It has been 25 years since the original Bad Boys and 17 years since Bad Boys II. Will Smith and Martin Lawrence aren’t getting any younger, Michael Bay has moved on to other projects, and the world isn’t quite the same place that let the fuck-your-feelings attitude of the first two films ride by entirely on the strength of explosions and stylistically objectified women. Bad Boys was going to have to evolve if this extremely tardy trilogy capper were to have a chance with modern audiences, so here’s the good news: Bad Boys For Life is an emotionally mature end to this notoriously juvenile series.
The bad news is that this is accomplished through an excess of plot for what amounts to a very simple story of growing up and out of one’s youth. In the broad strokes, Mike Lowrey (Smith) and Marcus Burnett (Lawrence) have been partners for two and a half decades, and the question of retirement is coming up. Marcus has a new grandkid and wants out of the force, while Mike wants to keep on being a Bad Boy until the wheels fall off. This becomes complicated once a mysterious biker tries to gun Mike down in the street, and the woman who commands him (Kate del Castillo) seems to have a previous history with Mike. (She also might be a witch, but that’s neither here nor there.) Then on top of this is the introduction of AMMO, an elite unit led by Mike’s love interest Kelly (Vanessa Hudgens) that acts as reluctant support to the Mike’s and Marcus’ investigation (and that Sony clearly wants to be popular enough to spin off into a new franchise that isn’t reliant on getting Martin Lawrence back into an action movie). There are a ton more plot points crammed into this movie that feels like it’s checking studio-mandated franchise boxes, but thankfully everything moves at a fast enough clip that it’s only noticeable in retrospect.
On one level, it does feel like Bad Boys For Life could have been a Will Smith vehicle with Martin Lawrence’s comedy slapped on to justify the brand, but the dynamic between Smith and Lawrence still plays like dynamite. The way these actors trade barbs is so natural, it feels like they never stopped playing these characters, and they’ve arguably never been more hilarious in these roles. What’s even more surprising, though, is how Bad Boys For Life takes time to slow down and emphasize that rushing in guns blazing has its downsides and that there is emotional cost to flying till you die. There are times where diehards for this franchise may be waiting for the explosions to kick in and for bravado to arrive, but the restraint in the early action only allows the setpieces of the second and third acts to shine even brighter.
This is because directors Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah are extremely competent action stylists, trading in Michael Bay’s sun-soaked pastiche for the neon hues of Miami nightlife. They expertly stage hand-to-hand combat, gunfights, car chases, and yes, explosions with an enticing grasp on momentum, geography, and comedic timing. It feels more inspired by Asian action cinema than Bay’s oeuvre, but the stylistic shift is subtle enough that it’s in keeping with the old while still kicking ass like something new.
Bad Boys For Life is a strange movie to cap off a trilogy, since it feels detached from those earlier installments in terms of emotional maturity and aesthetic style, but it’s still a walk down memory lane to revisit old friends. It’s nostalgic, but not for its own sake. It’s cynically trying to lay the groundwork for a sequel franchise, but not so blatantly that it becomes overbearing. Yet at the end of the day, it’s funny as hell and the action is great. What more can you ask for in a Bad Boys movie?