What defines a “Bad Boys” movie? It’s been 17 years since the last sequel came out, but some of the key elements are still easy to pin down: You need Will Smith as flashy Detective Sergeant Michael “Mike” Lowery, and Martin Lawrence as his slightly more sedate platonic life partner Detective Sergeant Marcus Burnett. You need Miami in all of its hyper-saturated splendor — nuclear orange skies, bikinis on the boardwalk, and a bass so thick that it seems to bounce the entire city. And you need an unfiltered mega-dose of whatever mutant testosterone has been oozing out of Michael Bay’s every pore since he first hit puberty. We’re talking all three of the big Gs: guns, gangsters, and gay panic. Maybe also some horny rats.
After that, things get a little hazy; “Bad Boys” once represented a watershed moment for black actors in the blockbuster era, but cops, robbers, and chemistry doesn’t automatically translate into the kind of mythology deep enough to sustain a franchise in this post-Marvel world. There’s a reason why the first “Fast and Furious” movie could be summarized as “vroom vroom family!” and the eighth installment felt like trying to follow “War and Peace” while huffing fumes out of a gas can. In other words, it’s easy to understand why a third “Bad Boys” took so long to get off the ground. It would have to be classic but modern, simple enough to stay honest but also complicated in a way that didn’t seem desperate. Most of all, it would require Michael Bay to be more self-aware than he’s ever shown himself capable of before.
Well, mission accomplished. Maybe he saw the light, or maybe he was just busy desecrating Florence on Netflix’s dime — either way, Bay realized that he didn’t have to direct this thing. Instead, he maintained his producer credit while passing the baton to Belgian duo Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah (2018’s “Gangsta”), and in doing so allowed this franchise to grow beyond the bravado that made “Bad Boys” feel too small for another chapter. The result is a fun, explosive, and surprisingly thoughtful action movie that manages to thread the needle between the pyrotechnics of vintage Jerry Bruckheimer and the softer, more forward-thinking demands of contemporary multiplex fare. It may not be as raw as “Bad Boys,” but it’s more human. It may not be as operatic as “Bad Boys II,” but, well, neither was “The Ring Cycle.”
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Returning us to an alternate universe where cops are paid seven-figure salaries and allowed to work the streets in Gucci suits, “Bad Boys for Life” starts with an obvious but satisfying hook that screenwriters Chris Bremner, Peter Craig, and Joe Carnahan are able to unpack into an enjoyably steroidal telenovela. Marcus wants to retire, and Mike would sooner die. The former has just become a grandfather, and the latter is a perpetual child whose entire identity is wrapped up in being king shit of Miami.
It’s only a matter of time before their different ideas of family pull these once-inseparable partners in opposite directions (yes, it does occasionally feel like the best “Fast and Furious” movie since “Fast Five”). Meanwhile, another family drama is brewing south of the border. Crime syndicate matriarch Isabel Aretas (Kate del Castillo) has escaped from prison with the help of her ruthless son Armando (Jacob Scipio), and she has an elaborate plan to get revenge on the people who took down her late husband — don’t hold your breath for non-stereotypical Latinx characters in this one. Mike Lowery is, of course, at the top of her list.
El Arbi and Fallah have a firm grip over the plot, and tensions escalate at such an even-keeled pace that you might wish the directors luxuriated a bit more in its quieter moments; when major characters bite the bullet, it can feel like viewers care about them more than the movie ever did. It’s still an unqualified joy to watch Joe Pantoliano huff, puff, and slurp down Pepto-Bismol as Mike and Marcus’ captain, and it’s always fun when Smith and Lawrence snipe at each other (even if some of their dialogue could be sharper).
The script even attempts to put Marcus through a half-hearted reckoning with all the violence he’s caused, while Mike toes right up to the fine line between “eligible” and “lonely” before getting knocked on his ass in more ways than one. Things get personal, but there are none of the mean-spirited cheapshots of the kind that people remember from the electronics store scene in “Bad Boys II.” This time around, everyone is open to some type of evolution, and even the fiery climactic shootout finds our heroes face-to-face with their oldest demons.
Best of all are the lovable squad of new police characters, all of whom belong to a self-contained unit called AMMO (think The Boston Globe’s Spotlight team, but for guns). Paola Núñez — playing an AMMO chief who used to date Mike — is splashed onto the story like pure, combustible and almost age-appropriate diesel fuel. She’s a commanding presence from the first time she enters the frame, and that electric new blood trickles down to the rest of her team. Vanessa Hudgens is totally credible as a ballistics expert, Charles Melton is a great foil for Smith’s anxieties, and Alexander Ludwig is sweet comic gold as the shredded (and gentle-hearted) tech guy who avoids field work because he’s too afraid of breaking all the bad guys in half. They may not be on the same “ride together, die together” level that has kept Mike and Marcus in check for so long, but it never hurts to have backup.
The excellent cast — along with Lorne Balfe’s thunderous score — help maintain a holistically brash sense of energy during and between the action sequences that move things along. The chaos and collateral damage of it all is pared down from the feverishness of the last installment, but aching joints (and a much lower budget) can have that effect. Most of the set pieces are short and coherent enough to provide just the right jolt of excitement, and Armado is enough of a threat to keep everyone in check. Bay may never have tolerated so much CGI blood, but El Arbi and Fallah make sure to earn their “R” rating at every opportunity, and it’s only in the climactic shootout that the digital elements distract from the reality of what’s happening.
In the rare instances when the action does erupt into genuine spectacle, the directors make sure to prioritize function over flashiness in a way that prevents your eyes from glazing over. A clever motorbike chase at the end of the second act even manages to evoke some of the explosive seriocomic splendor that defined Bruckheimer’s mid-’90s heyday.
“Bad Boys for Life” doesn’t aim to raise the bar on its genre or rewrite the blockbuster rulebook, but it’s a blast watching Lawrence and Smith revisit these characters and find a sensible place for them in the current Hollywood landscape. Looking over its shoulder while charging forward, the movie understands that some things have to change in order for others to stay the same. And while it’s hard to swallow all of the soapy plotting required to set this franchise up for a fourth installment, it’s impressive that El Arbi and Fallah are able to prepare the property for the future without completely betraying its past. A whole lot has changed since we last saw Mike and Marcus in 2003, but it’s never been easier to define what makes a “Bad Boys” movie feel so good.
Sony will release “Bad Boys for Life” in theaters on Friday, January 17.