Bad Boys for Life (2020)
Directed by Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah.
Starring Martin Lawrence, Will Smith, Vanessa Hudgens, Alexander Ludwig, Charles Melton, Paola Núñez, Kate del Castillo, Nicky Jam, Theresa Randle, and Joe Pantoliano.
Belated sequels, especially those of the comedic variety, rarely end up satisfying fans, especially when they’re dumped in the middle of January on a patently tepid wave of hype. And yet, Bad Boys for Life is an early January surprise, a 10-years-too-late threequel that impressively remembers the essence of what made the series a hit while also moving it on in a new direction.
It goes without saying that the film dines out liberally on the nostalgia audiences have for these characters, but rather than listlessly rehash action and one-liners we’re all familiar with, the third film smartly exploits the 17-year gap between movies to make surprisingly poignant comment on the passage of time.
Mike and Marcus are no longer young men, of course, and when Bad Boys for Life begins, Marcus has just become a grandfather, all while trying to convince eternal bachelor Mike to finally settle down as he enters middle-age. While it hardly makes for unique drama, it is a left-field direction for a sequel to a Michael Bay movie, and possibly explained by Bay serving in a producer-only capacity.
Just as Bumblebee delivered the cleanest and most emotionally resonant Transformers movie after Bay gave up the director’s chair, so too does Bad Boys for Life smooth out the problematic wrinkles of the Bay movies – basically just Bad Boys II, if we’re being honest – and turn in a more broadly accessible buddy cop romp.
This ensures that the threequel is almost entirely bereft of awkward gay panic and mental health-shaming, though the flip side is also that it lacks some of its predecessor’s intense, unique urgency. The exceptional weirdness of Bad Boys II threatens to make Bad Boys for Life seem positively bland by comparison, particularly in the action stakes, which is undeniably this sequel’s weakest suit.
The set-pieces helmed by Belgian filmmakers Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah can’t hold a candle to Bay’s penchant for theatrical chaos, directed here with a fair anonymity, to say nothing of some garish digital cinematography and awkward uses of green-screen. That’s not to call the action bad per se, but simply that it feels decidedly more stock and familiar than Bay’s proudly oddball approach.
Otherwise El Arbi and Fallah do a solid job aping Bay’s candy-coloured visual style, despite a few moments that evoke an unmistakable mid-budget TV vibe. But as is appropriately true throughout the entire franchise, even the film’s worst moments are held up by Smith and Lawrence, who haven’t missed a step in returning to these characters, older and slightly pudgier as they are.
Their banter is arguably the funniest it’s ever been, undeniably aided by the film’s light-hearted ribbing about their increasing ages, and also its more earnest, occasionally corny attempts to recontextualise these characters as they enter the third acts of their lives.
The script, co-written by gritty action maestro Joe Carnahan (Narc), does put one major foot wrong, though, and that’s pertaining to a third-act plot twist which significantly reshuffles what we thought we knew about a certain character. It’s clearly a credibility-straining attempt to imitate a certain narrative trope that a certain tentpole franchise has been cynically exploiting for years now, and despite the series’ aversion to serious storytelling, its silliness is nevertheless a little too daft for its own good.
Thankfully Bad Boys for Life is blessed with arguably the strongest supporting cast of the three films; an older, greyer Pantoliano is back once again as the lovably pissed-off Captain Howard, while Vanessa Hudgens is unexpectedly believable as a member of tech-driven millennial task force AMMO, and Paola Núñez is charming fun as Mike’s new love interest Rita.
Though the first two films couldn’t find two memorable villains to rub together, this threequel presents by far the most interesting and memorable of the lot, especially Kate del Castillo’s witch-like eccentric Isabel Aretas, who harbours a specific vendetta against Mike, while her hired assassin Armando Armas (Jacob Scipio) is an intense, intimidating blunt instrument whose represents the youthful vitality that Mike and Marcus now lack.
If this truly is the final Bad Boys movie – and, let’s be honest, it probably isn’t – it’s certainly a fitting departure point, sticking the landing with a tidiness and class that just about nobody saw coming. But if more adventures are to come, it’s at least clear that Smith and Lawrence still have what it takes, and the franchise can surely survive without Bay at the helm.
While Michael Bay’s inimitable brand of bombast is sorely lacking from this belated threequel, Bad Boys for Life nevertheless successfully steers the franchise into unexpectedly character-driven territory.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Shaun Munro – Follow me on Twitter for more film rambling.