starring Will Smith, Martin Lawrence, Vanessa Hudgens, Joe Pantoliano
screenplay by Chris Bremner and Peter Craig and Joe Carnahan
directed by Adil El Arbi & Bilall Fallah
by Walter Chaw Rumors of Will Smith's death were greatly exaggerated as, in reprising one of his most vile characters, he finds in this third Bad Boys flick the pathos-leavened vitality that had been missing since his last third instalment, 2012's Men In Black 3. Between: a string of bathetic misfires of varying levels of foul, wherein the once and future superstar struggled to regain his stride. Truly, only a Will Smith could survive a concentrated period such as his last eight years of genuine calamities like Winter's Tale, Suicide Squad, Collateral Beauty, and Max Landis. Here, again, the irrepressible charisma that made him a bona fide A-list action hero long about Independence Day (if not the first Bad Boys the year before) busts off the screen like a physical thing. It's a ballsy choice, then, that the directing team of Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah (Black) choose to sideline him for a while immediately after a bombastic opening car-chase sequence. Even that's a fake-out, as our rogue cops Marcus (Martin Lawrence) and Mike (Smith) are just rushing to Marcus's daughter's side as she gives birth to Marcus's grandson. Everyone's growing older. Bad Boys for Life gets that.
All of Bad Boys for Life feels like an updating and retconning of the earlier entries in the series. The first I found to be loud and boring and the second I found to be appalling and likewise boring. They were, of course, Michael Bay films. The moment a woman's corpse is fondled in Bad Boys II amid jokes concerning her breast size is the moment I hopped off the Bay train. It should have been sooner, but he had me dazzled for a while. His absence herein is welcome and evidenced in a jarring amount of character development for Mike and Marcus, who were up until now studiedly defined by their functions as caricatured genre stereotypes. Giving them depth at this stage is frankly weird. Enough so that this almost feels like a film from a different franchise that happens to have the same characters. I guess that's precisely what it is. In this Bad Boys, we believe that Mike and Marcus and their loved ones can get hurt. There are stakes. Marcus's repeated declarations that they're old and soft vie for space against Mike's declaration that they're still vital, all evidence to the contrary. Watch how the film plays with their mortality, constantly reminding that as a final chapter (maybe--don't wait for the mid-credits scene if you want to maintain your feeling of being impressed) that all bets are off. Bad Boys for Life somehow makes you fear for its invincible superheroes.
There's a scene where screamy police captain Howard (Joe Pantoliano) tells Mike a story about a horse that doubles as a metaphor for how our fears and traumas, left uncontrolled, will lead us off proverbial cliffs. It's an amazing moment played between two great actors, and it's easy to miss how good it is, given how surprising its existence is in this context. The closest analogue to Bad Boys for Life, in fact, is Zahler's own incredibly sticky Dragged Across Concrete--another intensely, intimately violent action movie in which buddy cops decide to go on that always ill-advised One Last Mission. The pictures additionally share extended conversations about ageing in a world that doesn't make sense anymore to the dinosaurs who weren't paying attention when the meteor struck. The bloodletting that ends these films (and here, Bad Boys for Life earns comparison as well to the cruelly underestimated Rambo: Last Blood and Terminator: Dark Fate), then, becomes cathartic expression of the frustration of obsolescence. Our heroes rage against the dying of the light. The light dies anyway, but how they rage. A note, too, that the stunts and the work of DP Robrecht Heyvaert (Revenge) are both superlative. The fights are cleanly-staged and legible and handsome to look at, as is the rest of it. Between the vicious knifings, the well-choreographed gun and fist battles, and the literal dropping of cars on people, it dawns that this movie isn't just able garbage but somehow...good? Even the loaded nature of its Mexican-cartel sadist baddies plays into the subtext of irrational fears made manifest. Between Bad Boys for Life and Underwater, both dumped into theatres in January, 2020's already pretty fascinating.