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It’s like an angry white man’s basement in here.

Bad Boys for Life
(2020)

(SPOILERS) The reviews for Bad Boys for Life have, perhaps surprisingly, skewed positive, given that it seemed exactly the kind of beleaguered sequel to get slaughtered by critics. Particularly so since, while it’s a pleasure to see Will Smith and Martin Lawrence back together as Mike and Marcus, the attempts to validate this third outing as a more mature, reflective take on their buddy cops is somewhat overstated. Indeed, those moments of reflection or taking stock arguably tend to make the movie as a whole that much glibber, swiftly succeeded as they are by lashings of gleeful ultra-violence or humorous shtick. Under Michael Bay, who didn’t know the definition of a lull, these pictures scorned any opportunity to pause long enough to assess the damage, and were healthier, so to speak, for that. Without him, Bad Boys for Life’s beats often skew closer to standard 90s action fare.

Is that retro-quality refreshing? Not hugely, because it’s too familiar, too pedestrian, to offer a distinctive spin. We’ve seen the whole aging cops thing before (most notably in the Lethal Weapons). There are times when, mainly during the first half, Bad Boys for Life feels like it has slowed down to a crawl, which isn’t so much as reflection on Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah as it is a screenplay – credited to Chris Bremner, Peter Craig and Joe Carnahan, the latter having fallen out as director – that only ever goes through the motions of interrogating its leads’ aging process. Almost every means of doing so exhumes a rash of tropes and clichés, many of which might have been better left unmined. And it has to be said, while the chemistry between Smith and (semi-retired?) Lawrence is still in evidence, it doesn’t – and probably couldn’t – have the energy of previous forays. They aren’t struggling so much as hitting a less frantic groove, which means that you notice more how the material is just so-so. Not bad, but far from a cut above.

Amongst the standard tropes duly checked off the list are impending retirement, shifting attitudes (and conflicting ones) to the partners’ traditional unruly approach, the adversarial posture of a new younger team, fatherhood and even grandfather-hood (“pop-pops”). Most of which have some appeal, familiar as they are, but none of them add up to a movie that felt like it was dying to be told, and there’s simultaneously the sense that just as Bad Boys for Life is upping the ante and announcing it means business – the unnecessary murder of Joe Pantoliano’s Captain Howard, which is sure to have been from the Carnahan draft, but also echoes the non-fatal motivating trope that took down Ronny Cox back in Beverly Hills Cop II – it simultaneously pulls out the weakest and least convincing card in its deck (the revealed lost son, which Smith has obvious difficulty in making connect).

The screenplay is possibly purposely designed to be a bit slippery, taking its time to build up momentum, but that means there are longueurs and hiccups during the first hour, in particular the section after Mike is shot and the (peculiar, since everyone surely knew of his condition, except the audience) fake out of his showing up at Marcus’ daughter’s wedding in a wheelchair. Most of the intermittent scenes of Mike’s old-school behaviour clashing with his partner or boss and or ex-girlfriend feel like they’re going through the motions, coasting by on Miami scenery as opposed to any content.

And on the other side, if the action is largely effective (a motorbike-and-sidecar chase offers a fine balance of thrills and funnies), it’s rarely pulse-quickening. There’s a welter of splatter, squibs and stabbings in here, more than there has been for a lightweight action flick in some considerable time, possibly since the heyday of Joel Silver (although, you can bet Carnahan would have matched it), but it feels superfluous, rather than simply gratuitous (which it also is), included because that’s what Adil and Bilall think is the order of the day. Most over the top in this regard is the Mexico-set climax’s capacity for overkill, literally so when it comes to villainous cartel boss Isabel Aretas (Kate de Castillo) being repeatedly shot, plunging to a fiery fate and impaled in swift succession. Cos she’s a witch.

By this point, the plot’s major fail is fully to the fore, that of the reveal that Armando (Jacob Scipio), Isabel’s son and the attempted assassin of Mike and successful assassin of Howard, amongst others, is Mike’s son. Thematically, Mike having unbeknownst grown-up kin fits with the movie’s themes, but in execution it’s an ungainly dud, leading to Armando being granted a chance for redemption he hasn’t remotely earned (through helping to save Marcus and being set up for a fourquel). Scipio seems like a solid enough actor, but he’s playing standard-issue evil Mexican cartel guy for ninety-nine percent of the picture, so the empty platitudes Mike offers aren’t nearly enough to forgive and forget (even the evil younger Smith vs older Smith in Gemini Man lands better, although together the pictures raise a what-was-Will-thinking regarding their successive similarity).

Of the supporting AMMO (Advanced Miami Metro Operations) crew, Vanessa Hudgens is seemingly cast so they can pose her provocatively during the undercover (underdressed) club scene, Charles Melton is the lippy young buck butting heads with Mike, and Alexander Ludwig the gentle giant (who goes back to the ways of violence on the proviso of therapy; Marcus’ pact with God not to use violence is similarly trashed as the picture proceeds, and one wonders quite what the takeaway of these vows is supposed to be, except as a means for the filmmakers to announce that, hey, they did at least think about all the carnage wreaked before deciding that it was no odds to an amoral good time). The actors all do what is required of them serviceably enough, but that isn’t really enough to make a difference. Paola Núñez, slightly reminiscent of Carrie Anne Moss, does manage to make an impression in the undercooked role of their boss and Mike’s ex, though.

Bad Boys 4 has already been announced, and no doubt the easy charm of Smith and Lawrence will see it through, but it’s clear from Bad Boys for Life that, like any well-regarded action series, their longevity is equal-parts down to the director. Michael Bay, who cameos, may have wasted the last decade making rampaging robot junk, but he possesses an undeniable style, and without him on board, there’s a sense that this series is rather going through the motions, even as you can’t really hang any blame for failing to live up to his “legacy” on Adil and Bilall (who are also attached to the upcoming Beverly Hills Cop 4).

 
Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

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