The Surprising Maturity of 'Bad Boys for Life'

Bad Boys for Life Still 5 - Publicity - H 2020
Ben Rothstein
There are questions in the sequel that original franchise helmer Michael Bay would not have been able to ask of himself or his characters.

“We ride together. We die together.” This weekend sees the long-awaited release of Bad Boys for Life, the third entry in the franchise that debuted in 1995. Coming around the height of Martin Lawrence’s comedy career, and launching the film careers of Will Smith and director Michael Bay, Bad Boys took the buddy cop formula that had worked so well with 48 Hrs. (1982) and Lethal Weapon (1987) and blew it up, literally. It is the film that formed the style that could later be defined as Bayhem. While Bad Boys is somewhat more restrained than Bay’s later works and the sequel, Bad Boys II (2003), it is propelled by a reckless abandonment of traditional narrative structure, with some scenes playing as skits, and a cartoonish level of violence. It’s a film that works in service to the seeming immortality of youth, but also places the law into the hands of two black men, three years after the L.A. riots.

Now, almost 25 years removed from that first film, and 17 from its sequel, the bad boys, Mike Lowrey (Smith) and Marcus Burnett (Lawrence), are back. Immorality, lawfulness and what it really means to ride together and die together are all challenged and placed under a microscope in a way we wouldn’t have believed was possible from a long-gestating third entry. Belgian directors Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah, billed as Adil and Bilall, take over for Bay with a script from Chris Bremner and Peter Craig. This new energy was exactly what the franchise needed. There are homages to Bay’s style, and the easy-flowing banter of the first film’s writer, George Gallo, are still present. But the Miami of the bad boys has changed, and this is a film with its own voice, one that respects what has come before, but isn’t limited by it. Bad Boys for Life isn’t simply more of the same, it’s a maturation of Bayhem, and a gold standard within the current resurgence of legacy sequels.

While the notion of legacy often puts a nice sheen of promotional paint on sequels that arrive decades after their predecessors, they rarely deal with what that term means, or they pass the buck onto new characters. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008) and Independence Day: Resurgence (2016) are the most egregious offenders of this tactic. While other legacy films like Jurassic World (2015) and Rambo: Last Blood (2019) are fun entries that serve as a new beginning or conclusion, their characters aren’t forced to change in any drastic way. But Bad Boys for Life, surprisingly, like Creed (2015), Halloween (2018), and the underseen Terminator: Dark Fate (2019), force Mike and Marcus to grapple with hard questions and tough decisions about what it means to stick by someone while also wanting more for them. The difference between the two men doesn’t simply come down to the “wunza” subgenre coined by Roger Ebert, i.e., one’s a white guy and one’s a black guy, or one’s street smart and one’s a company man. Rather, their ideological differences, while often played for humor, come down to a shared fear of death.

In terms of passing the buck onto new characters, there’s a moment of concern in which a team of young, whip-smart, tech-based police officers, dubbed AMMO, are introduced. History tells us that we’re in for an annoying brood that will take away from the main characters, and create needless confrontation of old and new school tactics. But this team, portrayed by Vanessa Hudgens, Charles Melton, Alexander Ludwig and Paola Nuñez, are a welcome addition whose presence only adds to Mike and Marcus’ arcs and forces them to see the need for their evolution as police officers and people, while also adding a variety to the action.

With Rambo: Last Blood and Terminator: Dark Fate, there was a lot of detail placed on old school action. But the action movie has evolved, and box office numbers are a testament to the fact that we need it to. The violence in Bad Boys for Life is less cartoony than in Bay’s film, in which we were told to believe that civilians weren’t killed in massive freeway chases with flipping cars, but it is bloodier. Violence here has an impact, and it’s brutal and ugly, and a constant reminder of the very thing that is creating Mike and Marcus’ midlife crisis. For all the external spectacle of this movie, and propulsive, engaging action sequences that are just within striking distance of the John Wick series, there is an internal mediation on violence and its aftermath that allows Smith and Lawrence to deliver two of the best performances of their careers.

“Do you want your legacy to be muscle shirts and body counts?” Marcus asks Mike. And it’s a question the filmmakers are also asking about this entry’s place in the franchise. It’s a question that Bay, love him or hate him, would not have been able to ask of himself or his characters. Action movies, particularly those born of Bay’s style, thrive on the collateral damage that’s left behind. Cars, buildings, bodies, codes. These are all things made to be broken, and the characters are rewarded for breaking them. Take the conclusion of the first film, for example, in which Marcus begs Mike not to kill the seemingly unarmed Fouchet (Tcheky Karyo), telling him it’s not worth it. But when Fouchet pulls a hidden gun, Mike shoots him point blank, saving Marcus, and proving that hard justice is the way to go. It’s a single moment that defines both characters: Mike with his shoot first and ask questions later mentality, and Marcus with his attempt to find reason. Bad Boys for Life looks at where both of these ideals take the characters in middle age, and isn’t opposed to turning a critical eye on the heroism of the past, which isn’t an easy task in the face of nostalgia.

It would’ve been easy, entertaining even, to simply have Mike and Marcus go through this latest sequel unchanged, with a handful of “too old for this shit” jokes, and Captain Howard’s (Joe Pantoliano) increasing frustration, being the only evidence of the passage of time. There are some of those jokes, and they’re damn funny, but Mike and Marcus are both changed through the process of aging and this is what elevates the film beyond being simply entertaining. A hit on Mike by a mysterious assassin, Armando Armas (Jacob Scipio), and his crime boss mother, Isabel (Kate del Castillo), sees the character bargaining with his mortality through a need to pay blood with blood. While Marcus, equally affected by Mike’s near-death experience, renews his faith in Christianity. In terms of this later element, it’s surprising to see a mainstream action movie within a popular franchise take such a religious slant. No doubt this is partly impacted by Lawrence’s own near-death experience in 1999, and open faith, but it’s also a part of the character’s three-film evolution and his search for higher purpose, be it through family, therapy or religion. Buddhism, and Mexican-American Folk Catholicism, in the form of Santa Muerte, also play heavily into the plot as every character, both male and female, work through morality, masculinity and mortality, in a literal evaluation of the film’s title, Bad Boys for Life.

The result is a deeply affecting journey, with clever plot twists and thematic clarity that makes Bad Boys for Life the best of the three entries. None of these characters end up in the same place where they started, and even the idea of “bad boys” has changed and been given a new responsibility by the end that feels like freedom rather than a weight. Whether or not this truly is “one last time,” Bad Boys for Life sends Mike Lowrey and Marcus Burnett off as the good men our action movies and legacy sequels need.