Bad Boys for Life Review: Boys to Men

Bad Boys for Life Martin Lawrence and Will Smith in Bad Boys for Life. (Sony)

The third entry in the irreverent buddy-cop series looks at old versus new without coming to any real conclusion or purpose.

It’s usually a death sentence when a franchise ditches its synonymous director (or vice versa), and 17 years after Bad Boys II, that seems to be the case here. But take special note of the word “usually”; that case doesn’t really apply here. Whereas the first movie failed because it was dull as dishwater, the sequel more than followed suit by pairing an alarmingly vile worldview with a 147-minute runtime.

Fast-forward from 2003 to 2020 and in comes Bad Boys for Life, the first of the series to lack any involvement from Michael Bay aside from a wink-wink, nudge-nudge cameo. Instead, it’s Adil El Arbi & Bilall Fallah at the helm. Two new directors, three new writers, almost another two decades—maybe a lot has changed for the franchise. Or maybe not. If anything, this movie’s most consistent success is that it’s the least obnoxious of the three.

Damning with faint praise aside, it’s clear the Bayhem of yesteryear has fizzled a bit, and it appears to have done so for Marcus Burnett (Martin Lawrence) too. He’s retired. He’s a family man. He’s also a new grandfather and he and his faith-based lifestyle have no intention of going back. But that isn’t the same for Mike Lowrey (Will Smith); rather, he’s the same guy in less abrasive packaging, and that packaging is a team of hip, therapy-seeking, ACLU-referencing millennials known as AMMO (Vanessa Hudgens, Alexander Ludwig, Charles Melton).

Their group’s leader, Rita (Paola Nuñez), is the closest thing he has to a partner. Enter a mother-son pair of drug runners (Kate del Castillo and Jacob Scipio) who are hurting for revenge against the Miami police force that killed their families. Their citywide network puts a few bullets in Mike’s chest and leaves him bedridden for six months. When he’s back in commission, though, he rejoins AMMO in an ancillary role and drags Marcus in with him.

If it sounds like a tawdry excuse for more action, it’s because it is. Bad Boys for Life toys with themes of mortality amidst its more overarching ideas of new versus old, but does that mean it actually cares about them? In this case, not at all. Peripheral characters mesh to form a larger stereotype. Some, once losing sufficient purpose, turn into plot devices for a plot that never felt central to begin with. This would be more forgivable were the pacing consistent, but Chris Bremner, Peter Craig, and Joe Carnahan were clearly on different pages here.

Maybe they thought that having writers with different opinions crunch out one script would work. The problem here is that the film, rife with callbacks to the first two movies, positions itself with and against both Marcus and Mike. The former signals growth while the latter resents it, and all the while, the AMMO crew’s tin-eared dialogue makes the entire movie feel like a polemic against a culture that’s grown more and more politically correct over the years. Neither ideology comes off as particularly worthy or especially detrimental.

If anything, this movie’s most consistent success is that it’s the least obnoxious of the three.

Instead, they, like the movie as a whole, ring hollow without enough purpose to justify their existence. There’s no true sign of an opinion from the writers or from Arbi & Fallah, and their reliance on what appears to be improv negates any real growth. It’s once Bad Boys for Life completely gives up on tying its thematic and narrative drives together that it reaches peak stupidity, but by then, it’s too little, too late.

Credit where credit is due, though: Robrecht Heyvaert gets some decent visuals out of the day-glo scenes. He and the directors toy with crash zooms and whip pans to blend Eastern and Western styles, and it’s a sliver of competence to make up a poorly paced piece where the action scenes are incredibly inconsistent in staging. Simply put, Bad Boys for Life didn’t need to exist—at least not in this form.

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