Is it possible to just appreciate a “Bad Boys” movie for what it is — Will Smith blasting away, Martin Lawrence bugging out, Miami beaming bright — without actually finding it very good?
That’s the curious position the action comedy “Bad Boys for Life” finds itself in as the series’ third installment about Smith and Lawrence’s tight-knit, personality-clashing loose cannon lawmen — although “installment” is perhaps not the right word for a movie coming a teenager’s lifetime after the last one, 2003’s pinnacle of macho chaos “Bad Boys II.”
Since that execrable sequel, when Smith had overtaken Lawrence (the original 1995 movie’s lead) as box office bait, and director Michael Bay’s popcorn overlord status was surpassing that of the franchise’s veteran producer Jerry Bruckheimer, all the main players’ marquee power has taken a hit, not to mention the kind of loud, hyperviolent mayhem a “Bad Boys” movie represents. Which is why “Bad Boys for Life” (with everyone back, save Bay, who nonetheless pops up for a strange onscreen cameo) is both an amusing throwback and a tired retread at the same time, like a cruise through an old, beloved neighborhood in which one’s hope that the old feelings will return is more enjoyable than what you actually discover, which is that you’ve moved on.
But flashy young Belgian directors Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah, credited as “Adil & Bilall,” deliver a time-warp adrenaline-pumper as if the familiar cocktail of buddy banter, beachy beauty and bloody bust-ups were something just invented. It’s almost endearing how these wanna-Bays try to please those nostalgic for the Bruckheimer-bred glitzmeister’s surface gleam, swirling cameras and rock-‘em-sock-‘em action, and yet — shhh! — these new guys are actually better than Bay ever was at directing the stars’ push-pull comic exchanges, which end up being this otherwise slapdash sequel’s brightest spots.
That’s apparent from the opening, when what looks like a cops-and-robbers chase that imperils half of the city’s pedestrians and fellow drivers is just leadfoot detective Mike Lowrey (Smith) and his nervous colleague Marcus Burnett (Lawrence) trying to get to the hospital in time for the birth of family man Marcus’ first grandkid. (Theresa Randle and Bianca Bethune reprise their roles as Marcus’ wife and daughter, respectively.)
Marcus’ lachrymose reaction to being a grandfather highlights what will become the central conflict for the partners: Marcus wants to retire while Michael, still beholden to expensive cars, designer threads and dishing out brutal justice to criminals, sees giving up as a betrayal of their “ride together, die together” ethos. Michael is also turned off by his own department’s emphasis on less lethal crimefighting methods, as reflected in a new high-tech task force headed by an ex-flame, Rita (Paola Nuñez, TV’s “The Purge”), and featuring Vanessa Hudgens as a weapons expert who is like uniformed dressing here.
The duo’s ever-exasperated captain (a returning, reliably cranky Joe Pantoliano) insists Michael-minus-Marcus work with Rita’s team after Michael’s life is put in danger by a dead cartel boss’ ruthless, vengeful wife (a psycho-eyed Kate del Castillo, “All About Nina”) and her trained-assassin son Armando (Jacob Scipio, “Hunter Killer”). Every time Armando kills someone, he calls his mother, which is nice, but she’s so focused on seeing Michael dead (on the phone from Mexico — and the screen seems to always read “MEXICO” in these scenes) that we sense something to be uncovered about our hero badass’ past.
When we finally get the reveal, it’s so crazy a story twist that Marcus makes a telenovela joke about it; one is tempted to sense a meta-commentary at work in the screenplay credited to Chris Bremner, Peter Craig and Joe Carnahan, until that notion is quickly dispelled, of course, by the next expected wisecrack, or impaled/shot bad guy, or over-the-top stunt, or time-lapse overview of Miami courtesy cinematographer Robrecht Hayvaert (“Revenge”).
To look for more in a “Bad Boys” movie — even one that features the killing of a major character, and seemingly weightier conversations about redemption, death and God — is like disrupting the scarfing down of your fast-food meal by reading its calorie count. You’ll just wonder why you bothered.
The stars certainly aren’t acting like their participation is a mercenary endeavor. Lawrence and Smith seem to enjoy their goofy-meets-gung-ho responsibilities, and that counts for something in these types of movies, as is a tone decidedly less mean-spirited than the last one’s, and a central car/motorcycle/helicopter chase that distracts you with thrills rather than wear you down with overkill.
Hmm, could we actually be seeing a kind of entertainment modesty from a Bruckheimer joint? Maybe when you’re polishing your brand by acknowledging past excesses and sticking to what’s evergreen — even what’s inherently dumb about it all — you come up with something that succeeds by default. With that title, “Bad Boys for Life” sounds like it could have been a handed-down sentence, but maybe it’s just the old gang telling us that what they really stand for is sticking around for as long as they can.