Just as Men In Black 3 was much better than Men In Black II, so too is Bad Boys For Life a notable improvement over Bad Boys II.
Bad Boys For Life is Will Smith’s third straight movie, following Gemini Man and Spies in Disguise, to deal with issues of legacy, cultural footprint and the cycle of violence merely allowing the world to go blind. Smith’s last handful of projects, give or take Aladdin, suggests a certain reckoning with his legacy as a “bread and circuses” movie star, as well as a certain distaste of the overriding “individual right > societal right” mentality of the classic action hero. That’s not to say that Bad Boys For Life is a grimdark reckoning on Michael Bay/Jerry Bruckheimer pop culture (which itself heavily influenced the MCU), but it has more on its mind that comic violence and franchise nostalgia.
It is to Sony’s credit that much of the movie will enter theaters Thursday night relatively unspoiled, and that there are genuine surprises to be found. Will Smith’s Mike Lowrey is still “kicking butt while looking good,” while Martin Lawrence’s Marcus Burnett is considering retirement following his first grandchild. The core plot involves a mother/son foe (Kate del Castillo and Jacob Scipio) who is attempting to put Mike into “early retirement.” This development sees the old friends going back to old habits while teaming up with a young, tech-savvy posse (Vanessa Hudgens, Alexander Ludwig and Charles Melton) of new wave cops led by Mike’s former flame (Paola Núñez). But Lowrey’s desire for vengeance may make him his own worst enemy.
The first half-hour is quite strong, focusing on character development, status quo alterations and table-setting violence over improv banter and comic mischief. Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah take over for Michael Bay in the director’s chair, and they hew closer to the “real-world crime drama” ethos of the first film over the over-the-top sequel. The movie looks and feels big, stretching that $90 million budget to craft a film that doesn’t feel that much smaller than the $130 million Bad Boys II. The film is still sleek, stylish and colorful as hell. The only real “tell” is that pesky “shot on video” thing that makes several exterior moments look noticeably cheaper than the shot-on-film predecessors.
The film threatens to negate itself in the “second fourth,” as Mike’s intrusive, abusive and/or and borderline reckless police work threaten to pull the film into the “rooting against action” sandbox. The film pulls itself back by the end of its first hour, with the help of a terrific mentor/mentee moment from Joe Pantoliano, with a readjustment of priorities that lets the action play out in a forward momentum. Like the first Bad Boys, the film prioritizes bursts of (occasionally shocking) violence over extended action for as long as required, so that the last couple of action scenes can deliver the required pay off. Even with extended riffing here and there, the sequel remains a well-made and well-staged old-school action movie spectacular.
Then the finale tips the proceedings halfway into opera. No spoilers, but the final reel leans into melodrama in a way that I didn’t expect. It’s no tearjerker, but the action climax is appropriately over the top and explicitly character-driven, while playing out amid almost literal fire and brimstone. I half-expected to hear cues from Alan Menkin’s Hunchback of Notre Dame score, and it’s a nice change from Bad Boys II’s “devil may care” attitude toward its violence and carnage. If anything, screenwriters Chris Bremner Peter Craig and Joe Carnahan’s emphasis on Mike Lowrey as a three-dimensional character and a more serious attitude toward action movie tropes after a borderline cartoonish sequel reminded me of Angel Has Fallen. Yes, that’s damn-well a compliment.
Bad Boys For Life is filled with strong character work and quality big-budget action set pieces. It justifies itself in a world filled not just with bigger action spectaculars but a pretty terrific Lethal Weapon TV show that ran for three seasons. Everyone is on their A-game, and the overriding “What mark will you leave on the world?” subtext both keeps it in line with the surprisingly great Men in Black 3 and the concepts at the heart of Gemini Man and Spies in Disguise. MIB 3 was much better than the terrible MIB 2, and now Bad Boys 3 is notably better than the mediocre Bad Boys II. Call me mad, but I’m now interested in a Will Smith-fronted Independence Day 3?!
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