-in-the-van tech expert? (Michael Mann’s Chris Hemsworth-as-a-hacker flick Blackhat would be exhibit 1 in the counterargument.) A runner about Marcus finding God and refusing to shoot anyone, however, falls away as quickly as it arrives.
But this isn’t 21 Jump Street. Armi and Fallah are not Phil Lord and Christopher Miller. They’re not out to make an action movie that comments on action movies. Instead, their job was to make an enjoyably ridiculous buddy cop movie that calls back to the Jerry Bruckheimer hits of old, serves up plenty of good Martin Lawrence one-liners, packs enough story twists to allow Will Smith to flex some dramatic muscles, and proudly pipes that old “Bad Boys” song through modern-day movie theater speakers.
In their execution of that mission, they – or, maybe more accurately, the credited screenwriters Chris Bremner, Peter Craig, and Joe Carnahan – baked in some regressive elements (men who need therapy are just the worst, amirite) that maybe should have stayed in the past. There is also an element of gate-keeping going on here.
Will Smith, legendary for guarding his carefully honed image and script-doctoring all of his projects, has been on a run of projects that tweak his on-screen persona (Bright, Suicide Squad, Spies in Disguise), confront his looming mortality (Gemini Man), and tip the cap toward maybe passing the baton (After Earth, Focus). Yet, he doesn’t seem ready to really back away from being the star. (Example: Serena and Venus Williams are iconic, generational figures in sports history. Will Smith looked at that and saw an opportunity to star in a movie all about their dad.)
In Bad Boys for Life, which Smith produced alongside Bruckheimer and Doug Belgrad, he allows Mike to be newly vulnerable, even including a rather inspired running gag about his vanity and reluctance to admit that he dyes the gray out of his goatee. But, in the end, all the young bucks with their new ways end up bowing to the king, just as long as he proves willing to adjust to the times.
That was good enough for me, though. I had a total blast with this positively ridiculous movie. Will Smith and Martin Lawrence really are great together, and they found in Adil El Armi and Bilall Fallah a directing duo young enough to breathe new life into a creaky old genre.
What about you? Let me know in the comments.