Bold, brash, and – dare I say – breathtaking, Bad Boys for Life may go down as one of 2020’s biggest surprises. Being squashed into the oft ignored mid-Jan release cycle with reviews embargoed until the 11th hour is not a good sign for any film really, but the long-gestating third outing for 90’s born franchise Bad Boys is, without any doubt, worth the wait.
Sliding out from Michael Bay’s considerable shadow, this return to the world of Miami narcs Mike Lowrey (Will Smith) and Marcus Burnett (Martin Lawrence) is now under the guidance of Belgian co-directors Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah. Never straying too far from Bay’s bombastic thrills, the duo turn in a notably stylish buddy cop outing that doubles down on action and manages to make several risky moments land remarkably well.
Self-awareness seems to be the biggest driving force here, with the film’s titular Bad Boys diverging on different paths as they face the fact that maybe they’re just too old for hands-on policework. Marcus becoming a grandfather seems to be the catalyst for all this, contrasted with hot-headed Mike who shows no signs of slowing down – at least in ambition.
The screenplay by Chris Bremner, Peter Craig, and Joe Carnahan relishes in these clashing philosophies throughout, using the tension to drive both arcs a bit deeper than in previous films. Although, this does sideline Lawrence for quite some time. The imbalance chips away at the otherwise fantastic, and sharper than ever, chemistry between both leads.
Neither get time to ponder for too long as the film’s antagonistic Isabel Armas (Kate Del Castillo) and her seemingly unstoppable son Armando (Jacob Scipio) kick off their brutal revenge streak. It seems Isabel’s crime-lord husband was taken down by the Miami P.D years prior, and now the son is on a brutal war path to eliminate all who were involved. This includes Mike, who barely survives an attempted assassination.
What truly sets Bad Boys for Life apart from its predecessors is that Armando is a believable and formidable foe, his arc not only raising the stakes of the film but also fitting into the overall story in a meaningful way. The twist that sets this off is executed well, never feeling hammy which is a testament to Arbi and Fallah’s steady grip.
Returning characters include neurotic Captain Conrad Howard (Joe Pantoliano, as likeable as ever) but the fresh blood on the side of the good guys is another element that works surprisingly well. Determined to take down Armando, Mike and Marcus are teamed with four-member squad “AMMO” made up of Mike’s former girlfriend Rita (Paola Núñez), Dorn (Alexander Ludwig), Rafe (Charles Melton) and Kelly (Vanessa Hudgens). And between Rafe’s attitude and Dorn’s endearing gentle-giant archetype, the casting really works despite the corny dialogue.
In fact, mostly everything works despite the corniness; the film plays heavy with tropes, but always manages to make things work. Even the several explosive action scenes, decidedly exaggerated and placing too much value on cheap CGI, are still vital and engaging in the same way that has seen the Fast and Furious series go strength to strength. Creative choreography, muscular visuals and pure confidence means Mike and Marcus are given a comeback so strong it could perhaps – and should – stretch this series beyond a trilogy.
Even the humour hits well. There are several hilarious call backs to both the first and second films that fans will definitely appreciate, and there are even some very effective laughs saved towards the end – a rarity for a buddy-cop feature.
Clearly the cast and crew set out to make something so unapologetically conventional and full of fan service that critics would enter the movie wanting to hate it. But it’s almost impossible to truly hate something this well-intentioned and sincere, with Smith and Lawrence especially proving irresistible as they remind us just how perfect they are as an on-screen duo.
FOUR STARS OUT OF FIVE
Bad Boys for Life is in cinemas now.