The action landscape has changed dramatically since 1995’s Bad Boys and its sequel, Bad Boys II. Action movies now belong to long-running franchises like Fast & Furious and Mission: Impossible, a PG-13 landscape where characters are borderline superheroes. Where does the story of two Miami detectives fit into all of that? How can Bad Boys possibly be relevant in 2020 when the last film came out 17 years ago? Shockingly, Bad Boys for Life finds a way. Directors Adil El Arbi & Bilall Fallah maintain the bombastic, R-rated action of Michael Bay‘s first two movies but manage to acknowledge that 25 years have passed since the first film, and that there may be more to life than simply gunning down bad guys and blowing up the streets of Miami. While the story gives way to some twists that are just as silly as the set pieces, Bad Boys for Life is a welcome surprise that shows a series willing to change with the times.
When the consequences of past case come back to haunt him, Detective Mike Lowrey (Will Smith) is gunned down by a mysterious figure. His partner and best friend Marcus Burnett (Martin Lawrence) prays to God to save Mike, and Mike pulls through. However, their friendship is fractured with Mike on the warpath to get revenge and Marcus happily enjoying retirement. At the request of Captain Howard (Joe Pantoliano), Mike reluctantly teams up with his ex, Rita (Paola Nuñez) and her special squad, AMMO. When the stakes get raised, Mike and Marcus reunite to fight the demons from Mike’s past and take down lots and lots of bad guys.
The first Bad Boys is fine for what it is. It’s a pretty safe action movie with Bay starting to show off what he could do as an action director. Bad Boys II looks like it escaped from a mental institution. If you tried to describe various plot points in Bad Boys II, you’d sound insane (“So, at one point, it turns out the bad guys are smuggling drugs in the breasts of corpses.”) Bad Boys for Life lands somewhere in the middle, retaining the ridiculous action of Bad Boys IIwhile discarding the go-for-broke mentality in favor of a story about the importance of family. The producers of Bad Boys for Life probably looked over at the success of Fast & Furious, said, “We need to get us some of that,” and the result is that the lead characters learn the importance of family and growing up.
And honestly? It works! Bad Boys for Life may not be the most original action film or have the death-defying set pieces of something like Mission: Impossible, but Arbi and Fallah know what makes the series tick, which is the chemistry between Smith and Lawrence paired with ridiculous action. They know that in a Bad Boys movie, subtlety is the enemy, so you go as big and broad as possible. While that may not click with today’s mythology-heavy blockbusters, Bad Boys for Life comes off like a charming throwback that can learn some new tricks rather than a stodgy relic. I don’t know how much I actually buy the family element the film is pushing, but it forces the characters to develop and change. I like that the movie can acknowledge its lead characters are in their fifties and may want different things than they did in their mid-20s.
The only point where Bad Boys for Life starts to go off the rails is when it starts to follow Fast & Furious too closely in hopes for setting up future installments. The AMMO team is good (two-dimensional though they are) and I wouldn’t necessarily mind seeing them return, but the twists related to Mike’s past are soap-opera level nonsense. On the one hand, that kind of silly storytelling goes hand-in-glove with the ludicrous action, but the film’s reality gets broken the more it tries to copy particular beats from the Fast & Furious series. It’s better to keep the film simply under the umbrella of “family is important” and go from there rather than copying plays from another franchise’s playbook.
If this is the last Bad Boys movie with Smith and Lawrence (and it’s possible considering that Bad Boys II was a success and it still took 17 years to make the sequel), then the series goes out on a high note but leaning into what works while still adapting to the current action landscape. Arguably, a series about two Miami cops taking down bad guys has been better than it had any right to be, but it managed to break away from being a Lethal Weapon clone and do its own thing on the strength of its leads and the cartoonish set pieces. Franchises don’t really end these days (the AMMO squad is positioned as the next generation of “Bad Boys”), but Bad Boys for Life isn’t a bad way for Mike and Marcus to ride into the sunset.