When a film releases a new addition to a franchise a decade or more after the last entry, there’s good reason to be skeptical about the quality. Often, what worked before doesn’t connect due to changes in the cultural landscape, audience expectations, and a whole host of other unknowables. Add in a generally-believed notion that anything released in theaters in January is likely trash and an implication can be made that the upcoming return of buddy comic duo Marcus Burnett (Martin Lawrence) and Mike Lowrey (Will Smith) will end up a flaming trash heap. It’s with great pleasure that I proclaim the Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah-directed Bad Boys for Life is the best Bad Boys since the original. It may not seem like much with only three films in the series, but there’s a fourth on the way, and Life injects new vitality and excitement into a series whose second film did nothing but cool the potential.
Marcus Burnett and Mike Lowery have worked the streets of Miami as partners for 25 years. In that time, they’ve taken down local drug dealers, international drug lords, and even car-jackers having a bad day. They’ve done it with style, a bit of humor, and incredible faith in their fellow officers. This begins to change when a hit is put out on Mike and Marcus begins to rethink his active duty status. But when the heat rises and Mike’s back is against the wall, they team up one last time. If you thought the stakes were personal in the previous two outings, nothing will prepare you for how deep Bad Boys for Life goes.
The original ‘95 Bad Boys is something of a cinematic landmark for this reviewer. It was filled with creatives in both cast and crew who were still on the cusp of the elevated status they have today: Michael Bay, Will Smith, and Martin Lawrence. While well-known then, they weren’t the enormous draw they are now. With a razor-sharp script and the cast balancing the action, drama, and inherent comedy with ease, Bad Boys became a film oft-quoted and frequently watched in adolescence up to today. The ‘03 sequel, Bad Boys 2, took the smaller story and blew it up (no pun intended) exponentially in favor of explosive action, ridiculous comedy, and unnecessary call-backs at the expense of a compelling narrative. More often than not, 2 felt like it didn’t understand what the original created and only sought to give audiences what they thought audiences wanted. The end result is mixed and the choices made in ‘03 reverberate into the latest addition, Bad Boys for Life. This leads to both positive and negative aspects in the latest film, all handled with deftness by scribes Chris Bremner, Peter Craig (The Town), and Joe Carnahan (The A-Team), based off a story by Craig and Carnahan. Life harkens back to the simplicity of the original while carrying forward the evolution of characters. The sleekness of the story enables more time for the characters to have actual arcs, pushing them to confront aspects of themselves present since the first film, namely Mike’s resistance to maturity and Marcus’s conflict with the violence of the job and the love of his family. These two arcs radiate out wonderfully to the supporting members of the cast, even giving Joe Pantoliano’s Captain Howard more to do than scream and yell. Not since the first film has there been a sense of real stakes. Sure, the characters were given personal stakes in the previous two films, but this time around, it also feels personal for the audience. Not only that, there’s a slew of returning faces, continuing the sense that the Bad Boys world is a little more honest and grounded than the average buddy cop actioner.
For casual and longtime fans alike, Bad Boys for Life is exactly what you want out of a modern buddy cop action comedy. The leads are charismatic, the action feels fresh and new in every sequence, and there’s plenty of witty banter extending from the obvious to the absurd. Smith and Lawrence have the kind of on-screen chemistry that can’t be manufactured and it’s the majority of the reason audiences show up. Original cast members Pantoliano and Theresa Randle, as Theresa Burnett, are absolutely delightful in their respective scenes. Neither character inclusion ever feels like lip-service or requirement, as their respective arcs, though supportive, aid in coloring the world the main story resides in. New cast members Paola Nuñez (The Purge tv series), Charles Melton (The Sun is Also a Star), Vanessa Hudgens (Spring Breakers), and Alexander Ludwig (The Hunger Games) have their own individual moments to shine in the otherwise Smith/Lawrence-focused film as members of an elite Miami PD squad. Kate del Castillo portrays Isabel Aretas, the villain of the story and wife of a former druglord with a grudge. Her’s could be a performance drenched in melodrama, but she sidesteps that for straight menace. Even though the screen time is disproportionate across good guys and villain, Castillo’s presence lingers like a ghost over much of the film. This is as much a testament to her performance as it is to the writers for maintaining that tension.
For their part, directors Arbi and Fallah crafted a film that feels like coming home, but is very much *not* a Michael Bay production. The action sequences have the familiarity of the grounded realism established in the first film, while putting their own flair on the stuntwork that’s become expected from the franchise. The staging of one such shot in the bullet-drenched finale caused an audible “WHOA!” from the audience, this reviewer included, due to its ability to make the already kinetic sequence draw the audience in further. Cinematographer Robrecht Heyvaert (Revenge), a prior collaborator with Abri and Fallah on 2015’s Black, similarly balances the familiar with touches akin to original cinematographer Howard Atherton while injecting a modern sensibility to the color palette. A particular treat for longtime fans will be the little traces of Mark Mancina’s original score, specifically the official theme to Bad Boys, which drops in and out of composer Lorne Balfe’s (The Florida Project) new score.
For all the great fun Life offers, longtime fans of the films, who’ve lived and breathed these characters while waiting for a new adventure, will notice that the shift in characterization that began in 2 of Mike and Marcus continues. The honorable cops we first met are now somehow more comfortable with breaking the rules when it suits, often violently, in a way that is more in line with The Shield’s Vic Mackey than the cops from ‘95’s Bad Boys. Once more, the cops sing the song from which the films get their name, but this time they’re just a little closer to being the suspects in the song and not the cops going after them. We’re not even going to get into how Mike and Marcus’s working relationship went from open and communicative in the first is played for laughs by Life, but that’s mostly due to the characterization in 2. The creative team tries to walk it back in several ways here but it doesn’t fully right the ship. Or how a scene or two after the characters undergo a serious dramatic moment, the film thinks it’s a good time to start cracking wise. Sure it amuses the audience and introduces levity, but it seriously undercuts the inherent drama and creates a frequent tonal dissonance. Then there’s the breach in continuity firmly established previously as Mike and Marcus being close friends from high school who became partners. In order to generate surprise and intrigue, a solution is offered to the mystery of the narrative except it doesn’t seem to hold up under any kind of scrutiny within the logic of the series. This attempt at a narrative twist isn’t the only aspect to appear in service of shock-over-story as there’s a fake-out via reveal which is (a) obvious for anyone who’s seen a trailer and (b) emotionally manipulative and is soon after determined to be only that and not something more necessary. Given that the Bad Boys series shares so much more in common with the Lethal Weapon series over, say, Fast & Furious, it’s wonderful to see the storyline from Bremner, Craig, and Caranhan, explore the mythos of the characters, but it’s awkward when it does so to the detriment of internal logic. It’s fine to bend or twist things in new stories, especially where it works to push the characters into growth. Here, however, it feels more often like the same telenovela that a retired cop might watch in their downtime: all about the drama at the expense of logic.
With only three films in the series, at first glance, it may seem disingenuous to refer to Bad Boys for Life as the second best one. Unlike 2, Life remembers what these films are all about: the characters and crime drama. By zeroing in on the crime, the whole of Life is a sleek, clear, rambunctious adrenaline ride in all the right ways that just so happens to smoothly carry the journeys of Mike and Marcus forward. The end result suggests that the January release is more counter-programming to combat the winter doldrums and influx of Oscar-related films. So let the Miami sun light up your life and catch a ride with two of the most determined, righteous cops to walk the beat. As long as they’re on the job, fans like me will return to theaters. Ride or Die.
In theaters January 17th, 2020.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.