Kyle Kaplan

In 1995, a young visual stylist—best known for Meat Loaf videos and a baroque milk commercial—was approached by high-concept junk merchants Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer (Flashdance, Top Gun) and offered a shot at making feature films. He was given an almost decade-old buddy-cop script by George Gallo (Midnight Run) intended for Saturday Night Live stars Jon Lovitz and Dana Carvey. He agreed to help transform the unproduced ‘80s relic into a decidedly '90s-ass movie, starring the titular sitcom stars of then-popular programs Martin and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. That stylist, a man named Michael Bay, went on to become the living embodiment of auteur theory (so much for auteur theory, by the way), and his debut film, Bad Boys, lit the fuse on an explosively successful career making glossy, increasingly empty-headed testaments to sheer sensation, adhering to a storytelling philosophy best described as "nihilism on whippits."

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Martin and the Fresh Prince (Martin Lawrence, Will Smith) also became massive superstars shortly thereafter, though they traveled very different tracks, later reuniting with Bay (while still in the vicinity of their collective peaks) for 2003’s impressively repugnant Bad Boys II. Now, with both men cautiously descending the sunset slopes of their own mountainous careers, they’re coming together one more (last?) time in Bad Boys for Life, the first Bad Boys film not directed by Bay.

Bay's absence behind the camera (although he briefly appears in a cameo that I reflexively booed) is immediately apparent. The action—still glistening, swooping, and forever circling, as directing duo Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah do some damn good Bay-raoke in their debut—is slower and mostly coherent. But even more remarkable: For the first time that I can remember, this is a Bad Boys movie primarily fueled by emotion as opposed to disdainfully rejecting it. And get this: That emotion? HUMILITY! I know. What the fuck, right? But fucks are abundant in Bad Boys for Life, and given often, flying just as freely as the one-liners, bullets, and grenades going off frequently and everywhere.

Bad Boys’ dusty '80s roots finally get some nourishment too, as the story (which doesn’t really matter, but is competently written by Joe Carnahan, Peter Craig, and Chris Bremner) is essentially what would happen if you fell asleep in the middle of a classic Miami Vice episode and tried explaining it the next morning: Will Smith is Sonny Crockett, Martin Lawrence is... well, he's less Ricardo Tubbs than he is Lethal Weapon’s Roger Murtaugh, but that's '80s as hell, so it still tracks. There's cardboard drug dealers who magically sprout third dimensions after the most telenovela-esque twists are rocket-launched into the plot (and because this is a Bad Boys movie, I mean that literally), there's a very entertaining special-forces squad orbiting and supporting our heroes, and Joey Pants is at full-volume, heroically chugging Pepto and shout-spouting wisdom as their captain, like a scene-devouring plant demonstrating how photosynthesis works.

And while the tone of the previous two movies is largely transformed, what has made the trip fully intact is the most important aspect of Bad Boys’ success: The chemistry between Smith and Lawrence. And that chemistry has never been better than it is in this movie, because this is the first Bad Boys movie that’s allowed to have a heart. Both Smith’s Mike Laaaaawrey and Lawrence’s Marcus Burnett get plenty of opportunities to think, and talk, and reflect on who they are as people. Sometimes that’s played for a joke, but more frequently it’s not, and the biggest surprise of this sequel is how good it is at flipping between those two states. Bad Boys for Life is a movie that goes out of its way to humble itself a lot, and within that humility, something like a legitimate movie comes out! One with characters you feel for! They have discernable arcs! Arcs that conclude in satisfying and even surprising ways! To the point where oh boy are some moviegoers going to be just tickled pink when they realize Bad Boys 3 has a better-conceived and better-executed villain redemption story than Star Wars 9! What a time to be alive, huh? It’s almost as if, like with 2018’s Bumblebee, the second you take potential out of Bay’s hands and give it to literally anyone else, that potential gets realized!

That’s not to say this movie doesn’t slip and mash its face into old-fashioned boys-will-be-boys bullshit from time to time, because of course it does. It’s a Bad Boys sequel, so it’s still way too long, and a little too enamored with its gleeful, ugly excessiveness. But it’s… cuddly about it, too? I think? Is “cuddly” the right word for a movie that features Martin Lawrence vomiting in his own mouth as he prods the egg-sized lump on a bad-guy’s rubber-bulleted skull just to see what happens? Weirdly, I think it is! There was a point in the middle of one overlong action scene where it appeared Bad Boys for Life was actually going to make the case that policing could—and should—be done effectively (yet-still-stylishly) through non-lethal means!

Of course, that doesn’t happen at all (shortly after the suggestion is made, Will Smith delivers a sermon ordaining Martin Lawrence as a warrior of God with a minigun) but the fact this movie is even trying, that such a thing seems at all possible in a Bad Boys movie? That’s no small thing, and one that's worthy of appreciation among the rest of this sequel’s bombastic-but-soft-hearted, disarmingly charming rewards.

Bad Boys for Life is now playing at various theaters.