For a brief 10-second-long clip in Bad Boys For Life, an unnamed character steps to the center of a wedding reception to introduce famed Miami detective Mike Lowery (Will Smith).
That character, listed on IMDB as “Wedding MC,” is none other than the explosive, juvenile mastermind and vulgar auteur himself, Michael Bay.
The original 1995 Bad Boys was Bay’s first feature, launching his career as Hollywood’s premiere chaos artist and establishing Smith as one of the biggest movie stars on the planet. Though Bay didn’t direct this particular film in the Bad Boys franchise, his shadow looms heavily over the movie, as the characters he made famous enter a more mature phase in their life and ponder whether it’s time to hang up their badges and opt for retirement.
Bad Boys For Life reunites the iconic law enforcement duo of Smith and Martin Lawrence, who plays the fumbling family man, Marcus Burnett. Taking place 25 years after the original, Bad Boys For Life follows Lowrey and Burnett as they attempt to track down a ruthless assassin while reckoning with their own destructive pasts. As Marcus even says in the film, “All our lives, we’ve been bad boys. Now, it’s time to be good men.”
Bay’s influence, however, remains inescapable. Bay’s original Bad Boys films were both jaw-dropping displays of violence and excess yet lacked any kind of logic or coherence, while Bad Boys For Life feels much more polished. Unlike any Bad Boys film previously, Bad Boys For Life appears to have a legitimately effective script, driving home thematic ideas and finishing character arcs. Even the comedy, while still lowbrow, feels upgraded in this film, as Lawrence and Smith trade their immature squabbling over flatulence and genitalia for jokes based more on their present circumstance and situational comedy.
For Smith, the film finishes off a long stretch of big budget commercial films like Aladdin, Gemini Man and Spies in Disguise. Far from his status as one of the biggest movie stars in the world, Smith appears to be increasingly strategic in selecting his work as a means for lasting relevance, and with 2020’s King Richard, Smith will be dipping his toe back into prestige work, portraying the domineering Richard Williams, the father of Venus and Serena Williams.
Smith’s performance is consistently in conversation with his age, as Lowery must come to grips with the fact that his days as a playboy supercop may be coming to an end. Smith plays the character with his signature brashness and physicality, delivering arguably his best performance within the last five years. Whether it be in moments of high comedy or a surprisingly sincere meeting with his police captain, Howard (Joe Pantoliano), Smith appears to be benefiting from the film’s slightly elevated material.
Of the duo, however, Lawrence certainly delivers the most unexpected performance. Usually pawned off for comic relief in the first two films, Lawrence is actually required to carry the dramatic load in Bad Boys For Life as he attempts to break away from a history of violence and find religion. Lawrence’s performance is still thoroughly comedic — particularly in a wonderfully outlandish airplane conversation between him and Smith — but the extra sense of gravity and seriousness required for the film lifts Lawrence’s performance above his previous work in the franchise.
For the supporting cast, Lawrence and Smith are flanked by a collection of younger, technology-focused officers attempting to usurp their role. Of the group, Vanessa Hudgens is probably the most recognizable, giving a largely forgettable performance but never exactly weighing the film down. The only other cast member who truly shines is Joe Pantoliano, reprising his put-upon captain role. As a thoroughly accomplished, scene-stealing character actor, Pantoliano’s talents are on display as he attempts to take on a mentor role and protect those around him while still bringing his zanier brand of anger from the previous films.
With all that said, Bad Boys For Life appears to be missing the rugged insanity that made the first two films so iconic. By giving the film an actual plot, directors Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah have somewhat backed themselves into a corner in comparison to Bay’s wide open, explosion-every-second pace. As a result, the film’s final hour feels a bit weighed down by rather blatant plot mechanics and an unnecessary dive into Lowrey’s backstory. Part of the appeal of Bad Boys was always its blatant stupidity and eschewing of reality to create the maximum amount of destruction.
Yet, without a doubt, Bad Boys For Life feels like it has something to say, as opposed to the utter nihilism and glorification of police brutality Bay loves to indulge in. Given that January is usually a notorious dumping ground for cinematic disasters and low budget genre, the fact that Bad Boys For Life is delivers an exciting, big budget theater experience comes as a pleasant surprise, providing the kind of escapist entertainment many audiences crave. With a fourth film already in production, hopefully Bad Boys can maintain this level of excitement.