Starring: Will Smith (Suicide Squad), Martin Lawrence (Big Momma’s House), Vanessa Hudgens (High School Musical), Alexander Ludwig (The Hunger Games), Charles Melton (Riverdale), Paola Núñez (Dariela los martes), Kate del Castillo (The 33), Joe Pantoliano (The Matrix)
Directors: Adil El Arbi & Bilall Fallah (Black)
Writers: Chris Bremner and Peter Craig (The Town) and Joe Carnahan (The Grey)
Runtime: 2 hours 4 minutes
Release Date: 17th January (US, UK)
Amongst the sea of buddy cop action-comedies, the Bad Boys films certainly have their place in history. It was (and unfortunately still is) uncommon to see a big Hollywood action film with two black leads, and the first film was one of several that helped shoot Will Smith from sitcom star to movie legend. However, much of those films’ legacy lies at the feet of one man: Michael Bay. Bad Boys was his feature directorial debut, and its 2002 sequel in particular ended up defining Bay’s aesthetic for years: loud, gaudy, over-the-top and borderline offensive. The Bad Boys films were never particularly good movies, but they had an entertaining appeal that was distinctively Michael Bay’s. So what do you get when you make a Bad Boys movie without the Bayhem? Well, it’s funny that you should ask…
Picking up in real time from the events of the second film, Bad Boys for Life is very much aware of the age of its two stars and uses that to its advantage. Whilst there are the expected elements like Smith and Lawrence exchanging quips about how old they are or the generational clash with their millennial co-workers, the third film has also tonally matured with its stars and makes a solid play at getting serious. Whilst the plot itself is pretty standard cop movie stuff, the character dynamics and thematic elements feel very fresh, especially for such a notoriously anti-intellectual series. The action, the fun and the laughs are all still there, but there’s an added dimension of heart and sincerity that gives the proceedings an emotional heft much in the same vein as recent Fast & Furious films; it’s not exactly complex, but it’s enough to break up the monotony. Beyond all the chaos and carnage, it explores universal themes of mortality, family and how our traumas define who were are. It all finally adds a dose of humanity to the franchise, giving the characters some character introspection to play with rather than just mugging or being charismatic.
Whilst Will Smith may not be quite the movie star he was even five years ago, and Martin Lawrence even more so (he hasn’t had a starring role in close to a decade!), the Bad Boys of Miami PD themselves pick up the roles of Mike Lowrey and Marcus Burnett like they never left. Their character traits and interplay are very much the same, but have been significantly dialled back from their almost caricatured portrayal in Bad Boys II, and that’s ultimately for the better. The film’s greatest asset is that it finds a way to dive into these character’s psyches and gives them a history that adds genuine emotional weight to what were seemingly just clashing buddy cop traits. This level of character development was something Bad Boys was sorely lacking in comparison to its contemporaries, and they now finally feel like real characters rather than vessels for their respective actor’s real-life personas.
There are a few returning players from the prior films including Theresa Randle as Marcus’s ever-annoyed wife and Joe Pantoliano as the always-required angry police captain, but it’s Bad Boys for Life’s new players that add some real extra flavour. The film’s big new conceit is a young team of officers who use technology rather than brute force to fight crime, and whilst this concept has quickly become cliché the actors themselves acquit themselves well. Alexander Ludwig is quietly amusing as the gentle giant Dorn, Charles Melton is a suitably cocky rival to Mike as Rafe, and Paola Núñez is an instantly-captivating presence as squad leader and Mike’s old flame Rita; Vanessa Hudgens is also present as Kelly, but she unfortunately doesn’t get much focus compared to her co-stars. This is also the first Bad Boys film where the villains feel just as developed and interesting as the heroes, with the mother-son adversaries being not only a physical but emotional challenge. Kate del Castillo is suitably sultry and wicked as femme fatale Isabel, whilst Jacob Scipio gives something of a star-making turn as Armando; if nothing else, he should have a solid career ahead of him playing heavies in action flicks.
So what does a Bad Boys film without Michael Bay look like? In many ways, much the same. Directors Adil El Arbi & Bilall Fallah keep true enough to the aesthetic established by Bay to be recognisably part of the same series, but at the same time they have refined and controlled his style into something more visually digestible. Yes, the film is still awash in a high-contrast filter with lots of dynamic tracking shots and slow-motion, but it feels far less frantic and sophomoric. There’s a bit more elegance to the construction of the action sequences, relying less on spectacle and explosions and allowing the stunt work and gunplay to speak for themselves. Whilst in some ways it does lose some of Bay’s more inspired moments of lunacy, it is ultimately far easier to process and remember the action in Bad Boys for Life, and is easily the most successful attempt at copying the director’s style to date.
Watching Bad Boys for Life is like reuniting with your dumb friend from high school and realising they’ve become mature and self-ware with age. It’s still thoroughly ridiculous and pretty disposable, but it has surprising depth and introspection that more franchise revivals need to take notes from. There’s something here even for those who didn’t particularly like the first two films, whilst still delivering on the action and spectacle franchise fans are looking for. It is ideal Friday night entertainment fodder, best enjoyed with a bunch of friends, fast food and maybe a few drinks. People often defend Michael Bay movies by saying you need to turn off your brain to enjoy them. You can do that with Bad Boys for Life, but thankfully you don’t have to.
FINAL VERDICT: 6.5/10