The action landscape has changed dramatically since 1995’s Bad Boys and its 2003 sequel, Bad Boys II. Action movies now belong to long-running franchises like Fast & Furious and Mission: Impossible, a PG-13 landscape where characters are borderline superheroes. Where does the story of two Miami detectives fit into all of that? How can Bad Boys possibly be relevant in 2020 when the last entry in the franchise came out seventeen years ago? (Especially since the last film ended with its two leads launching an entire invasion of Cuba in order to kill a drug lord and save Gabrielle Union.) Shockingly, Bad Boys for Life finds a way. Belgian directors Adil El Arbi & Bilall Fallah maintain the bombastic, R-rated action of Michael Bay’s first two movies but manage to acknowledge that twenty-five years have passed since the first film, and that there may be more to life than simply gunning down bad guys and blowing up the streets of Miami. While the story itself gives way to some twists that are just as silly as the set pieces, Bad Boys for Life is a welcome surprise in its duo’s still shining chemistry and it’s impressive display of a series that’s willing to change with the times.
As said before, Bay isn’t helming this time. (However, he does give his blessing via a cameo appearance as a wedding emcee.) El Arbi and Fallah are in taking the helms, and they do a fine job adopting the colorful, hyperkinetic Bad Boys style — swooping over Miami, craning across throbbing nightclubs, and staging action scenes with maximum delirium — while keeping the familiar revenge narrative clicking along. This time, Isabel Aretas (Kate del Castillo), a Mexican ex-con experienced in the dark arts and the widow of a deceased drug kingpin, sends her son Armando (Jacob Scipio) to Miami to unearth a buried stash of money and execute a group of local officials, including Mike Lowery (Will Smith), as paycheck for her husband’s death. Armando actually succeeds in gunning down Mike. While one hero lies in the hospital fighting for his life, family man Marcus (Martin Lawrence) promises God that if his partner pulls through, he “will put no more violence in this world.” That solemn vow becomes a problem when Mike does pull through and the two of them go on the hunt for the attempted assassin. Rest assured that plenty of violence is put in this world over the due course of the movie.
To be up front, the first Bad Boys isn’t the greatest. It was a film that attempted to push the tried-and-tired buddy-cop thriller that still ended up being a pretty safe venture. But the series got into increasingly more ludicrous territory with Bad Boys II: a film that looks like it escaped from a mental institution. If you tried to describe various plot points in Bad Boys II, you’d sound pretty insane. (“So, at one point, it turns out the bad guys are smuggling drugs in the breasts of corpses.”) Bad Boys for Life lands somewhere in the middle, retaining the ridiculous action of Bad Boys II while discarding the go-for-broke mentality in favor of a story about the importance of family. It does seem that the producers of Bad Boys for Life probably looked over at the success of Fast & Furious, and said, “We need to get us a piece of that,” and the result is that the lead characters learn the importance of family, aging and growing up.
And it actually kind of works. As you might expect, the depth of it all can be quite surfacy, but the effort of the film itself and the chemistry of our duo helps boost it up. Also, Bad Boys for Life may not be the most original action film or have the death-defying set pieces of something like Mission: Impossible, but El Arbi and Fallah know what makes the series tick, which is the aforementioned chemistry between Smith and Lawrence paired with ridiculous action. They know that in a Bad Boys movie, subtlety is the enemy, so you go as big and broad as possible. While that may not click with today’s mythology-heavy blockbusters, Bad Boys for Life comes off like a charming throwback that can learn some new tricks rather than a stodgy relic. I don’t know how much I actually buy the family element the film is pushing, but it forces the characters to develop and change. And clearly acknowledge its protagonists are in their fifties and may want different things than they did in their mid-twenties.
Some of the biggest problems for Bad Boys for Life is when it starts to follow Fast & Furious too closely in hopes for setting up future installments. The AMMO team, a special police squad run by Mike’s ex Rita (Paola Núñez), is solid (two-dimensional though they very much are) and I wouldn’t necessarily mind seeing them return, but the twists related to Mike’s past are soap-opera level nonsense (a character even calls out that it sounds like something out of a “telenovela”). On the one hand, that kind of silly storytelling goes right with the ludicrous action, but the film’s reality gets broken the more it tries to copy particular beats from the Fast & Furious series. It’s better to keep the film simply under the umbrella of “family is important” and go from there rather than copying plays from another (not so great) franchise’s playbook.
If this ends up being the last Bad Boys movie with Smith and Lawrence, then the series goes out easily on its highest note, through leaning into what works while still adapting to the current action landscape. Arguably, a series about two Miami cops taking down bad guys has been better than it had any right to be, but it managed to break away from being a Lethal Weapon clone and do its own thing on the strength of its leads and the cartoonish set pieces. Franchises don’t really end these days, but Bad Boys for Life isn’t a bad way for Mike and Marcus to ride into the sunset. Bad Boys For Life can be stylish and derivative; an amusing throwback and a tired retread, but it ultimately prevails through the emphasis on its duo’s chemistry, becoming a fitful third outing of ludicrous action.