There is no discernible difference between doing cocaine and watching the film Bad Boys II. The closest comparison possible to director Michael Bay‘s 2003 buddy-action sequel would be if you force-fed a computer nothing but John Woo movies and then made it direct a Limp Bizkit video. Bad Boys II is a disaster portrait painted by an artist with uzis for hands. It is a chaotic sonnet composed on a Monster Energy Drink can. It is, undoubtedly, the peak of Bayhem Mountain, and I’m pretty sure Michael Bay has been chasing that knife-edge balance between cinematic coolness and cruelty ever since. And since he’s mostly failed, Bad Boys II would’ve remained a fascinating time capsule into a very different time and nothing more if a sequel, Bad Boys For Life, wasn’t hitting theaters a whopping 17 years later. With Will Smith and Martin Lawrence gearing up for one last ride—this time without Bay in the director’s chair—it’s the perfect time to look back not only at Bad Boys II, but also the ways it morphed entire action genre in the years after Michael Bay threw a speedboat into its face many moons ago.
But first, a brief recap: The first Bad Boys was Bay’s feature directorial debut, a perfectly enjoyable action flick anchored by the dynamite chemistry between leads Will Smith and Martin Lawrence, playing Miami narcotics detectives Mike Lowery and Marcus Burnett as they track $100 million worth of heroin. Bay moved on to The Rock—objectively his best movie, proven by science—then Armageddon, then Pearl Harbor, and in 2003 returned to the world of Bad Boys with a newfound enthusiasm for lens flare, gratuitous butt shots, and wanton on-screen property damage. Bad Boys II was the first time the world got a bump of full-force, uncut Bay. Smith and Lawrence were the same characters, the story had a nearly identical drug kingpin to take down, but the runtime had ballooned, the cinematography had the spins, and the action was ramped to near-incomprehensible level.
The entire vibe of Bad Boys II is distilled into its most famous scene, an elaborate car chase on the Miami freeway in which Mike and Marcus speed after a crew of Haitian hitmen who have commandeered a vehicle transport truck. It’s important to note, when discussing the way Michael Bay paces his movies, that this genuinely insane, near-15-minute set piece arrives less than 30 minutes into the movie. For a filmmaker as obsessed with sexiness as Michael Bay, he’s not too concerned with foreplay here. Nor is he too bothered by collateral damage. As the baddies literally launch cars on to the road, so many faceless pedestrians and police officers get caught up in the chaos. Dudes just trying to get to work in Fort Lauderdale end up flipping through the air in a Toyota Camry like 16 times. Mike deftly dodges all of it in a Porsche Turbo, which is the perfect summary of Bad Boys II, a movie so steadfastly focused on being cool as shit at all times it doesn’t ever dwell on the badass destruction it’s causing. No consequences, only quips. The scene ends with a massive pyrotechnics display involving a boat straight-up decapitating an innocent car and killing at least a few other cops. Will Smith drives past it and says “whoo!” and because Will Smith says it, you’re also kind of like, “You know what? Yeah. Whoo!”
That’s maybe the most important note to make out of all this: This scene, along with a good portion of the movie, on a purely adrenaline-pumping level, whips ass to this day. It’s a thrill ride. If Michael Bay is good at one thing, it’s taking the non-thinking version of joy a kid gets from smashing toys together and blowing it up to gargantuan levels. But so much of it is ugly in the light of 2019, from the way it sacrifices any hint of empathy to maintain its macho composure, to the constant humor poking fun at “gay shit”, to the fact that it’s, uh, actually just visually ugly.
But Bad Boys II is an effective place-marker in movie history; it’s basically a big, loud hinge that the modern-day action genre swung on. “Action” is fascinating, a style easily derided as mindless that has also produced some of the greatest movies of all time. Forged from the aggressively oiled-up fires of the Schwarzenegger and Stallone movies of the 1980s then crystallized by Die Hard‘s 1988 debut, the 1990s were a great time for action. Legitimate all-timer T2: Judgement Day motorcycled on to screens in 1991, followed up by an era of absurd, high-concept standalone joys like Speed (1995), Bay’s own The Rock (1996), and Face/Off (1997), all leading to the game-changer that was 1999’s The Matrix.
But the genre has always been a tug-of-war with itself, a question of “do you want us to say something or just go boom?” (Remember, the 90s also had, like, Wild Wild West.) The new millennium is a landfill of forgettable-ness for action movies; underneath franchises at the top of the ladder like Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man and Lord of the Rings—or even something like Stephen Spielberg doing Minority Report—you had a base of perfectly enjoyable empty trashcans like The Transporter, XXX, or freaking Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever. (The first Fast and the Furious, released in 2001, is a middle-of-the-road Point Break ripoff. I’m not sorry!) There was a palpable spark of dumbness at the underbelly of the action genre, and Bad Boys II was the explosion.
To reiterate: Bad Boys II is a great time! The fact that it is the definition of extremely entertaining and extremely bad had a ripple effect on American action movies for the longest time. Whenever someone reminisces about the days you could just turn your brain off and watch a movie purely for entertainment—”forget about the world”, the phrase is—I’m convinced they’re unconsciously referring to Bad Boys II; if not specifically, then to the reckless spirit of Bad Boys II, which lived on for more than a decade. The action genre basically became a place ruled completely by franchises—a little movie called Iron Man came along just five years later—but Bay’s influence seeped into them as well. J.J. Abrams’ Mission: Impossible 3 (2006) is by far the most Michael Bay-ass entry in the Mission: Impossible franchise. Taken became a thing. The Expendables. G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra. Budgets ballooned and balls-out third-act CGI destruction became the norm, and at the center of it all was dang Michael Bay—now officially a car-crash auteur who trafficked exclusively in helicopter shots and pyro—making Transformers movie after Transformers movie to the tune of billions of dollars.
Superman saved us. Plenty of smart, innovative action popped up in the decade after Bad Boys II, like Christopher Nolan‘s Dark Knight trilogy and imports like The Raid: Redemption, but a serious conversation around just how dumbed-down action should be really kickstarted once again with 2013’s Man of Steel. Directed by Zack Snyder—who is like Michael Bay’s Tethered—the film ended with a mid-air brawl between Superman (Henry Cavill) and General Zod (Michael Shannon) that basically leveled the entire city of Metropolis, killing an unfathomable amount of innocent people in the process. Which felt kind of wrong! We’re still debating the morality of this dang scene seven year later, but there’s no denying it put a dent in un-checked Bayhem. (See the third-act fight of Snyder’s Batman vs. Superman, which takes place in a completely uninhabited section of Gotham City.)
A better breed of action flourished in the aftermath, less concerned with body counts than they are with complexity. John Wick, both hyper-realistic in its reload-time and mind-boggling in its set-pieces, burst on to the scene in 2014. Christopher McQuarrie took ownership of the Mission: Impossible franchise with 2014’s Rogue Nation. Mad genius George Miller made a case for the Greatest of All Time with 2015’s Mad Max: Fury Road. In 2017, The Last Knight became the lowest-grossing Michael Bay Transformers movie. The director’s latest, 6 Underground—a genuinely incomprehensible Netflix film that contains all the usual bells and whistles—came and went in the pop culture consciousness like a muzzle flash. The action genre is always evolving, and it evolved right past the last gasp of what made Bad Boys II the shit in 2003.
And that’s the environment in which directors Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah debut Bad Boys for Life. Yes, Dumb Fun Action Movies still get made—Dwayne Johnson carries like six of them on his back monthly—but they’ve mostly lost that nasty streak. Even the Fast and Furious movies, which have since become live-action cartoons that defy the laws of physics, are at their center a story about family. Put simply, modern-day action movies operate with the understanding that you can be as violent, bombastic, over-the-top, and audacious as you want, just maybe don’t be a dick about it? Hey, that’s a lesson that takes time. It took 17 years to realize that just because you’re bad boys for life doesn’t mean you don’t have to eventually grow up.