Bad Boys for Life: Settling Down, by Scott Nye
Bad Boys II, surely one of the most grotesque, irresponsible, and overindulgent films to ever come out of the big-budget Hollywood franchise machine, was in its own sick way a masterpiece of a form that should never have such a title to its name. Michael Bay was at once sick of the Hollywood sentiment he’d pedaled in Pearl Harbor, while also reaching the absolute height of his ability to command studio resources for his bidding. It’s an R-rated cop movie with a budget comparable to either Matrix sequel, X2, Hulk, Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle, and Pirates of the Caribbean, to name some of its summer 2003 competition, and it used that money recklessly and stupidly. Its rampant cruelty and rather unexpected scenes (yes, more than one) of corpse desecration caused Roger Ebert to question whether its makers had lost touch with human nature. Lou Lumenick called in “truly sickening.” Peter Travers, noting its “complete lack of humanity,” called in the cinematic equivalent of toxic waste.
So why would you want to make a sequel to something as singular and irreplaceable (never mind unrepeatable) as Bad Boys II? And even if you wanted to, how would you do it? The answer to the first answers the second – Michael Bay ultimately passed, moving on instead to five whole Transformers movies and, most recently, the wonderfully absurd 6 Underground, leaving the Belgian duo Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah to do their best imitation. The result, like all imitations, is inevitably tepid and only serves to remind us how, for all it’s been imitated over the years, Michael Bay’s style is too much his own to emulate.
In Bay’s absence, Will Smith steps up as the de facto auteur, putting this as the latest in a long line of films in which Will Smith struggles with the weight of his life in the face of new responsibilities. We’re reminded at the start that his Mike Lowery hasn’t married, hasn’t had a serious relationship, and is too dedicated to his work. Mike’s longtime partner, Marcus (Martin Lawrence), is on the other hand firmly settled down, with a brand-new grandchild and everything. It’s time for him to retire. So much has this franchise become the Will Smith show that now Lawrence, first-billed in 1995’s Bad Boys, spends a solid half of the latest film hanging out in his living room while Mike teams up with the new cyber-infused police force AMMO (if that is an acronym for something, I’m afraid I forgot) as they collectively hunt down a mysterious young man who’s out to kill Mike, and whose mystery will help fill in much of Mike’s past.
AMMO is lead by one of Mike’s many exes, Rita (Paola Núñez), and includes a number of types of young people (including the much-too-highly-billed Vanessa Hudgens) at whom Mike can look and say variations of “kids these days, amirite?” until they put their lives and careers on the line frequently enough for him to go “hey you guys are alright.” Will Smith’s persistent endeavour to remain twenty-eight through his entire career became the driving force of last year’s magnificent Gemini Man (to which this, strangely owes a rather large debt), but now he’s cashing out and is in full-on late-60s Dean Martin mode – the action scenes are engineered around him doing as little as possible to still look cool, and the entire supporting cast hangs around for some mixture of Mike’s disdain and his sense of superiority.
Now, the question is, and the one Bad Boys for Life never really engages with is…why do we need to think so highly of Mike Lowery? If we can, let’s forget about the Will Smith of it all. We’re not monsters, we all like to watch Will Smith onscreen. But Mike Lowery is a straight-up monster. Dude full-on invaded Cuba to settle a score. Dude pulled a gun on a teenager just to have a little fun with him. Dude destroyed a highway and what had to be dozens of corpses in a car chase. And that wasn’t even the worst thing he did around a corpse. Mike Lowery is a full-on monster, and say what you will about Bad Boy II, but Bad Boys II didn’t try to wrestle with Mike’s soul. It assumed he had no soul, that the world had no soul, and that we live in ceaseless chaos that’s barely reined in by a few determined people who are themselves chaotic.
Bad Boys for Life assumes there’s order to the world, to both policing and criminality. Sure, we still have the police captain (a very welcome Joe Pantoliano returns to his role here) who yells at Mike about crossing the line, but essentially Mike and the AMMO team move in a straight line towards finding Mike’s would-be assassin. Similarly, the assassin’s motivation is clearly (albeit a little belatedly) spelled out. Everything makes sense. The action, too, is well-photographed, a little overly busy, and far from overly thrilling, most of it confined to closed-off sets where the actors have a limited range of motion and the camerawork can only get so wild. And I’m sorry to keep comparing it, but there’s a part in Bad Boys II where a car knocks the camera over, causing the image to completely warp into abstraction. Chaos.
For those who seek the responsible action movie that (somewhat) takes into account (a certain type of) morality and dignity, whose action scenes are so tame that anyone could convey them comprehensively, I suppose Bad Boys for Life will seem refreshing given the franchise’s legacy. And I don’t look down on anyone who can’t dig Bad Boys II. It’s a relentlessly unlikable movie. But for all that Bad Boys for Life does, it only does it halfway – the action is fine, the character work is fine, the story is fine (despite flirting with outright chaos); Bad Boys II did its thing all the way.