A third of the way into Bad Boys for Life, the trilogy-capper of Michael Bay’s hyperkinetic, hyper-saturated action franchise, Martin Lawrence’s Marcus Burnett takes a nap.
Mike Lowery (Will Smith) is hot on the trail of a motorcycle-driving assailant who gunned him down mid-wheelie, and he could probably use Marcus’ help. But with a new grandson, a loving marriage, and the weight of old(er) age keeping him down, Marcus feels less Bad Boy than La-Z-Boy. What would once have been a montage of roadsters and machine-gun fire is now a cross-cutting gag of Mike’s across-the-line info-gathering tactics and Marcus in full recline. It’s a riot.
Smith, 51, and Lawrence, 54, are, in the immortal words of Lethal Weapon’s Roger Murtaugh, too old for this shit. But instead of pretending the pair are Miami’s answer to the Expendables, screenwriters Chris Bremner, Peter Craig, and Joe Carnahan reflect on the characters’ place in the shoot-’em-up cosmos.
A new generation of cops aims to replace their off-the-books detective work with HR-approved tactics. Women at the clubs don’t look their way (mostly because they’re over 30 years old and hanging out at clubs). Marcus is more aware of his mortality than ever before. True love has passed Mike by. The days of running, jumping, and plowing a Cadillac CTS through a hurricane of corpses are mostly over. By reuniting a pair we haven’t seen on screen in nearly 17 years, Bad Boys for Life becomes Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood for ’90s action comedies.
When the son of a Mexican cartel boss targets Mike and several other law enforcement officers throughout Florida, cops old and new take to the streets to crack the case. Except for our heroes: Mike is recovering from his injuries and banned from investigating his own case, and Marcus took his friend’s bullet wounds as a sign to retire. With the mantra of “we ride together, we die together” thrown out the tinted power window, both men set out on roads of self-discovery, and Joe Pantoliano, as their old chief, screams uproarious amounts of profanity, as God intended.
At times, Bad Boys for Life has the gait of a straight-to-Netflix reunion movie. The bits are sitcom-y — Marcus ribbing Mike for dyeing his goatee, then later doing the same as his buddy lies banged up in the hospital, is a goofy pleasure. But the aging humor is unexpectedly heartwarming as well. Marcus has always been the angel in the devil’s passenger seat, begging Mike to take his foot off the gas while in hot pursuit of criminal goons. But now, he really has a point! Maybe Marcus shouldn’t bail from his wife’s spa day to solve a murder, and Mike shouldn’t weave his gold minivan through busy freeway streets at 90 mph in order to bust an arms deal. Or, if they do, they need to know why they’re doing it. True to the series, before anything gets too serious, Smith spits back a one-liner, a machine gun unloads at their window, and Lawrence squeals like a maniac.
Though Belgian directing duo Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah mimic Bay’s sweeping camera moves, their action scenes have the scale of television. The franchise’s patented car chases feel locked on rails compared to the utter chaos of Bad Boys II. Same goes for Smith, who can’t seem to flex physicality in multi-level foot chases or squib-popping SWAT infiltrations. A few sequences, where the guys get a boost from a gunslinging Vanessa Hudgens and a few of Miami PD’s finest millennial beefcakes, find more energy and banter as they bounce around perspectives. But for the most part, Lorne Balfe’s high-octane score does more heavy lifting than any of Smith’s muscles.
The set-pieces sputter in the stunt department, but Arbi and Fallah still wring them for comedy. A scene where Mike and Marcus drive a motorcycle and sidecar into a skirmish with a gun-mounted helicopter has the energy of Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck more than Bay’s morbid extremism. The duo’s comedic banter during the interrogation of a coked-up financial advisor has the rat-a-tat rhythm of one of Lawrence’s old stand-up sets. Smith is getting up there in years, but watching him smash DJ Khaled’s hand with a meat pulverizer is a simple pleasure. Whenever Arbi and Fallah can’t go big enough with the spectacle, they recenter on two stars who provide their own special effects.
Bad Boys for Life can’t shake the worst Bayisms — the continued festishization of paramilitary policing is tone-deaf, and a turn toward heavier drama exhausts the final stretch of the movie. But those action beats feel like parody through the eyes of two men clinging to a dusty definition of cool.
Even the camera moves haven’t aged. When Arbi and Fallah swirl the camera around Mike, brandishing two pistols like a Grecian statue, it lands like a gag. The once-formidable hero now competes with some kid from Riverdale who dreams of leading a spinoff. He and Marcus talk about car seats instead of cocaine shipments. They’re cranky as hell.
In an exhausted, introspective, dad-jokey way, Bad Boys for Life gives these boys a definitive ending. It isn’t one fans ever expected, but it’s highly watchable.
Bad Boys for Life opens in theaters on Jan. 17.