Review: ‘Bad Boys for Life,’ starring Will Smith and Martin Lawrence

January 17, 2020

by Carla Hay

Will Smith and Martin Lawrence in "Bad Boys for Life"
Will Smith and Martin Lawrence in “Bad Boys for Life” (Photo by Ben Rothstein)

“Bad Boys for Life”

Directed by Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah

Culture Representation: Set in Miami and Mexico City, this male-centric action-adventure movie has a racially diverse cast of African American, Latino, white and Asian actors.

Culture Clash: “Bad Boys for Life” is a story of law enforcement versus ruthless criminals.

Culture Audience: “Bad Boys for Life” will appeal primarily to fans of the “Bad Boys” franchise and Will Smith admirers, but the movie’s superior quality to the previous two “Bad Boys” films could attract many new fans to the franchise.

Martin Lawrence and Will Smith in “Bad Boys for Life” (Photo by Ben Rothstein)

“Bad Boys for Life,” starring Will Smith and Martin Lawrence, has accomplished something most franchise movies haven’t been able to do—make the third film in the series the best one so far. Michael Bay, who directed the first two “Bad Boys” movies—1995’s “Bad Boys” and 2003’s “Bad Boys II”—is no longer at the helm at the franchise, although he does make a cameo as a wedding emcee in “Bad Boys for Life.” And because Bay is no longer the director in charge of the “Bad Boys” franchise, the homophobic and racist jokes are gone, as well as the voyeuristic camera-angle shots that objectify the private parts of scantily clad women.

The directors of “Bad Boys for Life” are Moroccan-born Belgian filmmakers Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah, who previously directed indie films and episodes of FX’s crime-drama series “Snowfall,” before making their major-studio film debut with “Bad Boys for Life.” Smith, Jerry Bruckheimer and the other producers of “Bad Boy for Life” made the wise choice of hiring directors who’ve injected some new blood into this intermittent movie series. With “Bad Boys for Life,” there’s also a new team of screenwriters to the franchise: Chris Bremner, Peter Craig and Joe Carnahan, who flip the script with some surprising twists. And here’s another refreshing aspect of “Bad Boys for Life”: The best parts of the movie aren’t in the trailers. In fact, the trailers make the movie look very predictable when the film really isn’t.

Make no mistake: The gun fights, car chases and machismo that people love about the “Bad Boys” franchise are all still there. So too is the crackling energy between Miami cop partners Mike Lowery (played by Smith) and Marcus Burnett (played by Lawrence), who are bickering opposites as much as they are loyal best friends. And the characters still reference Inner Circle’s “Bad Boys” reggae song, which was also made famous as the theme song to the reality show “Cops.” Another familiar “Bad Boys” movie trope that’s still part of the franchise is the 360-degree slow-motion shot of Mike and Marcus standing up after a moment of despair. But even with all of these repeat characteristics, “Bad Boys II” was such an inferior, bloated mess that the only way for to go was up for any subsequent “Bad Boys” movie.

The first two “Bad Boys” films followed the cliché formula of cops versus drug dealers. They also had a token female supporting character as “a damsel in distress” type who wanted to be perceived as a strong woman, but was really someone being protected by Mike and Marcus. (In “Bad Boys,” the token female sidekick was Téa Leoni, who played a witness to a murder. In “Bad Boys II,” Gabrielle Union played Marcus’ younger sister, who was an undercover cop that Marcus and Mike still had to rescue.)

Instead of a “war against drugs” storyline, “Bad Boys for Life” veers in another direction, by having a young sharpshooter assassin named Armando Aretas (played by Jacob Scipio) on a revenge misson. Armando takes orders from his domineering and evil mother, Isabel Aretas (played by Kate Del Castillo), who’s in Mexico City while Armando is in Miami killing off law-enforcement people in Miami. Isabel’s husband was a drug lord, and she blames his death on people who are on the hit list. Viewers see in the begining of the film that Mike is on the Aretas hit list, and Isabel (a femme fatale who’s into the occult) wants his execution to be saved for last.

Meanwhile, much of this sequel acknowledges how many years have passed between the second and third “Bad Boys” films, because there are constant references to how aging has affected Mike and Marcus. (Joe Pantoliano has returned as Captain Howard, the immediate supervisor of Mike and Marcus, who still spends a great deal of time yelling at them for causing expensive chaos every time that Mike and Marcus chase criminals.) In the film’s opening scene, Marcus becomes a grandfather, when his daughter, Megan (played by Bianca Bethune), has given birth to a son, whom she names after Marcus.

Mike is still a smooth-talking bachelor playboy who’s slept with at least a few of the women who show up in the “Bad Boys” movies. He’s an heir to a fortune, and he indulges in his taste for high-priced cars and clothes. (The first two movies make reference to Mike having a deceased rich father, but Mike’s other family members aren’t seen or mentioned.) Mike isn’t the marrying type because he’s a workaholic whose entire identity is wrapped up in being at the top of his game as a police officer. By contrast, Marcus is a married father who comes from a working-class background, and he’s always threatening to quit the police force. Marcus and his long-suffering wife, Theresa (played by Theresa Randle), had two sons and a daughter in the first “Bad Boys” movies, but only their daughter is seen in “Bad Boys for Life.”

Even though Mike and Marcus have gotten older, they still have the same quirks. Mike is still a materialistic neat freak who loses his temper if any of his prized possessions gets dirty. Marcus is still the queasier and more sensitive of the two cops (his inclination to gag and possibly vomit at a crime scene is a running joke in all of the movies), and he’s the more spiritually minded partner who uses therapy and religion to deal with his stress. Marcus’ religious beliefs play a key role in one of the plot twists that keep Mike and Marcus apart for about one-third of the movie.

“Bad Boys for Life” also shows more women in positions of power at the Miami Police Department than in the previous “Bad Boys” movies. One of them is Rita (played by Paola Núñez), the no-nonsense leader of a newly formed elite Miami PD intelligence team called Advanced Miami Metro Operations (AMMO), which uses a lot of highly advanced technology in their surveillance. Rita is a former flame of Mike’s, and she resents having to work closely with him again. Mike and Rita’s strained interactions with each other make it clear that their romantic relationship ended badly—and they’re not completely over each other.

Also on the AMMO team are weapons specialist Kelly (played by Vanessa Hudgens), who idolizes Mike; laid-back computer whiz Dorn (played by Alexander Ludwig), who’s got brawn to match his brains; and smart-ass former DEA agent Rafe (played by Charles Melton), who often clashes with Mike. All of these extremely good-looking people on the AMMO team look more like models than real police officers, but who said a movie like this had to be 100% realistic?

“Bad Boys for Life” still has some cliché moments, such as the ultra-violent scenes where people seem to have superhero stunt powers, the obligatory Miami nightclub scene filled with beautiful people, and the inevitable fire/explosion scenes where the heroes don’t get burned. And the movie has plenty of comedic moments, some better than others.

However, “Bad Boys for Life” adds emotional gravitas that wasn’t seen in the previous “Bad Boys” films. The very real and tragic consequences of murder are acknowledged in more depth. Mike and Marcus also come to grips with being middle-aged, since they don’t feel as invincible as they did in their youth. (Although Mike is much more reluctant to admit it than Marcus is.)

As for the double-whammy Aretas villains, they’re the most dangerous out of all the “Bad Boys” villains so far, since their crime spree is motivated by hatred and revenge rather than by trying to protect a drug-dealing business. All of the actors do a competent job with what they’ve been given for their characters in this action film. Smith, in particular, adeptly handles the surprising change that Mike goes through toward the end of the film, which leaves no doubt that another “Bad Boys” sequel is in the works.

Columbia Pictures released “Bad Boys for Life” in U.S. cinemas on January 17, 2020.