Packed with action, star power, chemistry, and self-awareness, Bad Boys For Life is a surprisingly worthwhile sequel.
As it turns out, the best way to contemporize an iconic Michael Bay movie is to have someone else direct it. And thus we have the long-awaited Bad Boys For Life, an energetic, worthwhile sequel that retains and rejuvenates the franchise’s better elements without being hampered by Bay’s oversaturated overindulgence, which is currently doing the rounds on Netflix instead. It even manages to add some things to the action-packed two-star vehicle that I don’t recall being there before, including a welcome degree of self-awareness that allows the film to play with its own mythology and hang-ups in a way that actually justifies the seventeen-year wait. Mostly, anyway.
Some things are left unchanged. Will Smith still plays the flashy, irresponsible ladies’ man Mike Lowrey, and Martin Lawrence, looking more and more like an oversized hamster each day, still plays the bumbling family man Marcus Burnett. Marcus still wants to retire, and Mike still has no intention of allowing him to do so. It’s a long time since we saw these two together, but it only takes the opening scene of Bad Boys For Life, the Porsche chase from the trailers, to recognize that their on-screen chemistry is still resolutely intact. They bicker and squabble, they alternate between rapid-fire quips and genuine sentiment, they stand up slowly as the camera pans around them and the bleached Miami backdrop poses for a picture. So far, so familiar.
But it doesn’t take long for the film to begin re-evaluating itself. Mike and Marcus aren’t speeding towards a shootout or away from Haitian gangsters, but to the hospital, so Marcus can witness the birth of his grandchild. (The film has a lot of fun reintroducing old faces and gags, but I’ll leave them for you to discover on your own.) It’s the first of several scenes of genuine reflection and quiet character drama that Belgian directing duo Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah navigate just as capably as the many action sequences, which are clearer and sharper here than they have been anywhere else in the franchise, and to be frank anywhere in Bay’s filmography. It’s ironic, I suppose, that the self-appointed king of brainless, steroidal action cinema has never been able to craft a punch-up as comprehensible as several of the ones in Bad Boys For Life.
But screenwriters Chris Bremner, Peter Craig, and Joe Carnahan also bother to craft a story around all the carnage, one that morphs from a simple “cops vs Mexican baddies” framework into a kind of ridiculous but oddly earnest telenovela-style soapy melodrama, with a witch (Kate del Castillo) and her martial artist hitman son (Jacob Scipio) pursuing at least one of the duo for decidedly personal reasons. Eventually, the film starts taking this stuff perhaps a bit too seriously, but it makes for a great, fiery finale complete with at least one semi-emotional hurrah and a Fast & Furious-style promise of more extended family shenanigans to come.
Making many of the same promises is a new specialist police unit dubbed AMMO, led by Mike’s old flame Rita (Paola Nuñez) and otherwise staffed entirely by hot Millennials, including Vanessa Hudgens, Charles Melton, and Alexander Ludwig, all of whom are credible in thin but fun supporting roles. The banter between old-fashioned boots-on-the-ground policework and the newfangled drone-piloting hands-off approach quickly gives way to a genuine sense of camaraderie, and the repeated inclusion of these newer, younger characters makes consistent sense in terms of Marcus trying and repeatedly failing to press upon Mike the importance of not being a maverick man-child for the rest of his life.
These genuine underlying sentiments and a clear sense of what worked about the Bad Boys franchise to begin with and what needed to be excised or updated in order to survive Hollywood’s new climate all ensure that Bad Boys For Life works — and it really does work, both as a contemporary action flick and, more importantly, as a worthy continuation of what came before. It might even be the best of the three, which is an incredibly rare thing to say about a sequel almost two decades in the making that most people rightfully thought would never happen. The first genuinely pleasant surprise of 2020, and a reminder of how fun blockbuster filmmaking can be when it takes the time to get to know itself.
Jonathon is the Co-Founder of Ready Steady Cut and has been Senior Editor and Chief Critic of the outlet since 2017.