“Bad Boys for Life” is the sort of thing I suspect we’re going to be seeing more and more of: the sequel to a long-done franchise that may now be an all-too-obvious cash grab and infusion of movie-star brand enhancement, but doesn’t play like one. Will Smith and Martin Lawrence bring their A game; they never let us feel like they’re going through the motions. The marks may be standard issue, but they hit them with fury and flair.
The buddy movie as we know it came into being in 1969, when it was kicked off by “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.” Over the next decade, films like “The Sting” and “Thunderbolt and Lightfoot” became a new kind of bromantic caper, exciting and even dramatic in a loose, joshing, nimble-spirited way. In the ’80s, the era of “48 HRS.” and the “Lethal Weapon” films, the genre evolved into a crackerjack breed of racially hostile action cop comedy — amped formula fun that was, in its way, starting to fray around the edges. By the time of “Bad Boys,” in 1995, it had become an almost self-referential form of escapism, one that now played like carbonated nostalgia for the ’80s.
Produced by Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer, “Bad Boys” was Michael Bay’s first film as a director, and just hearing that can make you wistful with nostalgia — for the Hollywood that existed before Michael Bay. Eight years later, the film spawned a sequel, “Bad Boys II” (also directed by Bay), which was more of the same in a way that made it seem the quintessence of a movie that no one really needed.
So what does that make the reuniting of Smith and Lawrence as middle-aged cops, with 25 years of grudges and tough love between them, in “Bad Boys for Life”? In its grabby opening sequence, the film invites us to experience it as a throwback to the ’90s — the nostalgia equivalent of a double-stuffed ice-cream cake. Miami narcotics detectives Mike Lowrey (Smith) and Marcus Burnett (Lawrence) are racing around in Mike’s glinting blue Porsche, doing hairpin turns in the sun (actually, Mike is racing, Marcus is getting ready to throw up), with lots of room for bad-boy banter so corny it’s camp. (To a crowd of white people on a beach: “We’re not just black! We’re cops, too!” “We’ll pull ourselves over later!”)
If that’s all the movie was — a copy of a copy, implanted with jokes about Viagra and Midnight Cocoa Bean dye for graying goatees (though rest assured, it’s got plenty of those) — then it might have gotten old fast. But “Bad Boys for Life,” directed by Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah, the Moroccan-born Belgian filmmaking team who bill themselves as Adil and Bilall, is in many ways a shrewder package than you’d expect. It’s been 17 years since “Bad Boys II,” and what you feel in the muscles of the new movie isn’t just the old mouthy good cop/bad cop routines but the shadow presence of a blockbuster series that was only, back then, just coming into being: the “Fast and the Furious” films, with their genres-in-a-Mixmaster-in-overdrive approach.
“Bad Boys for Life” is a lavishly conventional cop movie and a comedy of cranky fast camaraderie. It’s a meditation on the fine-wine élan of its two veteran stars. It’s a Mexican-drug-cartel thriller in the vein of the “Sicario” films, with a weirdly personal twist. It’s an over-the-top Bruckheimer highway-chase-and-gigantic-gun-and-exploding-hacienda blowout. That it works at all is a testament to how even an entertainment rooted in this much formula extravagance can now seem comfortingly old-fashioned.
Mike and Marcus, for much of the first half, are cruising on opposite paths. Marcus, slower and more wide-faced than before, has become a grandfather (the two are speeding to the hospital in that opening scene), and he wants to do nothing so much as retire. Whereas Mike, still lean and mean, is a solo vessel who plans to chase crooks for the rest of his life — it’s his purpose, and his high.
What brings the two back together is Isabel (Kate del Castillo), the wife of the Mexican drug lord they put away years ago, and her hothead son, Armando (Jacob Scipio). The two have devoted themselves to the vengeful cause of assassinating everyone involved in the case — judge, forensic investigator, and Mike. Armando, who is doing the killing, is extremely good at it: coldly sociopathic, an ace sniper, and he’s like Bruce Lee with knives. He gets to Mike fairly quickly, wounding him with a round of bullets, then posts the video of the attack online.
This development lends the movie a surprise touch of gravitas (at least, for a “Bad Boys” caper). It literalizes the thing Mike and Marcus are both confronting and, in Mike’s case, fighting: that by the time you reach this age, no matter who you are, you know on some grand level that your days are numbered. Mike is eager to chase his attacker all by himself, an idea that Joe Pantoliano’s Capt. Howard isn’t wild about. But circumstances bring Marcus back into the mix, along with a special tactical police squad known as AMMO, led by Mike’s old flame Rita (Paola Núñez), who Marcus keeps insisting that Mike was a “dumbass” for dropping. (He’s right.) They represent law enforcement through something beyond firepower, which accounts for why Mike is so impatient around them. (Charles Melton, as the AMMO member who baits Mike with taunts of “grandpa,” has true star presence.)
Will Smith acts with his old fast-break buoyancy, and he looks ageless, but he plays Mike with a harder edge than before; that gives the film its tiny semblance of emotional stakes. At first, you may think that Martin Lawrence has lost his mojo, but he’s just biding his time. As the film goes on, Marcus comes alive, and Lawrence teases his partner with a cynical knowingness that’s as dry as a perfect martini. There’s a third-act reveal that works well, upping the stakes — or, at least, giving us something “real” to fasten on amid all the flashing gymnastic ballistics of the climax. “Bad Boys for Life” should find an audience, because it builds on its predecessors to become something that’s easy to give into. It’s high-powered trash with a (slight) human touch.