Among the several high-profile cinematic franchises that Sony Pictures routinely has trouble launching and re-launching for the modern movie climate, few Sony movie brands have quite the level of development hell distinction boasted by Bad Boys. With the former Bad Boys duology already spanning a lengthy gap between sequels, after the first movie premiered in 1995, and the second didn’t release until 2003, it’s all the more impressive that this year’s new threequel, Bad Boys for Life managed to hit theatres at all, least of all in a year wherein the entire movie industry would be stalled by a global pandemic.
This latest sequel for the cult favourite action movie series even had its own lengthy stint in development hell, first being teased by former series director, Michael Bay in 2008, before being formally announced in 2009, originally as simply, ‘Bad Boys 3‘. This threequel would then go through several revisions and false starts over the next decade, most notably under Smokin’ Aces writer-director, Joe Carnahan, after Michael Bay became entrenched with Paramount’s Transformers movies, and was unable to direct the third Bad Boys movie himself. Even post-Transformers however, Bay and Carnahan both ended up ultimately abandoning the project, leading to Sony instead entrusting the re-tooled Bad Boys for Life to young Belgian directing duo, Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah (who are credited simply as ‘Adil and Bilall’), who are attempting to break into Hollywood off the back of this project, as well as Paramount’s own in-development action franchise revival, Beverly Hills Cop 4.
Due to ongoing complications from the COVID-19 pandemic, 2020’s collective box office earnings have more or less failed to launch after Bad Boys for Life’s initial theatrical run as well, even several months after lockdowns were initially ordered. This has left Bad Boys for Life as 2020’s highest-grossing movie so far, as well as a current offering in freshly-re-opened drive-in theatres. This is an interesting bit of unpredictable fortune for Bad Boys for Life, since, like Sony’s Underworld and Resident Evil movies, Bad Boys is the kind of digestible, silly, undemanding blockbuster-lite franchise that’s perfectly poised to rule the slow January box office, without being clobbered by bigger, more noteworthy movie releases. Thanks to most proper movie theatres currently remaining closed due to the ongoing pandemic, Bad Boys for Life’s box office fortunes have only grown too, making its long overdue release an unexpected win for Sony, particularly after the studio has now been forced to delay most of its planned 2020 tentpole movies into 2021.
This has left Sony Pictures with an incredibly vacant 2020 release calendar, one where only Monster Hunter and Connected remain standing as noteworthy 2020 movies from the studio at this point. Thus, Bad Boys for Life has to carry a huge chunk of Sony’s dismal-looking 2020 movie returns, putting all the more onus on it to be good, when its two predecessors already failed to excite critics in particular. Surprisingly though, Bad Boys for Life adds a considerable amount of renewed spark to this long-dormant Sony Pictures property, providing an overall better balance between cheeky humour and heartfelt drama, with enough destructive action and Miami flair to still make it recognizable as a Bad Boys sequel. It’s not high art, and it’s simply the latest movie to ride the trend of self-aware, Boomer-skewing action movie revivals, but Bad Boys for Life may just be the best, most satisfying Bad Boys movie made to date, even if it still doesn’t quite elevate this franchise to the action movie big leagues of Mission: Impossible or Fast & Furious.
Mike Lowrey and Marcus Burnett may not be household names on the level of John Rambo, Dom Toretto or Ethan Hunt, but they’ve made their mark across two action-packed offerings in the 90’s and early 2000’s. Bad Boys for Life now picks up with both characters being well into their 50’s, with Mike savouring the continued high life of being a danger-seeking Miami police officer, while Marcus finds himself once again desperate to retire and become a full-time family man. Bad Boys for Life keeps the foundational chemistry of its leads mostly intact, but it does wisely acknowledge that time has crept on, with a still-strong Will Smith continually defying his age, while a more weary, tired-looking Martin Lawrence sometimes struggles to keep up. It’s art imitating life to some degree, especially after Lawrence has largely retired from movie appearances in recent years, with Bad Boys for Life being his first true big screen stint since 2011’s Big Mommas: Like Father, Like Son. That’s a long while to be out of the game, and Lawrence effectively channels this in the older Marcus, who now, more than ever, wants to leave his cop life behind him.
Most of the franchise’s other surviving legacy characters appear to have moved on from the good old days of Bad Boys and Bad Boys II as well, leaving this threequel light on re-appearances. Only Joe Pantoliano’s still-angry Captain Howard continues to noticeably hang around from the former movies, a welcome, unchanging part of a threequel that otherwise isn’t afraid to acknowledge that we live in a different world than the early-to-mid-2000’s. Even the villains are more than one-note thugs this time around, specifically a mother-and-son drug kingpin operation, who target Mike as revenge for his involvement in the arrest and eventual death of their late patriarch. I can’t talk much about these characters without significant spoilers, but I will say that their connection to Mike proves shocking and surprisingly disillusioning, finally allowing the clock to catch up with Mike on its own terms, after Mike has spent so many years continuing to carry on as his devil-may-care self.
What’s less successful however is the obligatory injection of a younger, hipper team of upstarts into this overdue sequel, that being AMMO, a group of young Miami cops who are made to be Mike’s allies, and eventually Marcus’ allies, after he’s begrudgingly dragged into yet another mission with Mike. AMMO stinks of Sony Pictures executives wanting to groom more cinematic spin-offs that no one asked for, particularly after Sony Pictures’ television arm successfully launched a Bad Boys TV spin-off, L.A.’s Finest recently, centering around Marcus’ super-cop sister, Syd, who was apparently unceremoniously dumped by Mike off-screen, so that Syd could be separated onto a TV show. AMMO just isn’t interesting, and while they manage some funny lines here and there, they simply exist as plot devices, and usually as the latest reminder that Mike and Marcus aren’t as young as they used to be, which only Marcus appears willing to acknowledge at the best of times.
If you’re more partial to Marcus over Mike, you might be disappointed to see that Bad Boys for Life does feel like it slants considerably towards Mike over Marcus. This is no doubt a simple reflection of Will Smith maintaining far more celebrity status in the modern era than Martin Lawrence, who, as I mentioned, has largely retreated from the public eye since the early 2010’s. Still, Marcus spends almost the entire first half of Bad Boys for Life completely removed from the action, and that’s a big let-down for anyone who was hoping for a blockbuster comeback for Lawrence here. Marcus does eventually return to the fray in Bad Boys for Life’s latter half (why bother dragging Lawrence back otherwise?), so hopefully it’s not too late for Lawrence fans at that point, but fortunately, Will Smith does at least do a solid job of leading much of this threequel on his own. It’s just too bad that Mike is frequently forced to rely on the shaky ‘help’ of AMMO, alongside their demanding, yet compassionate boss, who also happens to be Mike’s ex-girlfriend, a dynamic that’s only slightly exploited for anything beyond light sexual tension. Unfortunately, she’s still part of AMMO, a superfluous story device in a threequel that would have functioned just fine by leaning more exclusively on the old guard, rather than trying to shoehorn in a newer, younger team of characters.
No self-respecting person ever tried to watch a Bad Boys movie for the plot, and in the case of Bad Boys for Life, you’d still be best served by not coming to it for the story. Bad Boys for Life remains an interesting concoction of goofy cop cliches and bromance-flavoured melodrama, but to its credit, its story is at least a little more meaningful than what was on offer in its two predecessors. Ultimately though, Bad Boys for Life knows not to go all in with its new added narrative depth. That depth still only goes so far, and this threequel nonetheless remains aware that most viewers will be coming for the wanton destruction and Miami glitz, as well as the enduring chemistry between leads, Will Smith and Martin Lawrence.
Bad Boys for Life does still try to push the franchise in a distinct new direction however, even if it means wholesale adopting the modern action movie trend of satirizing aging men that keep being forced to relive their more youthful glory days in the field of battle. Die Hard did it, Rambo did it, Terminator did it, Indiana Jones did it, and now, it should come as no surprise that Bad Boys is doing it. Bad Boys at least has the distinction of getting its feet wet during the 90’s, rather than the 80’s, like those previously mentioned examples, but its true that the thirtysomethings of 1995 that the first Bad Boys was made to target are now well into their fifties in 2020, if not their sixties. Thus, it makes sense that Bad Boys for Life would also mark the franchise’s overdue return by poking fun at the age of its predecessors, while still doing plenty to prove that its leading men have, “Still got it.”
Even then however, time has caught up with Mike and Marcus, and that nicely manifests in a surprisingly inspired idea for some new villains. These antagonists make things very personal for Mike in particular, who is continuing to thrive in his cop life, much more so than Marcus. If you’re worried about your action movie cliches being disturbed by actual storytelling though, don’t stress about it, because Bad Boys for Life is still a proudly dumb action flick. It’s just a dumb action flick that’s thinking through its story a little more, and not as frequently distracting you with so many explosions or girly shots. That’s progress, I guess, and for better or worse, Bad Boys for Life is making the admirable effort to grow up a bit, and at least try to pay attention to some of the new tricks that action movies have mastered since 2003.
Belgian directing duo, Adil & Bilall very clearly have a lot of reverence for Michael Bay’s original directing style on the first two Bad Boys movies. There are several deliberate efforts to copy it in Bad Boys for Life, most notably with some of the 360-degree shots that are something of a trademark for Bay, as well as some of the over-the-top destruction that Bay’s former two Bad Boys movies were all too happy to wreak upon Miami. Despite the reverence for Bay however, Adil & Bilall nonetheless provide their own unique stamp on the Bad Boys formula, namely by taking out the more overwrought, dated elements of Bay’s former direction, and instead making Bad Boys for Life more recognizably human and grounded than its predecessors, without sacrificing its cheeky, carnage-fueled energy from before.
The result is a threequel that definitely carries more substance than its two predecessors, but not to the point where it will actually make you think. This is often for the better though, and Adil & Bilall’s direction shows a lot of potential for future action/crime thriller movies to come. Despite a few over-the-top moments still sneaking in, Bad Boys for Life injects a much-needed element that the previous two Bad Boys movies don’t effectively replicate by modern standards; Stakes. The stakes finally feel real, just as the career of the more aged Mike and Marcus is beginning to catch up with them, in opposing ways. It’s a logical evolution for both of these characters, even if Marcus spends a significant amount of Bad Boys for Life on the sidelines, leaving Mike to do most of the heavy lifting, despite this movie portraying a delayed mid-life crisis for Mike just the same.
When Bad Boys for Life goes all in on the somewhat drifting, but still mostly tight chemistry between Mike and Marcus, that’s where Adil & Bilall’s direction is often at its best, even considering the many exciting, yet comprehensible (more than what Bay offered anyway) action sequences that the co-directors put together here. The duo still feel like they’re nailing down their blockbuster voices in a few places though, especially when Bad Boys for Life does start going through the motions during some dry narrative spots, often where AMMO is concerned. Even when Bad Boys for Life gets predictable however, it’s always fun, and the youthful, yet reverent touch of Adil & Bilall proves to be exactly what the Bad Boys franchise needed to feel relevant and interesting again in 2020.
Bad Boys for Life tries to take the Bad Boys franchise further on its own terms, but it’s nonetheless aware of why one would come to a Bad Boys movie in the first place, especially after the staggering seventeen-year wait between sequels. It manages to deliver some surprisingly good ideas through which to make Bad Boys relevant again (alongside a few duds that only drag the movie down), while also proving that the chemistry between Will Smith and Martin Lawrence still holds up, even with Smith dominating the bulk of the storytelling this time. I wouldn’t go as far as to say that age hasn’t affected Bad Boys at all by 2020, but rather than run from that, Bad Boys for Life finds a legitimately clever way to embrace that, while still delivering a lot of the same mindless destruction and loud, boisterous humour that the series’ enduring fanbase craves.
Bad Boys for Life also stands as a pretty huge improvement over 2003’s previous, rather lacklustre Bad Boys II, for what that’s worth. Some purists may still prefer the 90’s-fueled trappings of the original Bad Boys, but surprisingly, getting rid of Michael Bay’s direction actually ended up doing this franchise a lot of favours in its third installment, one that also proves some pretty strong blockbuster potential in Belgian co-directors, Adil & Bilall. This threequel still isn’t quite enough to convert people who don’t like Bad Boys already though, since it’s more of an extension and a refinement of the ideas that already found the franchise, rather than a true re-invention.
Even then though, it can’t be understated that Bad Boys for Life is a lot better than you may initially expect. It still feels like a January movie, and it’s still a little ridiculous overall, but it is true to the Bad Boys flavouring, without just recycling what its two predecessors did. Will this positive, renewed momentum carry over to the fourth Bad Boys movie that Sony already appears intent on making? Maybe. I will give Bad Boys for Life this though; It made me willing to believe in this franchise again. It may not be Mission: Impossible good, but Bad Boys for Life is pretty good nonetheless. On that note, if Sony intends on grooming another ‘pretty good’ blockbuster series to fill in those cold January months with the revitalized Bad Boys brand, well, I suppose that may be a fair enough way for Mike and Marcus to continue protecting and serving, even in their later years.
Bad Boys for Life indeed.
Bad Boys for Life is a surprisingly decent revival of a very dated action movie franchise, bringing a bit more dramatic weight to the series, without sacrificing its cheeky, destructive appeal.
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THE GOOD STUFF
Smith and Lawrence remain a great team
Clever, more effectively dramatic villains
Maintains a lot of the fun and carnage, without making it too overwrought