Despite the fact that Bad Boys for Life (the third Bad Boys movie, for those counting, and the first since 2003) is meant to focus on its lead characters getting older and less reckless while moving forward with their lives, it feels like it’s stuck in the past. It celebrates wild violence with a great deal of collateral damage and recycles tired routines that involve bickering, name calling, and repeating the phrase “bad boys for life” like it means something.
As the film opens, Det. Marcus Burnett (Martin Lawrence) becomes a grandfather for the first time, and it inspires thoughts of retiring more seriously than ever before. His partner, Det. Mike Lowery (Will Smith), essentially guilts him into dismissing such thoughts when a case comes up involving Isabel Aretas (Kate del Castillo), the widow of a Mexican drug kingpin, and her grown son, Armando Armas (Jacob Scipio), whom she sends to Miami to assassinate a group of individuals, including Lowery, for reasons unknown. Although Armas is instructed to save Lowery for last, an opportunity arises, and he guns Lowery down on a crowded street while riding a motorcycle. And for a fleeting moment, I thought that this film might actually have the guts to kill off a major character in the first 30 minutes.
Of course Lowery survives, but during his recovery, Burnett does actually retire after making a hospital chapel promise to God that he will never cause violence again if He lets Lowery live. Like most moments of heartfelt sincerity in this movie, it lands with a thud. Another familiar face in Bad Boys for Life is Capt. Howard (Joe Pantoliano), who’s mainly there to do what he always does, which is tell the Bad Boys they can’t do something, and then they go ahead and do it anyway. In this case, he refuses to let Lowery investigate his own attempted murder. Instead, he assigns a newly created task force named AMMO to look into the shooting as well as a series of murders by a man on a motorcycle. But soon enough the AMMO team, which includes Vanessa Hudgens, Alexander Ludwig, Paola Nuñez (as Rita, who had a vague thing with Lowery years earlier), and Charles Melton, all young, attractive hot shots who feel the older Lowery would only get in the way.
For better or worse, the director behind the first two Bad Boys movies, Michael Bay, does not return for this installment (at least not in the way you think). Instead, we get the directing team of Adil and Bilall (Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah, Gangsta), working from a script from Chris Bremner, Peter Craig, and Joe Carnahan. The filmmakers certainly have a flair for action, and once the chasing, shooting and general mayhem begins, that’s when the movie takes off and is at its best. Bad Boys has always been an action-comedy series, and it’s the comedy that is a bit of a drag on the success of Bad Boys for Life as a righteous action romp. We have to imagine that after about 25 years as partners, Lowery and Burnett might have a system in place to handle their arguments. Instead, we get tired insult battles that we’ve seen many times before, and that’s a shame because the chemistry between Smith and Lawrence is actually terrific when they aren’t being children.
Bad Boys for Life does manage to throw in a couple of twists—one of which is genuinely shocking and another that is genuinely laughable—and I’m not sure which I liked better. Another moment of surprise came at the casting of del Castillo as the female foil (who might be a witch) for Lowery. I saw her last year in a film called El Chicano, but she gained notoriety a few years ago for being pals with real-life drug kingpin El Chapo and setting up a meeting between him and Sean Penn. She’s actually pretty great in this film, making the most of her limited screen time, compared to the more active villain played by Scipio. She drops a bombshell on Lowery that is more ridiculous than shocking, but somehow in the Bad Boys cinematic universe, it all makes sense.
Not surprisingly, something occurs that pulls Burnett out of his six months of retirement, and Lowery even finds a loophole in that promise to God, giving Burnett license to shoot with extreme prejudice. As I said, when the film emphasizes the action, Bad Boys for Life works pretty well, and that includes the use of the AMMO team, who have a nice rapport with each other and with Lowery and Burnett. The comedy feels dated and not especially funny, but even that lands every so often, even if it isn’t always intentional. The Bad Boys movies never meant that much to me, but I do remember having an odd soft spot for Bad Boys II (although that may have more to do with the presence of Michael Shannon than anything else). My point is, this new film marks the first of what I’m sure will be many useless sequels this year. They didn’t exactly re-invent the mold for this one, but they do try one or two new tricks, and even set up what feels like yet another sequel. Who the hell knows.
Bad Boys for Life isn’t an embarrassment to the franchise, but that isn’t saying much for those of us who don’t hold it dear to our hearts to begin with.
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