3 Reasons Why ‘Bad Boys for Life’ Blew Up the Box Office

Will Smith and Martin Lawrence prove that there’s no substitute for chemistry

Last Updated: January 19, 2020 @ 2:42 PM

Sony’s hot streak at the box office continued this weekend with “Bad Boys for Life,” the third installment in the buddy cop action series starring Will Smith and Martin Lawrence. It may have taken 17 years to get the threequel out of development hell and into theaters, but it paid off with an estimated $68 million opening over four days, the second largest ever for a Martin Luther King Jr. weekend release behind only “American Sniper” ($107 million).

Made on a $90 million budget — cheaper than the $110 million spent on “Bad Boys II” in 2003 — “Bad Boys for Life” has become such a surprise success that Sony has already set up plans to make another film. Under the leadership of studio head Tom Rothman, Sony has worked overtime trying to revive dormant IP in the hopes of generating more tentpole material.

Sometimes that has paid off, as it did with the two “Jumanji” sequels that to date have grossed $1.67 billion worldwide. Other times, it has failed, as it did last year with “Men In Black: International” and “Charlie’s Angels.” Here are three reasons why “Bad Boys” ended up in the former category.

1.) MLK Weekend release date

Sometimes, if holiday releases aren’t legging out deep into the first quarter of the new year, that can provide an opportunity for a quality blockbuster to capitalize by providing something new for audiences in late January. “American Sniper” did that remarkably well, coming off a quickly fading holiday season led by “Into the Woods” and “The Hobbit: Battle of Five Armies”

Such an opportunity was available for “Bad Boys for Life,” as holiday leaders “Jumanji: The Next Level” and “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker” were seeing their weekend totals drop off into the low teens. While Oscar contenders like “1917” and adult dramas like “Just Mercy” were also in theaters, their core audience did not overlap much with the millennial and Gen X demos that “Bad Boys” was aiming for.

Not only was that good for Sony, it was excellent for movie theaters too. Having multiple well received films aimed at different demographics has allowed overall MLK weekend numbers to rise to an estimated $197 million. That’s up 15% from last year and back to similar levels for the holiday in 2017 and 2018.

2.) Critics Actually Like This One

Michael Bay has a long and storied history of making films that get panned by critics but become hits with audiences. Before the “Transformers” films, he was doing it with “Bad Boys,” turning both films into box office hits while yielding Rotten Tomatoes scores of below 50%.

But “Bad Boys for Life,” directed by Belgian filmmaking duo Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah, actually received generally positive reviews. Critics praised the action sequences for having more finesse, taking influence from Asian action films rather than Bay’s style. Reviews also noted that the film’s plot had more heart and thoughtfulness than its predecessors, acknowledging that its two protagonists Marcus Burnett and Mike Lowrey are now north of 50 and are at a crossroads in their lives.

Combined with an A on CinemaScore from longtime fans of “Bad Boys,” this strong word of mouth helped the film gain attention from casual moviegoers and will continue to do so in the coming weeks. Initial demographics for the film skewed African-American at 43% but also had strong turnout from Caucasian audiences at 30% and Latino audiences at 18%, the latter of which Sony helped build by expanding their marketing efforts in Miami, where “Bad Boys” is set.

3.) There’s No Replacement for Chemistry

But for all of its newfound maturity, “Bad Boys” is still about the action, the exotic Miami locale, and most of all, the chemistry between Smith and Lawrence. As we saw with “Men In Black: International,” it is near-impossible to replicate a franchise Smith helped start without him. Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson gave it an admirable effort, but when audiences think of “MIB,” they think often of the banter between Smith’s wisecracking J and Tommy Lee Jones’ by-the-book K.

But “Bad Boys for Life” didn’t bring in a “new generation” of Miami cops to take the torch from Mike and Marcus. Times may have changed, but the relationship between the two protagonists was merely adjusted to fit those times rather than replaced outright. By staying true to what made “Bad Boys” a hit in the first place, this threequel made the wait worth it for devoted fans.

Keeping that relationship going will be key to making “Bad Boys 4” another hit. Without spoiling too much, the film ends with Mike and Marcus still together, albeit in a new role on the police force. While that “new generation” is teased as a major part of the cast moving forward, audiences need to be assured that they are an addition, not a substitute, to the “Bad Boys” formula. If that happens, Sony will have another tentpole they can rely on.