starring Will Smith, Martin Lawrence, Gabrielle Union, Joe Pantoliano
screenplay by Ron Shelton and Jerry Stahl
directed by Michael Bay
by Walter Chaw The very curious thing about Michael Bay/Jerry Bruckheimer's latest dip into the shallow end is that for as vile as it is, for as putrid and unforgivable as it is, Bad Boys II may be the first Bay/Bruckheimer collaboration that marks a clear debt to a filmmaking tradition other than that blazed by John McTiernan. Sure, it's got the slick surfaces and the ear-shattering explosions, the impossible sets (a cop can afford a few acres of prime beachfront property in Florida only in this breed of American mainstream twaddle) and class hatred (complete with fetishistic worship of guns and cars and all other things associated with diminutive penis size), but what Bad Boys II also has is a child's working knowledge of the incendiary Hong Kong "heroic bloodshed" cinema of the 1980s. What it lacks is that genre's sense of gravity, interest in the balance between good and evil, and the mysterious bonds between men--it's missing finesse in its choreography, purpose in its relentless bloodletting, even a basic understanding of decency and honour. Without any recognizable human qualities, then, what Bad Boys II presents to the world is something genuinely sinister and twisted: nothing more than a reptilian collage of seething and hatred that stands as possibly the most misanthropic, nihilistic, exploitative, hopeless film ever released as a major studio's mainstream blockbuster. It is easily the most expensive exploitation film I've ever seen--and besides, not nearly so funny or interesting as the similarly-themed Joe Piscopo/Treat Williams shoestring vehicle Dead Heat of many moons ago.
The stage is set early when two prostitutionally-clad women languishing around on the bed of Cuban drug lord Johnny Tapia (Jordi Mollá) marvel at the man's gun ("Hey, wanna look at his gun?") before accidentally discharging it. Johnny snarls: "Fucking bitches." Cut to a night club populated entirely by PENTHOUSE lesbians getting doused by sprinklers in soft porn slow-mo, and the temperature of how women are treated in Bad Boys II is established--so much so that even the throwaway shots include pairs of faceless hardbodies in improbable hot pants. (Best not even to mention the beach scene--or the moment when we're invited to jeer at an overweight child--or the appalling scenes of leering at a large-breasted corpse on a slab, referred to, of course, as "the bimbo.") Thankless Gabrielle Union has the honour of being Michael Bay's token semi-positive female, meaning that though she'll also spend a lot of time in bikinis and the like, she'll ultimately be rescued by the good men, who, as it happens, are almost completely indistinguishable from the bad.
The alleged "good" men are the titular bad boys (or does the title refer to the gender as a blanket condemnation?), cops Mike (Will Smith) and Marcus (Martin Lawrence), assigned to a drug task-force captained by type-A personality Capt. Howard (Joe Pantoliano). They're introduced breaking up a Klan rally with an indiscriminate massacre massaged with lots more slow motion and a defenses-battering soundtrack. There are more lovingly contemplated bullets to the head in this film (including one inspired by Ringo Lam's Full Contact and another by John Woo's The Killer) than Dawn of the Dead, and when one factors in the number of corpses desecrated in the film's final third, it occurs that though Tom Savini didn't do the special effects, he should have. On the trail of Johnny Tapia, Mike and Marcus and undercover DEA agent Sydney (Union, her character also Marcus's sister) wreak a trail of death and devastation (ending with the annihilation of an impoverished Cuban village sort of borrowed from Jackie Chan's Police Story, and commented upon by angry villagers waving pitchforks) with such chilling calculation and expertise that Bad Boys II could easily be turned into a commentary on how murder becomes rote for serial killers had the filmmakers only the wit to do so.
Bad Boys II isn't only soulless, it's robotic and mindless in the way a child is when imitating a dangerous adult's murderous tantrum. Bay's camera is in constant circular motion (so that the shootouts have the surreal quality of seeming as though they've been staged on a giant lazy Susan), a strategy that has something of a lulling effect favoured by the audience that wishes for their escapist dramas to be at once violent and pacifying. (If it sounds as though I'm couching the film in terms of something malevolent, good.) Scenes that find our wisecracking sociopathic duo comically interrogating fresh corpses--and comically eviscerating old corpses ("Hey I found something--oops, just his kidney!" Ha ho!)--are nothing compared to a scene wherein an evil nightclub owner (Peter Stormare) is presented with the remains of his Russian partner vivisected and crammed into a tortilla barrel. Bad Boys II is disgusting--not so much for its remarkable level of gore, but for the insouciant glee with which it indulges in depravity. The picture is a wallow of disturbing messages and images, a film that reinforces every ugly thought that anyone's ever had about black people, white people, Latinos, women, men--doing so not because the picture is political, exactly, but because it hasn't the inclination (and I say "inclination" rather than "ability" because Ron Shelton is one of the screenwriters of this piece, and Shelton isn't entirely without ability) to build character in a talented way, and so resorts to Klansmen and pistolero Rastafarians for the most odious kind of shorthand.
It's possible, at the end of Bad Boys II, to draw its connection to '80s Hong Kong cinema into a sociological debate, comparing that culture's collective, apocalyptic melancholy as it slid into Draconian rule under an Orwellian government to our own. But watching the movie from beginning to end is something in which one shouldn't indulge without fair warning--of the explosive carnage, of the devastating misogyny and racism, of the arrogant irresponsibility of filmmakers grown fat on the apathy of a generation of filmgoers nursed on feckless entertainment... The most terrifying thing about the film isn't its degeneracy, but that its ability to surprise with its expertly packaged offense approximates something like an illicit coliseum thrill. Tailor-made for that legion of idiots who will defend any kind of dangerous garbage under the aegis of "It's just a movie," Bad Boys II is, ironically, one of those films that every adult should see at some point to gauge their own moral barometers: a prime opportunity to determine the extent to which they've given up on the dream of discretion, and the bracing thrill of outrage. Originally published: July 16, 2003.