Before he became a cynical parody of himself, director Michael Bay made an efficient 1995 feature debut with Bad Boys, a buddy-cop flick that came in hot on the star power of Will Smith and Martin Lawrence as Miami detectives who never learned how to play by the rules. By the time the 2003 sequel Bad Boys 2 rolled around, Bay had become the Bay we know and loathe (remember Pearl Harbor?) and buried the duo’s chemistry in his patented brand of violent noise, racial profiling, sexist smarm and dumb dick jokes.
Bad Boys For Life, the third chapter in the series, doesn’t exactly dodge those flaws, though it does move past them. It also raises two questions: Does anyone even remember Bad Boys after 25 years? And will anyone care that this franchise is back? It’s a shock to report that, yes, you will care. The first smart decision that this new entry makes is kicking Bay to the curb. Though the filmmaker does a cameo in (mock?) tribute to his contributions, he’s been replaced by film-school colleagues Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah, Moroccan-born directors who like being billed as Adil and Bilall. These thirtysomething Muslims, raised in Belgium, have a Bay-like need to blow shit up. But their movie still feels touched by human hands, which is saying a lot given the standard-issue plot, clumsy dialogue and right-wing politics festering in the script by Chris Bremner, Peter Craig and Joe Carnahan, Better yet, the duo know how to bring out the best in their stars by staying out their way and letting them fly. And boy, do they ever.
Smith is back as Mike Lowery, the loose-cannon cop who never grew up, still punching his weight even if he has to color his greying goatee with Cocoa Bean hair dye. Lawrence is Marcus Burnett, his straight-arrow partner who’s now a new granddaddy with fading eyesight and car sickness. He’s ready to retire from the Miami PD. Mike is horrified at the idea of his friend hanging it up to sit in a Barcalounger watching telenovas. Age is creeping up on them. Before you think you’re watching a cop version of The Irishman, however, Mike and Marcus are propelled to take on one last case.
It’s a near-successful attempt on Mike’s life to that brings these two back together. The culprit is Isabel Aretas (Kate del Castillo), the wife of a Mexican cartel lord that Mike put in the slammer. She’s instructed her hair-triggered son, Armando (Jacob Scipio), to assassinate everyone involved, including the judge and a forensics expert. But she wants to save Mike for last. This time, it’s personal. As to why it’s so personal, let’s just say that the film’s climax — a mix of Greek tragedy and Smith’s godawful Gemini Man — achieves a level of flamboyant idiocy that you’d laugh off the screen if Smith and Lawrence didn’t keep everything moving along so damn smoothly.
Not to mention that it’s fun watching these law-enforcement geezers, including their captain (Joe Pantoliano), cope with the young Turks on the case. A special tactical police squad known as AMMO is in charge; it’s led by Mike’s ex, Rita (Paola Núñez). As for the new kids on the block, including Vanessa Hudgens, Alexander Ludwig and Charles Melton (he goads Mike by calling him grandpa) pull the codgers into a brave new world of computerized crime-solving and rubber bullets. Naturally, Mike and Marcus prefer doing it old-school, and the clash between the two camps energizes the movie. It’s a bumpy ride for sure, but Smith and Lawrence haven’t lost their irresistible mojo and Bad Boys For Life plays like a blast of retro ’90s action. It’s like they never left.