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Non-Review Review: Bad Boys For Life

Bad Boys For Life is an extremely stupid and occasionally veering on incoherent film. It is also a lot of fun.

There are any number of obvious problems with Bad Boys For Life. The pacing and plotting is a mess, stopping and starting at random intervals depending on the film’s mood as much as its own internal logic. Characterisation varies wildly from one scene to the next. Bad Boys For Life has even picked up some of the more frustratingly formulaic narrative beats from modern blockbusters, stumbling blindly into overwrought bathos and even attempting to offer a retroactively Freudian origin story for veteran police officer Mike Lowrey. It also understands that modern blockbusters have to be “about” things; in this case, growing old.

Welcome to Miami.

However, a large part of the charm of Bad Boys For Life is the way in which the film seems to have taken virtually every note that an executive might possibly offer and decided to approach these notes in a way that feels surprisingly fitting for a belated follow-up to Michael Bay’s bombastic duology. Bad Boys For Life is unashamedly and unapologetically its own thing. This results in a cocktail that doesn’t exactly go down smooth, but at least offers a refreshing and distinctive flavour. It helps that Belgian directors Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah lean strongly into the series’ sensibility, and invest heavily in its core strengths.

For all its gestures towards the modern age of intellectual-property-driven franchise-building, Bad Boys For Life grasps that the heart and soul of the series has always been the charm in watching Will Smith and Martin Lawrence bounce off one another. That dynamic between Smith and Lawrence, two performers who know how to work an audience and a camera, are arguably what grounded the first two films – keeping a very human perspective amid the ensuing “Bayhem.” In Bad Boys For Life, they does something similar, adding a charismatic star power that is often absent from contemporary blockbuster production.

Police don’t stop.

Watching Bad Boys For Life, it occasionally feels like the writers have been given a collection of modern popular franchise films, and asked to watch them at double-speed, possibly while consuming a number of stimulants. Bad Boys For Life is recognisable as a product of the modern franchise-film age, but only barely so. It often feels like somebody on the film went the cinema to watch a blockbuster from the twenty-first century, and everybody else has been awkwardly trying to interpret those frantic messy scrawls jotted down in the dark of the movie theatre.

There are several obligatory elements here. Bad Boys For Life introduces an ensemble of younger actors who might possibly be able to carry the film series forward should either Smith or Lawrence price themselves out of the market, or even launch a television franchise like L.A.’s Finest. Similarly, the film ends on a sequel hook, one obviously designed to set up the next installment in a very direct way. Of course, the half-heartedness of this approach is obvious in the title. What’s the point of naming the third film in the series Bad Boys For Life if it precludes naming the next one “Bad Boys 4 Life.”

There’s also an effort to make the film’s stakes highly personal for Mike and his partner Marcus, to almost comedic effect. Bad Boys For Life is a study in the escalation of “this time it’s even more personal.” Bad Boys For Life features no fewer than three attempts to underscore how personal it is for Mike and Marcus. Every time it feels like the audience might possibly have forgotten how personal it is, the film finds another way to hammer the point home. This doesn’t always work. It often feels downright clumsy. Bad Boys For Life grossly over-estimates the audience’s emotional investment in the world of the film and its characters.

And yet there’s also a sense in which Bad Boys For Life really has no idea how these modern elements are supposed to work, and doesn’t care to find out. Bad Boys For Life moves in fits and starts, occasionally stopping the action for about ninety seconds (usually helpfully covered in montage) to assure the audience that something serious has happened. Of course, the film’s internal logic isn’t designed to accommodate such introspection. At one point, the film jumps six months to help Mike and Marcus process something, but it seems like their foes have spent those six months frozen in time waiting for the film to start again.

Purple haze.

Of course, the characters in Bad Boys For Life don’t exactly grow or develop even when they are on-screen either. Characterisation is a fickle thing. At one point, a cartel assassin hesitates to take a shot when a basketball referee enters his line of sight. “No innocents,” he vows, solemnly, suggesting a code of honour. However, he was introduced about fifty minutes earlier taking part in a brutal prison break that ended with a guard shoved in a washing machine and an ambulance crew murdered in cold blood.

Similarly, an early dramatic beat hinges on a promise that Marcus makes with a divine authority in a moment of need. Feeling solemn and reflective, as characters tend to become when approach middle-age in a long-delayed sequel, Marcus vows to devote himself to a life of non-violence if some higher authority will intervene on his behalf. This promise drifts into and out of the film, occasionally played for laughs in three setpieces, but otherwise refusing to inform anything else about how Marcus is characterised.

To be fair, this is the point. Bad Boys For Life might gesture towards modern intellectual-property-driven blockbusters anchored in established characters, but the film understands the core appeal of a Bad Boys film has less to do with Mike Lowrey and Marcus Burnett and more to do with Will Smith and Martin Lawrence. Bad Boys For Life understands the appeal of a star vehicle, adding a lot of the charming personality-driven interplay that is often lacking from contemporary efforts to resurrect the classic “buddy movie” formula – like Hobbes and Shaw.

A large part of the thrill and charm of Bad Boys For Life is in watching Smith and Lawrence given a star vehicle. Like Tom Cruise, Will Smith has struggled a bit in trying to convert his star power into currency in the modern age – attaching himself to properties like Suicide Squad or trying to migrate the blockbuster concept to streaming in Bright. Last year worked out reasonably well for Smith, allowing the actor a bona fides movie star role in the smash hit Aladdin and providing an action vehicle that also played as a metaphor for the limbo in which he found himself in Gemini Man.

Bad (Young) Boys…

The pleasures of watching Smith in Bad Boys For Life are more basic than those found in Aladdin and Gemini Man, and the movie is perhaps the better for it. Bad Boys For Life invites the audience to enjoy the charismatic movie star that Smith was in the nineties – quick on his feet, playful yet immature, driven by the right cocktail of attitude and heart. The central premise of Bad Boys For Life is that Mike Lowery has never grown up, that the roguish police officer has never allowed himself to mature beyond his irreverence and impulsiveness. Bad Boys For Life also understands a more basic truth: the audience doesn’t want him to.

The best parts of Bad Boys For Life come in watching Smith and Lawrence share the screen with one another. Lawrence is a performer who never quite managed to garner the same level of consistent charm as Smith, his career defined as much by less critically-acclaimed crowd pleasers like Big Momma’s House or Wild Hogs. Nevertheless, Lawrence can work well with the right scene partner. As with any buddy movie, Bad Boys For Life juxtaposes the energy of its two leading players – Smith as bona fides blockbuster star and Lawrence as the goofy class clown.

Indeed, there are points in Bad Boys For Life where the film’s gestures towards modern blockbuster convention crash headfirst into the goofier elements of the series’ nineties roots. Because Bad Boys For Life is a twenty-first century blockbuster, it attempts to impose a theme on Marcus and Mike. Given the belated nature of the sequel, Bad Boys For Life focuses on the idea of maturity. “All our lives we’ve been Bad Boys,” Marcus tells Mike at one point, a line obviously designed for the trailer. “It’s time to be Good Men.” Mike responds with mock irreverence, “Good Men? Who the hell wants to sing that song?”

Bad Boys For Life has just enough irreverence for modern conventions that it works. As is the style with most modern blockbusters, Bad Boys For Life attempts to go deep on its characters, to offer some profound (yet also simple) statement on who they are and what they are doing. “Where are you going, Mike?” earnestly asks Captain Conrad Howard of his star detective, holding a piercing gaze. In a moment of intense emotional honesty, Mike offers a Freudian origin story of his first assignment that handily explains everything about him. (“So that’s why you dress like a drug dealer!” Marcus gasps at one revelation.)

Marcus his words.

However, even in the midst of this capital-S “serious” character beat, this moment in which Martin Lawrence and Will Smith are standing alone in their parking garage working through their trauma, Bad Boys For Life still manages to throw its own curve ball. Bad Boys For Life forces Mike to confront the question of what it means to grow up in a typically and predictably stereotypical manner, but with plotting that is just gonzo enough to delineate it from more achingly sincere by-the-numbers blockbusters. Processing the finer details of the film’s absurdly heightened climax, Marcus muses, “This is some real telenovela sh!t.”

It helps that directors Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah offer a surprisingly passable imitation of “Bayhem.” For better and worse, Michael Bay has a unique visual style and sensibility, and it wouldn’t be a Bad Boys sequel without it. Indeed, it’s arguably that Bay’s visually cacophonous style arguably worked best within those early films, where his more bombastic sensibilities were offset by a focus on human protagonists played by movie stars with strong personas. As distinctive and as unmistakable as Bay’s style might be, he is also a surprisingly difficult director to imitate – as directors like Peter Berg have learned.

Arbi and Fallah grab the basics of “Bayhem.” They understand that it isn’t just about camera movement and explosions, although those are a large part of the aesthetic. Arbi and Fallah have clearly studied Bay’s approach to framing and composition, understanding that the key to an effective Michael Bay shot is a combination of the movement of the camera, the movement of the object in focus, and static points of reference to provide a sense of scale. It isn’t just the camera whirling around the actor, it’s the camera whirling around the actor as the actor is moving with a skyscraper or street lamp in the background.

It helps that Arbi and Fallah are canny directors. As much as they might offer a solid imitation of Bay, they know better than to try to compete directly. The action in Bad Boys For Life is punctuated efficiently and sharply – the action sequences tend to build to a shocking punchline or a sharp, sudden shock. This has the effect of preventing any particularly rigorous comparison with Bay. There’s no time to process how the tempo of the action beat might be a little different, because the action beat ends on a note that becomes a focal point of itself.

That’s a low-angle blow.

There’s a charming sense of humour about all this. When Arbi and Fallah recreate the iconic “Michael Bay low angle camera whirl” sequence, they do so with just the slightest sense of irony that makes it feel like affectionate homage rather than soulless imitation. Bad Boys For Life never devolves into the knowing and winking humour associated with the Marvel movies, instead understanding that a certain level of absurdity come baked into the premise. In one sequence, Mike dives from an exploding truck on to a helicopter. It is very silly, but also undeniably awesome.

“Very silly, but undeniably awesome” is perhaps the central operating philosophy of Bad Boys For Life, a movie that credits “Khaled ‘DJ Khaled’ Khaled” and features a cameo from Michael Bay in which the camera treats him as a character in a Michael Bay movie. It’s not for everyone. It’s probably not even very good. However, taken on its own terms, it’s surprisingly and engagingly entertaining.

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