”You know what you assholes don’t get? We’re not a fucking building! We’re not a fucking flag! We’re not just one man! Assholes like you have been trying to kill us for a long fucking time. But you know what? A thousand years from now, we’ll still fucking be here!” — Mike Banning (Gerard Butler), London Has Fallen
Bad Boys II is about how all cops are psychopaths. Michael Bay thinks that’s OK: In 2003, we needed psychopaths to lead us crotch-deep into the new frontier of crime before which we—Americans, soggy and vulnerable sacks of flesh full of red, white and blue—stood, and Miami detectives Mike Lowrey (Will Smith) and Marcus Burnett (Martin Lawrence) served well as avatars for the particular kind of hyper-violent, xenophobic supermen who’d hold the front line. Mike’s primary characteristics involved being rich, being cool and murdering too many people, while Marcus, though he too murdered a lot of people, represented the working class everyman who faces a moral conundrum about murdering people because he has a daughter. Their journeys take them to Cuba, wherein they destroy a small village and vaporize their enemies, perhaps both as homage to Police Story and as ultimate vindication of their insatiable bloodlust. “We ride together, we die together. Bad boys for life,” they weep into each other’s arms, their family standing around them, applauding, the corpses of the vanquished piled high, spreading infinitely outwards in the wake of their egos to haunt the fringes of their waking realities, forevermore.
In the past 16 or so years, Michael Bay must have realized that he needn’t direct a third Bad Boys film; he’d already epitomized that film’s fascistically pop style and then sent it careening over a shark-shaped Autobot off a cliff. Bad Boys II must haunt him. And so, after passing through many hands, the responsibility falls into the laps of up-and-coming Belgian Neveldine/Taylor aficionados, Bilall Fallah and Adil El Arbi, to galumph inevitably on in the story of these two men who have lived a lifetime with the many lives they’ve ended. If Bad Boys II is about how all cops are psychopaths and how that’s OK, then Bad Boys for Life is about how all cops, who are psychopaths, aren’t OK.
Until they are again. As Bay turns over the franchise, content being a literal wedding DJ for the uniting of these new brands—the marriage of nostalgia and breathless, idiotic futurism—now’s the best time to wonder at what makes a Bad Boys movie beyond the presence of Smith and Lawrence. Because Bay’s two films repeatedly walk them to the edge and back. Maybe that’s the crux of any good buddy cop series, our antiheroes’ volatile relationship with each other and with the law, but when, in Bad Boys II, having stolen a car from Dan Marino and dodging naked dead bodies falling from the back of the bad guys’ truck, Marcus screeches, “This is unnecessary!”—that’s when Bay’s indulgence reaches entelechy. It exists for its own sake, having realized its purpose and achieved its potential. Bad Boys II was too long, an endless cavalcade of sexism and racism and macho brutality and blown out brains and blood and guts; Michael Bay had nowhere left to go, no sense of decency left to desecrate. It was, and still is, the director’s magnum opus.
But such is not the spirit of Bad Boys. As Mike tells Marcus’s daughter (Bianca Bethune) on her wedding day, the mantra he gives to her and husband Reggie (Dennis Greene) is one he’s shared with her dad for a generation now: “Bad boys for life!” (Every wedding guest says it at once, as if that pledge for buddy cop mayhem has mythologized among everyone they know.) The throughline of the Bad Boys movies is that every one after the first should not exist, but they do anyway, because they must. Marcus can’t retire and Mike can’t stop killing people; the Bad Boy’s path is one of relentlessness, of taking your ghosts with you to the grave, of surviving only because that is the defiant attitude to have in a world consumed by death. Of reverence for the theme song to COPS. At the end of Bad Boys for Life, Mike and Marcus sing the song to Marcus’s grandson, Little Marcus. Mike chastises Marcus for not singing the song correctly. “This is important,” he scolds. Lorne Balfi’s stentorian score accompanies a sumptuously digital drone shot of some Miami skyline and we follow our friends once more into the dark, the wailing souls of all the lives they’ve extinguished drowned out by the swell of love for one new, precious life. “This is important.”
Years in the making and mired in production flux, the third Bad Boys struggles to retcon a plot about undercover love and illegitimate children into an otherwise standard arc detailing Mike’s moral awakening as a man who kills people who starts to doubt, after recovering from an attempted assassination, what kind of legacy he’s leaving the world. With 15 years of superstardom behind him, Will Smith seems to finally understand the sadness and regret at the heart of the character, knowing how to hold it in his eyes, to harness it as Mike Lowrey reveals new secrets about his past and further wades into chaos. Unexpectedly, Bad Boys for Life bears some resemblance to Gemini Man, both in how the films find Smith contending with his young celebritydom through modern action vehicles, and in how successfully he’s embraced his prowess as a physical leading man, like Tom Cruise, entering a phase in his career in which he’s expected to take it down a notch. If only Bad Boys for Life were as visceral as its predecessor.
It’s not—like unnecessary third Angel Has Fallen, giving the franchise to new directors yields something more European, something shorter and smaller and bleaker and more open to reflection, however little it actually affords or how easily it’s willing to give up self-awareness for a final action setpiece you will absolutely forget as soon as you leave the theater. Adil El Arbi and Bilal Fallah are obviously having a good time, handling all the ruckus with appropriate zeal and an easy sense of place, but much of the sheer imagination of Bay’s entries is replaced with franchise world-building—including an unexplained team of young supercops inexplicably led by Joe Pantoliano’s anthropomorphic coronary, Captain Howard—and allusions to two-decade-old jokes. Bad Boys for Life is better than it should be—the audience at my screening clapped when it ended—but not quite up to being what it must: a reminder that, you know what, a thousand years from now, Bad Boys will still fucking be here.
Directors: Adil El Arbi, Bilal Fallah
Writers: Chris Bremner, Peter Craig, Joe Carnahan
Starring: Will Smith, Martin Lawrence, Joe Pantoliano, Paola Núñez, Vanessa Hudgens, DJ Khaled, Charles Melton, Alexander Ludwig, Kate del Castillo, Jacob Scipio
Release Date: January 17, 2020
Dom Sinacola is Associate Movies Editor at Paste and a Portland-based writer. You can follow him on Twitter.