When Michael Bay’s 6 Underground came out a few weeks back, I had two main takeaways. The first: 6 Underground is the most audacious, mind exploding composition of action filmmaking I had ever seen. The second: 6 Underground is an idiotic piece of trash with a fetishistic take on militant violence and a child’s understanding of diplomacy. It was, in essence, the most Michael Bay creation ever put to screen. 6 Underground comes very much to mind when rewatching Bay’s 1995 cop film Bad Boys. Bad Boys is the same kind of action adventure excitement, with the same violent glorification of police brutality and a shoot-first ask-questions-later ethos. For Bay, the more things change the more things stay the same, exploding into a fiery storm of cocaine, money, and jet fuel.
Bad Boys, Bay’s film debut, follows two Miami narcotics detectives, Mike Lowery (Will Smith) and Marcus Burnett (Martin Lawrence) as they attempt to protect murder witness Julie Mott (Tea Leoni) and track down stolen cocaine. With a third film coming out this week and over 20 years of countless showings on cable, Bad Boys is now engrained in the culture itself. The film is almost a rite of passage for teenage action junkies, discovering the excess of Bay’s work and Smith’s historic 90s rise to stardom.
With all of that said, one take away from Bad Boys is how tame the film feels now. Certainly, with its juvenile views on sex, gender, race, and violence, Bad Boys makes no attempt to censor itself, but the plot and ideas the film presents feel more like a random Tuesday night cop procedural on NBC than an outrageous action romp. Bad Boys doesn’t have the globe-trotting, explosion-every-second speed of 6 Underground, the computer-generated confusion of Transformers, or the drug-fueled incoherence of Pain and Gain. Rather, Bad Boys feels much closer to something like Beverly Hills Cop only if Axel Foley’s innate charisma was spread across two characters. Given that, Jerry Bruckheimer and Don Simpson produced both Beverly Hills Cop and Bad Boys, the connection is not exactly groundbreaking.
The major revelation in revisiting Bad Boys is the sheer brilliance and charm of Will Smith as the womanizing, potentially sociopathic super cop Mike Lowery. In lesser hands, Lowery could easily come across as repulsive, with his implied misogyny and penchant for violence, but Smith knows exactly how to reign the character in, playing Lowery with a sense of compassion and understanding rather than hubris or rage. For a character whose biggest flaw is his penchant for murdering people, Smith manages to capture the larger than life energy made him one of Hollywood’s biggest stars for over two decades. Given that Smith was still working on his sitcom The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air at the time makes the performance even more astonishing, partially for his evident movie star chops and partially for his intimidatingly muscular frame.
In perhaps his most famous role, Martin Lawrence acts opposite Smith as detective Marcus Burnett, a more fumbling, family focused police officer. Lawrence’s performance struggles a bit when he has to carry the comedic load, particularly while sharing the screen with Tea Leoni’s poorly drawn character, but when he and Smith are on screen together, the film is truly electric. Both actors developed a knack through their endless sitcom years of elevating lesser material, and Bad Boys is their master’s thesis in selling bad jokes through charisma and force of will. Their chemistry and ability to both find common ground while simultaneously antagonizing each other is clearly the reason the film has spawned two sequels.
For Bay, Lawrence, and Smith, the film is a clear launching point for three exceptionally profitable Hollywood careers that have all recently found themselves at a crossroads. In 1995, when Bad Boys was released, Smith and Lawrence were still sitcom stars and Bay was just a flashy music video director. By 1999, Lawrence was a household name, Smith was the biggest movie star on the planet, and Bay had directed some of the biggest blockbusters in movie history. Now, Lawrence and Smith in this more mature phase of their career will have to navigate through a sequel without Bay’s vulgar auteur sense for destruction.
One can’t expect Bad Boys For Life to be any kind of cinematic achievement, but that isn’t really what these films are about. If one were to do a legitimate analysis of Bad Boys, they would clearly find issues with any number of the film’s immature, potentially dangerous transgressions, but really, who cares? Film is such a fascinating medium because there is space for introspection, drama, existentialism and discovery, but there is also space for Will Smith shooting at an exploding car while Martin Lawrence flips a middle finger to a news helicopter. Sure the former is more rewarding than the latter, but if we can have both, then why not?