Bad Boys 2 and the Mountains of Madness
With Bad Boys: Ride or Die in theaters, we look back at the gleeful anarchy of Michael Bay's earlier entry.
June 10, 2024

Oh, hey, look, a new Bad Boys movie is out. That makes sense. The last one was the best-reviewed and most financially successful of the series, and Martin Lawrence and Will Smith aren’t the hit machines they once were, so another bite at the apple is just good business. That said, Bad Boys For Life was kind of a meh movie, right? It wasn’t, like, terrible, but it wasn’t exactly memorable either, you know? They do the whole “boy times sure have changed, huh” schtick that’s required to a sequel released seventeen years after the previous entry. They try to age the Bad Boys up a little, saddle them with a squad of sassy rookies to train, make Marcus (Martin Lawrence, still in the league) a grandfather, and give Mike (Will Smith, right before everything changed) a heretofore unknown to him, grown son.

It’s a perfectly cromulent Legacy Sequel that hits all the right beats at the right times to deliver a tidy nostalgia hit to fans of the franchise. But that’s about it. It lacked the scrappy, low budget, “what are we even doing here” energy of 1995’s Bad Boys, the movie that returned Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer to the big time while also establishing then-sitcom performers Martin Lawrence (top-billed, if you can believe it) and Will Smith as viable action heroes.

It also introduced the cinema world to a certain enfant terrible named Michael Bay. Bay is the primary reason Bad Boys worked. He understood how to best utilize Lawrence and Smith’s more intimate TV-sized charm via long sequences of improvised character banter, and he knew precisely when to transform the squabbling comedy duo into believably imposing Big Time Action Stars (Will Smith famously didn’t want to do the sequence when he ran down the street with an open shirt, and Bay convinced him, cementing him into the minds of moviegoers as a tough, sexy, badass. Mission obviously accomplished). And he was the one who took a nineteen million dollar budgeted B-movie originally written for Dana Carvey and Jon Lovitz starring The Fresh Prince and Sheneneh and turned it into a fifty million dollar smash.

Bay followed Bad Boys with the critical and commercial hit The Rock, in 1996. And then went on to do 1998’s Armageddon and 2001’s Pearl Harbor, both of which, while being reasonably financially successful, garnered him multiple Golden Raspberry nominations, and an article in Entertainment Weekly questioning whether or not he was, in fact, the devil.

At this turbulent time, Bay turned his attention to Bad Boys 2, which became one of the angriest, most subversive mainstream movies of the twenty-first century. To say that Bad Boys for Life, or any other movie for that matter, lacks its vengeful panache seems like an understatement. This is a movie designed to entertain, disgust, and antagonize in equal measure by a furious, immature auteur lashing out at his critics. With Armageddon and Pearl Harbor, Michael Bay attempted to grow up a little and make movies for wider audiences that celebrate heroism, sacrifice, and love. They were goopy and sentimental and PG-13; Pearl Harbor especially was an attempt to tone down his hyperbolic style and make an unironic romantic epic.

Bay is, in his way, an extremely genuine filmmaker; he does care about sacrifice and family and all that bullshit. Pearl Harbor was him showing his heart to the world. And he got his ass fucking shredded for his trouble. Somehow, attempting not to be horrible made him worse to critics. So, Bay retreated to what he did best: style, cruelty, and violence on an unimaginable scale. It was as if he read every review calling him a cynical, shallow, vulgar scumbag and decided to double down on it. It’s perhaps the biggest “Fuck me? Fuck you!” in cinema history. And it’s a sight to behold.

Bad Boys 2 is in almost comically bad taste. It’s loud, crude, gross; it’s everything everyone has been saying it is for the past twenty-one years. There’s a car chase involving the titular Bad Boys, Mike and Marcus (Will Smith and Martin Lawrence), where naked dead bodies are hurled out the back of a hearse into oncoming traffic to cause confusion and sow chaos. There’s a scene where a teenage boy comes to Marcus’s house to pick up his daughter for a date, and Mike pretends to be drunk, pulls a gun on the kid, and low-key threatens to rape him (that kid ends up marrying Marcus’s daughter in the third Bad Boys, so I guess no harm done?). And yeah, the end of the movie involves the Bad Boys leading an unsanctioned incursion into Cuba with police officers and members of the U.S. Military that results in what could be the death of hundreds or possibly thousands of Cuban civilians, some of them certainly women and children.

Also, of course, the movie contains its share of misogyny, homophobia, xenophobia, and racial caricatures that are problematic at best. Oh, and those cadavers being hucked from the hearse were being used to smuggle drugs, which we learn when Will Smith reaches inside a corpse and pulls a Ziplock bag of ecstasy out. At one point, there’s a lingering shot of Martin Lawrence watching two rats have sex – in the missionary position. This movie is not interested in playing it safe for even a moment.

More than any other Bay movie, Bad Boys 2 goes out of its way to anticipate how it would bother people and makes sure to do more. But there’s a method to the madness. Or there might be, anyway; it’s always hard to tell with Bay, which makes it so interesting. There are hints throughout the movie that it’s not only aware of how ridiculous it is but also understands how awful it is. There’s an argument to be made that Bad Boys 2 is, if not exactly post-modern, then at least acknowledging how dangerous and unhealthy the exuberant power fantasy at the heart of many action films is. It’s not subtle because nothing in a Michael Bay movie could be described as subtle. It could easily be overlooked or written off as a simple comic digression. It’s just that it happens repeatedly, to the point that it’s hard not to think there was some purpose behind it.

What happens is the Boys are forced into therapy because of all the people they’ve murdered, and Marcus starts acknowledging how absurd and violent his life with Mike is. That causes him to confront Mike about his awful and toxic behavior constantly. It’s played for comedy, and by the end, Marcus comes to his senses and shoots everything in sight, but still. Most of Bad Boys 2 involves scenes of insane action and violence that end with Marcus turning to Mike and saying, “You know all this is terrible, right? All this killing and mayhem is literally poisoning my soul, and I’m starting to hate myself.” And again, he renounces all that at the end of the movie and even makes peace with Mike dating his sister (which he was against because, as he states, Mike is an objectively terrible person). Still, that reconciliation only comes at the climax, after over two hours of running condemnation of virtually every act of violence that preceded it.

It’s certainly possible that Marcus’s brief emotional awakening is simply another cruel joke at the expense of anyone with even a semblance of empathy. A way to recognize and dismiss the inevitable criticism of the film’s proud nihilism. Like it’s saying “yeah, yeah, we know what you’re going to say and fuck you, we’re doing it anyway because we’re awesome and you suck.” It’s possible, but it’s hard to be sure. Just like if Bay putting his director credit over a flaming cross at a Klan rally is his way of winking at the audience about his reputation or just one more slap in the face. Or both.

Look at what Paul Verhoeven did with Robocop and Total Recall – there’s a guy who makes it clear whose side he’s on. The movies are violent and cool but also gross and sad. His worlds are interesting places to visit, but you wouldn’t want to live there. Robocop’s Detroit is a crumbling slum, and much of Total Recall deliberately evokes the brutalist architecture of Eastern Europe and the rapidly failing USSR. Similarly, the violence is repulsive. Bodies are chewed up and torn apart, golf-ball-sized metal trackers are extracted from people’s noses, and when they get shot, their bodies ooze chunky goo.

Bad Boys 2, on the other hand, is gorgeous – the people are stunning, the scenery is amazing, and the violence is executed with a balletic grace that can leave you breathless. It’s also hilarious – Smith and Lawrence are a great comedic team; Smith, in particular, is at the absolute peak of his stardom, and they are relentlessly entertaining and charming amid impossible vulgarity.

Verhoeven wants to repulse us, to show us our worst desires in an attempt to wake us up to our own immorality. Bad Boys 2 is more complicated. It wants to dazzle and excite us with the beauty of what we’re seeing while reminding us of the rot underneath, letting us decide which is more compelling.
There’s something reassuring about guys like Verhoeven because we understand where he stands. The audience gets to enjoy his movies because, while they’re fun in their own way, we are better than all this. Verhoeven says only monsters genuinely enjoy the kind of spectacle American movies provide, so the safe thing to do is appreciate them at an ironic distance.

With Bad Boys 2, Bay argues there is no safe distance, no ironic detachment, and we’re all monsters. Even though we understand that American movies are nihilistic spectacles, we crave them anyway. No matter who you are, an amazing car chase or a spectacular gunfight gets your blood pumping. Bay seems to say if I’m a monster, I’ll make you all complicit in what I do. I will tell you exactly what I’m doing, and you’ll like it. We wouldn’t let him serve in heaven, so he’s ruling in hell. Hail to the king.