Bad Boys For Life is exactly the type of movie you would think the third in an action trilogy that started in the nineties starring Will Smith and Martin Lawrence would be. By no means is this a bad thing; quite the contrary. The movie spends as much time barreling down its melodramatic rabbit hole of a story as it does it’s over the top action set pieces.
Smith and Lawrence return as Miami’s biggest, baddest, and destructive police detectives Mike Lowery and Marcus Burnett. The two have grown older and grayer but haven’t lost a step. It’s been seventeen years since the last Bad Boys and yet the movie never creaks and groans from cliches, padded run times, and is helped by Smith and Lawence perfecting the Detective Bickersons routine they do so well.
Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah have some mighty big stylistic directorial shoes to fill in taking over for Michael Bay. Bay, though often reviled by critics, myself included, has a style and flair sadly lacking in modern big-budget action movies. Arbi and Fallah don’t quite have Bay’s knack for frame compositions, but they share his love of excess and lean into it heavily.
The script has three credited writers: Chris Bremmer, Peter Craig, and Joe Carnahan. Surprisingly, though written by a small committee, Arbi and Fallah make it sing by leaning into the drama with a smirk and a wink. Bad Boys For Life has a lot of action but sweet mercy does it have its share of melodramatic twists and turns.
Arbi and Fallah have crafted a mythos for Smith’s Lowery, taking bits and pieces from the other two movies, and made it into something out of a telenovela. A fact in which they allude to as Lawrence’s Marcus watches a Mexican soap opera with two Mexican ladies at the mall enraptured by the drama.
Yes, Bad Boys For Life has explosions, car chases, gunfights, and helicopter crashes. It also has some of the wildest third act twists which rivals anything we might see from Marvel and DC. We’re talking witches, long lost sons, betrayal, family reunions and a helicopter crashing through the ceiling of an abandoned Mexican church.
While the film has it cliches we’ve seen a thousand times before, such as the retired cop whose dragged out of retirement, ex-lovers being forced to work together, and one character taking a vow of pacifism only to be talked out of it during a motorcycle chase when the side-car he’s riding in opens up to reveal a mounted machine gun. Same old same old.
The truly surprising thing about Bad Boys For Life is not how excessive it is but how grand in scale it is. Not just in action and story but with emotion. We have scenes of Marcus making a vow never to commit violent acts again when someone he cares is shot. Sitting in the church hospital Lawrence cries softly as he mutters a prayer and pleas for forgiveness. It is corny yet deeply poignant considering Lawrence’s own past.
Smith’s Mike is prickly and stubborn as always but the script shows us that while he may be fun to be within a movie after a decade he begins to grate. Mike’s refusal to connect with anyone other than Marcus and his Captain (Joe Pantoliano) along with his refusal to take other people’s emotions into consideration is called out repeatedly. Not because Arbi and Fallah are trying to modernize the characters but because the characters are older now and it seems everybody has matured except Mike and it’s annoying to them.
But the writers have even infused a sea of new blood into the franchise. Mike and Marcus are forced to work with a new task force AMMO led by an ex of Mike’s, Rita (Paola Nunez). The two clearly still have feelings for each other while also being clear it’s Mike’s fault the relationship ended. A fact that Marcus repeatedly and rightfully calls Mike out on.
Rita’s team has a nordic gym rat of a computer hacker Dorn (Alexander Ludwig), Rafe (Charles Melton) a total Mike Lowery 2.0 type who immediately clashes with the actual Mike Lowery, and the gun-loving Kelly (Vanessa Hudgens) who proves big things come in small packages. Granted they are merely backgrounded characters for Smith and Lawrence to bounce off, but I was impressed by how they were given actual roles within the story.
Stunningly, Nunez’s Rita is a rare age-appropriate love interest for Smith with the added bonus of her Rita being a character worthy of her own movie. Smith and Nunez have intense chemistry not usually found in big dumb loud action movies. Usually, these types of relationships are ones we take at face value, a necessary suspension of disbelief so the hero can have “stakes” or emotional growth. This is still the case but Rita doesn’t require as much suspension of disbelief on our part. We buy she would like Mike and sometimes be irritated by him. She has an inner life that the action star’s love interest is rarely allowed, due in large part to Nunez. Her Isabel is convincing in both her own badassery and emotional life.
Smith and Lawrence are the stars though, the reasons tickets will be bought. The duo stands as an embarrassing reminder that in the pantheon of studio buddy cop action movies they are still the only two black men to ever helm one. It’s also a reminder that Smith and Lawerence are still at the top of their game as the chemistry doesn’t seem to have cooled and neither has their ability to riff back and forth amidst car chases and explosions.
Bad Boys For Life is a hodgepodge of tropes and larger than life drama. Though an escaped prisoner, the wife of a former drug lord, Isabel (Kate del Castillo) hellbent on revenge while not entirely new is also rare enough to be a welcome reprieve. Usually, it’s the husband gnashing his teeth over his lost beloved. Isabel, however, cackles gleefully as she murders, plots, and schemes for revenge-but not for what we are led to believe. Aided by her son Armando (Jacob Scipio) the two cut a swath through Miami assassinating all who have wronged them.
Arbi and Fallah are working with a somewhat massive cast and they keep the balance splendidly. Shot by Robrecht Heyvaert, Bad Boys For Life manages to look like a Michael Bay movie but feel like an Arbi and Fallah joint. They work together so the film can have Bay-esque grace notes but the film itself is pumping with their own idiosyncrasies.
A chase scene that includes a motorcycle, a helicopter, an eighteen-wheeler, and a bridge, is pure spectacle and it’s just awesome to see. Arbi, Fallah, and Heyvaert bathe Miami in the familiar oranges, blues of the Bay films but shy away from saturating the scenes. Instead, they allow the atmosphere to come from the surrounding architecture.
One scene, which takes place in a club, characters are awash with neon blue lighting. A chase happens and Mike and Marcus utilize the surrounding objects to help them get from level to another. The scene is reminiscent of old Jackie Chan films not in spectacle but in the simple clear framing of the scene so we can see the stunt happening.
Arbi and Fallah have made a Michael Bay movie minus some of the Bay-isms and those are sorely missed-but not because of lack of talent. Merely because Michael Bay is one of the last action directors with a real sense of personal style. But with Bad Boys For Life Arbi and Fallah have given us not just a movie but a promise that they could take over and infuse the franchise with their own style. A promise I hope they get the chance to make good on.