Bad Boys for Life gets off to a rocky start. There’s a fake-out action scene that ends with the reveal that cops Mike Lowery (Smith) and Marcus Burnett (Lawrence) aren’t rushing to a crime scene – they’re actually headed to the hospital for the birth of Marcus’ grandchild. Yes, Marcus is now a pop-pop, which is a pretty damn good excuse to finally get the hell off the police force and settle down into retirement. But thoughts of retirement are abhorrent to Mike, who still fancies himself a badass ladies man. In his own words, Mike wants to keep chasing bad guys until he’s 100 years old, and he just doesn’t understand why Marcus doesn’t share his enthusiasm.
This is all part of an extended prologue of sorts – a lot of set-up to get us to our main story. And it’s clunky. Smith and Lawrence seem rusty here, and Lawrence in particularly seems tired. It could be argued that this fits in perfectly with his wannabee retiree character. But the actor genuinely comes across as exhausted in these early moments, throwing off vibes that suggest he really doesn’t want to be doing another one of these damn movies. And while Smith can play this type of boastful, ass-kicking character in his sleep at times, he, too, seems adrift.
Things pick up considerably once Bad Boys for Life moves into second gear. In Mexico City, Isabel (Kate del Castillo), the wife of a late cartel kingpin, has just violently broken out of prison with the help of her son, Armondo (Jacob Scipio). Isabel has a plan to get even with a laundry list of prosecutors, judges, and other law enforcement personnel who wronged her and her late husband in the past. And wouldn’t you know it – Mike is on her kill-list as well. Isabel sends her murderous son to Miami where he quickly sets up shop and starts targeting people, including Mike.
Mike is all-in on tracking this killer down – it’s personal, after all. But since Marcus just wants to enjoy his retirement, Mike has to hook up with a new partner. Partners, in fact – he’s assigned to a new task-force called AMMO. The team is lead by Rita (Paola Núñez), one of Mike’s old lovers whom he still has feelings for, and is made-up of fresh-faced youngsters who look more like fashion models than cops. To the film’s credit, it takes the time to give each of these team members a personality: Vanessa Hudgens is the ass-kicker; Alexander Ludwig is the muscle-bound computer whiz who doesn’t like to use violence – which means sooner or later he’s going to have to; and Charles Melton is the smart-ass. As far as characters go they’re not that interesting – but they make do.
Of course, this is a Bad Boys movie, which means Mike and Marcus have to ride together again. And here is where the film works best. Despite the shaky opening moments, Smith and Lawrence do get back into the groove, and watching the two actors bounce off each other is a treat. The script, credited to Chris Bremner, Peter Craig, and Joe Carnahan, is loaded with surprisingly hilarious one-liners that work even better than they should thanks to Smith and Lawrence’s delivery. Best of all: the humor isn’t needlessly cruel. Sure, Mike and Marcus talk shit to each other, but it’s good-natured shit-talking. Gone is the nastiness that was so prevalent in Bay’s films.
Also gone: all that Bayhem. You may find yourself longing for the days of Bay’s physics-defying, camera-swooping action beats. But at least most of the action in Bad Boys for Life is coherent (there are a few moments that get muddled and murky, though). Directors Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah stage a handful of whiz-bang chase sequences that pay off in big ways. A lengthy chase that starts in an underground garage and eventually ends up on a freeway with a helicopter dangling a rope ladder is the type of old school edge-of-your-seat action that gets the blood pumping.
But it’s the unexpected amount of heart that ends up making Bad Boys for Life a pleasant surprise. In the previous two films, one gets the distinct sense that Mike and Marcus really don’t give that much of a shit about each other – or anyone else. Sure, they say they ride together, die together – but it’s hard to buy it in those movies. Smith’s Mike Lowery in particular often comes across as a borderline psychopath in those first two movies – someone who only cares about his own image. Mike starts like that in this film as well, but as the story races on, he softens a bit. He may not want to admit it – we learn he’s started dying his goatee – but he’s getting older now. And some people mellow out when they get older. They slow down, and they realize they’ve been taking certain things for granted. If the Bad Boys franchise of all damn things can have actual emotional growth there might be hope yet for all of us.