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film review

Martin Lawrence and Will Smith star in Bad Boys for Life, 17 years after Bad Boys II.The Canadian Press

  • Bad Boys for Life
  • Directed by Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah
  • Written by Chris Bremner, Peter Craig and Joe Carnahan
  • Starring Will Smith, Martin Lawrence, Vanessa Hudgens and Joe Pantoliano
  • Classification R; 123 minutes


2 out of 4 stars

It’s hard to imagine these days how thoroughly synonymous with Hollywood the producers Don Simpson (now deceased) and Jerry Bruckheimer were in the eighties and nineties, how they bestrode the town like colossi, how lavish were their offices, how they churned out hit after hit – Flashdance, the Beverly Hills Cop films, Top Gun, shiny-loud constructions that went Vroom! and Sizzle! and Blam-Blam-Blam!

Their moviemaking philosophy was that an audience is prone to fall into reveries, and so must be jolted violently awake every two minutes by either Rat-A-Tat! gunfire or the sight of a Wolf Whistle! shapely naked backside. In 1995 they applied that philosophy, which had made them gleefully rich, to Bad Boys, which paired hunky Will Smith with funny Martin Lawrence as Miami narcotics detectives Mike Lowrey and Marcus Burnett.

What’s new in theatres this weekend, including the unforgettable Clemency, unnecessary Bad Boys for Life and unintelligible Dolittle

To direct it, they hired a newbie named Michael Bay, who unleashed upon the world his cinematic stylings, a mash-up of incomprehensible Swoosh! action sequences and inexplicable Ka-Pow! explosions.

Smith and Lawrence had a lazy chemistry, and the producers had a giddy disregard for narrative cohesion, a willingness to rack up a shameless body count, and US$100-million-plus budgets when no one else could dream of such a number. So eight years later a sequel, Bad Boys II, came out. It was one of the worst-reviewed movies of 2003, and it grossed US$273-million worldwide.

And now, 17 years later, we have a third instalment, Bad Boys for Life. But what exactly are we reviving here? The casual homophobia? The flagrant misogyny? The shameless product placements for beer and vodka? The wholesale disregard for citizenry and property? The racial stereotyping? The weird insistence that Burnett’s wife won’t have sex with him?

Since 1995, film audiences have become more self-aware, and Hollywood has been somewhat humbled. Sony has trotted out a stable of reboots lately, including one that did well, Jumanji, and a few that did not: Charlie’s Angels, Men in Black, The Grudge. So have the Bad Boys finally grown up?

Yes and no. First and foremost, Bay is no longer the director; that honour now falls to two Belgian filmmakers, Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah, who were prepubescent when the first Bad Boys came out, and are best known in North America for directing the TV series Snowfall. (They are reportedly attached to direct Beverly Hills Cop 4.) Bay does make a cameo in Bad Boys for Life, and his hair is still feathered, so all seems to be well there.

El Arbi and Fallah have found a cinematic middle ground: Their action sequences are slightly more lucid than Bay’s, but they are no fussier than he was about tank-sized holes in the plot. For example, in this film Lowrey is shot, and then the bad guys halt their crime spree for six months while he gets better.

I suppose the filmmakers were right to shrug that off, because no one in my audience seemed to care. They were groovin’ to the oldies, tropes from the earlier films – like the one where Marcus hollers in alarm while Mike drives his expensive car really fast, or the one where the captain (Joe Pantoliano) yells at the detectives for destroying so much property, or the one where it doesn’t matter, you get the gist.

The plot, as much as I could make out, is this: The motorcycle dude who shot Mike also Splat! Ew! shoots a bunch of other dudes. Mike figures out that the mastermind is this Mexican woman Sssss! he was once in love with (a story conveniently new to Marcus). The Bad Boys team up with a younger, high-tech unit (which includes Vanessa Hudgens) who are all Gizmos! and Touch Screens! and Hacking! Eventually, a helicopter blows up.

To be fair, Fallah and El Arbi have made some concessions to our current moment. Unlike Bay’s films, this one contains no naked booty shots, no up-crotch pans across a nightclub dance floor, no bare-breasted corpses. There are two female cops, and they’re good at their jobs. There’s slightly less homophobia, and there seems to be some awareness that it’s a whole lot less “amusing” to watch cops shoot dozens of brown and black men than it was 17 years ago.

This film’s charm – and it does have some – lies in the fun it has with Smith and Lawrence’s aging. Marcus is a Pop-Pop with reading glasses; Mike can no longer flirt his way past the nightclub doorwomen. Things stop Whizzing! and Banging! periodically to give the two leads time to razz each other. And yes, the Bad Boys song is sung, more than once, including at the very end, when Marcus croons it to his grandson.

“We’re not doing that to the next generation,” Mike scolds him. But as restraint was never part of Bruckheimer’s formula, it appears they are.

Bad Boys for Life opens Jan. 17.