What do you call the feeling of acknowledging a memory without longing for it. Apathetic nostalgia? Disinteresting wistfulness? Whatever it is I had it during the two-hour run time of Bad Boys For Life, the third film of a franchise we last heard of in 2004. Whether you’ll enjoy this one or not depends on how you spent these past 16 years.
Detectives Mike Lowrey (Will Smith) and Marcus Burnett (Martin Lawrence), still in action, now spend most of their time arguing about when and if they should retire. Marcus, out of shape and now a grandfather, isn’t cut out for this life anymore, while Mike holds on to the greater days that made them legends in the police department. When a mysterious hitman guns down Marcus in front of half the city, the boys get back together for one last personal hit. But this time things are different, police changed since 2004 (you would think were in a coma all this time to not see this one coming), and their car is slower than a Prius.
The first thing that strikes me in Bad Boys for Life is how self-aware it is. It’s easy to see Mike and Marcus reflect Smith and Lawrence themselves, but the film itself, once a relic of late 90s opulent ‘Bayhem’, is now tame and cheap next to modern assessments. Between the cartoonish OTT of Fast & Furious, the brutality of John Wick and even the grittiness of the last Bond movies, Bad Boys is a little like Mike – respectful but past outdated – and its audience a little bit like Marcus – overweight and with a curfew.
That nostalgia gets us when the old logo for the Don Simpson / Jerry Bruckheimer flashes on the screen, it continues when Captain Howard (Joe Pantoliano) is still there as their boss, as every reference from the old films winks past, and every time the film has to acknowledge its own time and space.
The team of writers include the always prolific Joe Carnahan, a very effective and talented storyteller who has made his career trying to bring the action of our teenage years into adult life. That demeanor is in every scene, but it’s balanced by a refusal to grow into anything new. And I kind of respect that, even if the film overall didn’t work for me.
In an interesting twist our protagonists need to work closely with a new team of high-tech, forensic, politically correct, cops. Like CSI as envisioned by Elon Musk. In another film, part of the problem would be for them to embrace progress, and the new kids to learn some rough old-timey techniques. But in Bad Boys for Life both teams straight up acknowledge each pros and cons and go on to work together with barely any friction. Sounds boring but it is a bit refreshing and doesn’t distract from the main plot and the characters. And it’s because of the characters why we’re here.
As much as it looks like they are all having a tremendous amount of fun, this time I didn’t feel the chemistry between Smith and Lawrence. It’s easy to forget that when the first two films came out they were both at the highest point of their career, and in Smith’s case a level of fame that frankly hasn’t been seen since. Now Lawrence has more or less been AWOL for the last decade, and Smith has been struggling to get a success like he’s used to – and it shows. Though it shows they’re having a good time, they failed to recreate what made that duo so special in 2004.
The new players are a bit better, especially the three young members of the special squad which includes a young go-getter that idolises Mike (Vanessa Hudgens), the cocky one that doesn’t see much value in the older generation (Charles Melton), and tall, strong, poindexter with a surprising past (Alexander Ludwig). Honestly I would rather watch a film about these three.
All in all Bad Boys for Life is a film that exists and I’m still not sure if it’s a good thing. It will please fans, and nothing else. Doubt it will rekindle the careers of both Smith and Lawrence, unless they keep making these as long as they are alive… oh no, the title is threat, isn’t it?
The new actors are fun a good breath of fresh air but I really like what the script tried to do and pit the old aesthetic of the 90s against the new trends. It’s cute but…
Not enough. A weak villain doesn’t help, but it’s the lack of chemistry between Smith and Lawrence that made me lose interest. The last set-piece goes on for too long and barely registers more than a handful of yawns.
There’s already a fourth one in pre-production. Oh boy…