Martin Lawrence and Will Smith return as detectives Mike Lowrey and Marcus Burnett 25 years after the first film. (Supplied: Sony Pictures)
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“All our lives we’ve been bad boys, now it’s time to be good men,” says middle-aged detective Marcus Burnett (Martin Lawrence), confronted with a violent suspect itching for a brawl halfway through Bad Boys for Life.
His gung-ho, action junkie partner Mike Lowrey (Will Smith) is swift to shoot him down: “Who the hell wants to sing that song?”
Yep, Miami PD’s kings of collateral damage are back bickering and blasting their way through this distant sequel to Michael Bay’s Bad Boys (1995) and Bad Boys II (2003), minus the director who made the series his trademark.
Bad Boys for Life is Belgian cinematographer Robrecht Heyvaert’s fourth collaboration with film school friends El Arbi and Fallah.
And while the belated instalment could never hope to match the glorious, stylistic hubris of its predecessors — which turned the art of slow-mo, low-angle action into vulgar, transcendent poetry — incoming Belgian directors Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah deliver a mostly satisfying coda, paying tribute to the master’s kinetic formalism while playing a heavy hand of sentiment that’s on brand for a series which has never exactly been subtle.
Old man jokes abound like so many expanding waistlines as we reconvene with our heroes, who are still on the city’s crime beat and under the exasperated command of Captain Howard — a tireless Joe Pantoliano, still hamming his way through a masterclass in disgruntled boss cliche — as the vagaries of middle-age begin to descend upon them.
Joe Pantoliano’s highly strung Captain Howard is the mastermind behind elite high-tech police unit AMMO. (Supplied: Ben Rothstein/Sony Pictures)
Playboy Lowrey might be mainlining another brand new Porsche and forever scanning for single ladies, but a secret mid-life crisis means he’s dyeing his signature goatee (leading to one of the film’s best gags) and wondering if the detective he broke up with, Rita (Mexican star Paola Nunez), might be the one that got away.
Meanwhile, a visibly portly Burnett is angling for a life of quiet retirement and quality time with his wife (Theresa Randle, completing her quarter-century, eye-rolling sentence as “nagging spouse”), a routine that feels like an odd fit on the erstwhile comedic Lawrence, last seen dropping by for one of 2019’s most hilarious, unsung cameos in Harmony Korine’s The Beach Bum.
Burnett’s newly-minted grandpa status and Lowrey’s sudden, bracing brush with death drives the two best pals even further apart, with the former doubling down on retirement and the latter hell-bent on exacting vengeance on his would-be assailant.
Jacob Scipio plays Armando, a lethal assassin and son of imprisoned crimelord Isabel Aretas. (Supplied: Ben Rothstein/Sony Pictures)
The attacker — a young, fiery enigma known as Armando Armas (Jacob Scipio) — has been sent on a mission of hate by his ex-con mother, Isabel Aretas (Kate del Castillo), a Mexican sorceress with an emotional score to settle with Lowrey and whose master plan powers the movie’s plot — a functional revenge arc that turns surprisingly interesting, even weird, by the third act.
(Unfortunately, the movie’s disdain for women who don’t fit its tired, angelic conception is the one thing the filmmakers have accurately been able to copy from Bay.)
Vanessa Hudgens plays a weapons specialist in the Advance Miami Metro Operations (AMMO) police unit. (Supplied: Kyle Kaplan/Sony Pictures)
This uneasy mixture of score-settling and humbling life perspective — with Lowrey committed to doing ’til he dies, and Burnett peddling an amusing side-trade of Zen-like calm — makes for an oddly muted first half, as the burdens of age and expiring time start to weigh on a series that, under Bay’s destructive imprimatur, otherwise had little use for story and characterisation beyond fuelling the irresistible eye candy of non-stop chaos.
Smith, too, can’t help but bring a level of gravitas to his performance, having grown immeasurably as a dramatic actor since the role that served as his springboard onto the Hollywood A-list. His expression here betrays a storm of conflict that was nowhere to be seen all those years ago when high-voltage charisma and an ability to run shirtless in slow motion were enough to keep the trauma of violence from sticking.
Belgian directors Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah describe themselves as lucky fanboys of the Bad Boys franchise. (Supplied: Ben Rothstein/Sony Pictures)
Arbi and Fallah, working from a script credited to Chris Bremner, Peter Craig and Joe Carnahan, leaven the heavier themes with a fresh new crew assigned to track the bad guys, a high-tech millennial team known as AMMO — including cocky hotshot Rafe (Charles Melton), beefcake hacker Dorn (Alexander Ludwig), and crack soldier Kelly (Vanessa Hudgens, sporting a very becoming side-swept braid) — who use drones, rubber bullets, and ageist wisecracks to get the job done.
“Everybody’s way too serious,” Lowrey chides the super-organised, distressingly well-adjusted millennial team. “Raids are supposed to be fun.”
Indeed, it’s strange to see a Bad Boys film wager so much on a dramatic connection with its characters, considering one of the strengths of Michael Bay’s worldview — even if it’s not your thing — was his seemingly delirious contempt for humanity, which at the very least resulted in films, writ especially large in the mayhem of Bad Boys II, that were pure manifestations of a nastier, turn-of-the-millennium American id.
When Bad Boys franchise producer Jerry Bruckheimer cast Smith in the 1995 film, he was the star of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. (Supplied: Kyle Kaplan/Sony Pictures)
When these two elements — unhinged action and plays at dramatic pathos — finally coalesce in the film’s high-energy second half, Bad Boys for Life cruises into an entertainingly noisy home stretch, with breakneck sequences involving vehicular carnage, helicopter explosions and comedic motorcycle sidecars satisfying the need for spectacle while delivering a story twist that offers up an unexpected remake of Gemini Man.
(Let’s just say Will Smith might want to hire a time machine at this point to keep an eye on his younger self, lest his rogue DNA — cloned or otherwise — land him in any more trouble.)
Alexander Ludwig plays Dorn, the AMMO unit’s technical expert. (Supplied: Ben Rothstein/Sony Pictures)
And while age may not have wearied Bay, bless him (for those who dare, there’s Netflix’s 6 Underground, in which the auteur takes his hyper-speed, attention-deficit action cutting to the outer limits of Bayhem) there’s something sweet about seeing his two stars mellow out and reckon with the passing of time.
Their newfound humanity may be less entertaining, even troubling — it’s one thing to accept a reckless police department as action cartoons, and another when we’re asked to care — but, watching Lawrence and Smith croon the series’ irrepressible theme song to a mewling infant against the Miami skyline, it’s hard not to find it all a little endearing, in the ways old friends can often be.
Bad Boys for Life is in cinemas from January 16.