Cinema Dispatch: Bad Boys for Life

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Bad Boys for Life and all the images you see in this review are owned by Sony Pictures Releasing

Directed by Adil El Arbi & Bilall Fallah

As I’m sure is true for many film fans out there, Michael Bay and I have a complicated relationship.  On the one hand, being upset at the Michael Bay Aesthetic and the crappy Transformers movies has become kind of passé and is better left to the Cinema Sins and Razzie hacks of the world.  Not only that, he’s more than capable of making REALLY great movies that are unique to his sensibilities; particularly Pain and Gain which is clearly his best film by a wide margin.  Then again, he’s also the guy who indulges in racist and sexist caricatures in the service of crass humor, and his disdain for the audience and basically all of humanity may be an asset in some films but is also reflected in just how shoddily some of them are put together; incoherent plotting, choppy editing, and an oblivious tone on top of being unfunny and tasteless.  I had never seen the Bad Boys movies until very recently and solely in preparation for this new one, and sure enough they contain everything I don’t like about the guy even if they are somewhat more tolerable than some of his later work; presumably due to Bruckheimer being the bigger name at the time which meant he could reign in some of Bay’s worst tendencies.  Now all that said, we are going Bayless for this one as he doesn’t even have a producing credit on here, so at least there’s hope that these filmmakers with a fresh perspective can take what elements DID work in the originals while taking out some of their more pernicious aspects to send this franchise off right.  Can we close this trilogy on a high note instead of get more of the same nonsense?  Let’s find out!!

Marcus Burnett and Mike Lowrey (Martin Lawrence and Will Smith) are still Miami cops doing their Bad Boys shtick, and while it’s been a fun ride for both of them, Marcus is starting to look towards the back half of his life and doesn’t want it to be filled with more violence, rough schedules, and close calls.  Mike on the other hand isn’t even SEEING this as the back half of his life and is trying harder than ever to stay fit, stay alert, and stay young despite the gray hairs showing in his beard.  One fateful night while partying with the other cops including good ol’ Captain Howard (Joe Pantoliano, a.k.a. JOEY PANTS!) Mike gets the biggest reality check of his life as some masked assassin tries to shoot him to death and almost succeeds.  Marcus takes this as a sign to finally retire while Mike can only think of vengeance and wants his help in finding the person who did this to him, but perhaps Mike will have to go it alone.  Even worse, he may have to try and find this person with the help of the youngsters at the station who are in some sort of advanced CSI crew named AMMO led up by Mike’s ex-girlfriend Rita (Paola Núñez) who isn’t thrilled about working with the guy either given his history of blowing things up and how personal this case is to him.  Will Mike’s quest for vengeance end in him triumphing once again like he did so many times in the old days?  Will Marcus stay true to his retirement and be there for his family, or is his bond with his best friend enough to get him on board for one last ride?  Is it just me or is this like ten times more interesting than whatever was going on in the other films?

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“Dang, Mike!  It’s almost like we have competent writers now!”     “How does it feel?”     “It… sort of tickles.”

WOW, is this a much better sendoff than this franchise deserves!  It’s certainly still fun, bombastic, and supremely silly, but it also has restraint and nuance; two things that were woefully absent in the other films.  We’re not getting any gay jokes, dead girl titties, or offensive stereotypes (the main villain is borderline but is SO much better than Johnny Tapia in the second movie); instead, it’s a story about… well, growing up!  The overblown and downright toxic machismo that was at the heart of the other two movies is the primary focus of this film’s themes as the main character arc involves Mike coming to terms with his age, his mistakes, and what he’s left behind in his endless pursuit for the masculine ideal that was the main selling point of their previous adventures.  It’s kind of startling just how much this movie is aware of its own troubled history and makes monumental strides to address it, but it also never comes off as preachy or even overly judgmental of the other movies.  Turns out learning CAN be fun, and seeing how this franchise evolved its understanding of the world and its characters was an absolute joy to watch!  Most importantly, THEY GOT JOEY PANTS BACK!!  WOO!!

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THE COMMISSIONER’S GONNA HAVE MY ASS FOR THIS!!”     “You say that EVERY WEEK!”     “Don’t you start with the sass!!”

Now in case anyone out there wants to start screaming through their tears of betrayal at Bad Boys going all SJW, this is first and foremost an AWESOME action movie!  The parts from Bad Boys that you ACTUALLY remember which were primarily the chemistry between Smith and Lawrence as well as the action set pieces are present and accounted for here and even better than in the films before.  Smith and Lawrence’s rapport has only gotten better the older they’ve gotten, and the lower emphasis on mean spirited machismo has allowed their on screen relationship to feel much more meaningful and that much more fun to invest in.  I mean sure, Mike STILL feels he has something to prove (something we’ll talk about soon enough), but where their relationship in the other films was a bit too antagonistic for my taste, this film really cements the bond that they have for each other as best friends; even when one can’t abide by the other’s actions.  Said actions by the way include some REALLY great set pieces and even some great hand to hand fight scenes with Smith.  I tended to get bored in the fight scenes in the other two movies as just like everything else the filmmakers didn’t know when enough was enough, so they were overlong and petered out rather than come to a truly satisfying crescendo.  Not the case here as they’re paced out properly so that they either end at a good time on a high note or manage to mix things up enough to justify going as long as they do.

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“STOP SPINNING ME ROUND RIGHT ROUND LIKE A RECORD!!”     “You throw up on this bike, I’ll kick your ass right back to the eighties!”

All of that would have made this a solid movie that I personally would have enjoyed more than the other two Bad Boys movies, but what REALLY puts this over the top is the themes and character work which are some of the best I’ve seen in a movie like this.  As already mentioned, Mike has to confront a lot of his own demons and insecurities in this movie which is great to see because Will Smith is a great enough actor to pull that off.  The real key to it working however is Martin Lawrence who always felt like the heart of this franchise even if the other movies didn’t realize it.  In those films he’s bumbling, misguided, foolish, and not nearly as cool as Will Smith, and yet he was okay with that for the most part; loving his kids, loving his wife, and not wanting to get swept up in Mike’s nonsense.  Here, that aspect is brought front and center to show his contentment as a contrast to Mike’s emptiness which lends him a lot more gravitas and depth in the narrative than he had before.  He’s the voice of reason who already got his life sorted out years ago where Mike is the one raging against everything around him and eventually has to learn the hard lessons about himself and his mortality; something we’ll all have to face some day and hopefully we’ll be better prepared for it like Marcus is.  Along those same lines, I LOVE what they do with Joey Pants as Captain Howard.  In the previous film he was basically the cleverest subversive joke in the movie, as typical buddy cop films had white leads dealing with an angry black captain and in this franchise its black leads dealing with an angry white guy.  A simple enough joke, but Joey Pants was SO good at playing it that he became one of the most memorable parts of those films.  His character reflects something of a middle ground between Mike and Marcus as a guy well on his way to figuring it all out the way Marcus has which makes him the perfect candidate to help lead Mike to his better self, and while I won’t spoil how THAT turns out, there’s no question that Joey Pants gives a great performance here.  You’d think with so much going on and so many action set pieces to get through that the movie might feel a bit bogged down, but they actually manage to avoid that by the interesting way they pace the story out.  I’ve said before that a lot of movies feel like a mini-series chopped down to a feature length film and have only used that in a negative context.  This is the first time I’ve seen a movie that felt like that, but in a good way which is a testament to just how good the writing and editing are.  The best I can explain it is that it’s a two hour movie that FEELS like a four hour movie that doesn’t feel a minute over an hour and a half, and this is all conveyed by judicious use of storytelling and editing techniques rather than raw number of plot points.  Time jumps, decisive character moments, fade transitions, these indicate CHANGE in the narrative and so employing them frequently (with a good script to justify doing it) makes it feel like so much more is happening than could normally fit in a two hour window, and it makes for an incredibly satisfying and above all COMPLETE experience where you don’t feel like things are left unresolved for what is supposed to be the final movie.

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“We’ve had quite the journey these past few days.”     “It’s been forty five minutes.”     “Haven’t you heard of hyperbole?”     “I have, and that certainly wasn’t it.”

There are some things that don’t work PERFECTLY in here, but there’s also not a whole lot to complain about either.  The villains are pretty bland and are simply functional for most of this movie, but it ends up working because they serve their purpose of not taking too much time from Mike and Marcus’s story, and when they DO become more central to the story it hits in a pretty big way.  The twist as it were definitely feels like something that’ll divide audiences down the middle, but for what it’s worth I will admit that it’s kind of silly.  However, it serves a much BIGGER purpose that I won’t get into here and manages to turn what could have been a very straightforward ending (much like the overly long and tedious one we got in the second movie) into something much more in line with the themes of this movie and is frankly bordering on Shakespearian.  The rag tag youngsters along with Mike’s ex-girlfriend Rita that comprise the AMMO crew are actually a lot more well-rounded than I would have expected (the big tough guy played by Alexander Ludwig who doesn’t like fighting is a particular standout) and I like the way they clash but also find common ground with Mike and Marcus.  They are kind of an extraneous element to the movie however, but I liked them more than the sort of rival cops in the other two movies which were just kind of jerks to be jerks.  If there’s one thing that felt like a genuine disappointment it was something they do with Marcus’s character that felt a BIT too close to something they would have done in the previous film and in some way goes against the bigger themes of the movie.  I won’t spoil it, but Marcus makes a noble decision early on in the movie and then by the halfway point he’s basically brow beaten into rescinding on that.  Even if I can understand why they NEEDED to do that, it still feels like a missed opportunity and takes something away from Marcus who already felt a little bit secondary to Mike.

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Shoot, I’d be looking that happy if I got to co-star in a movie as the one who didn’t have to work out!

So yeah!  Color me surprised that this is such a great movie!  It’s certainly WAY too early to be talking about BEST OF THE YEAR (for crying out loud, I only finished that list three weeks ago!) but I will at least be THINKING about this one when the time comes which is more than I can say about most other January releases.  If you’ve seen the first two, then this is an absolute must see.  If you haven’t, I’d recommend checking them out first since a lot of this movie relies on you having at least SOME knowledge of these characters and their dynamic, and even if you don’t like those movies this one is more than good enough to make it worth it.   Now if they try to make a SEQUEL off of this, then it may sour my enthusiasm because so much of what makes it work is the finality of it all and being okay with closing the book on one part of your life… but they kept the door open just an ITTY-BITTY crack in case the box office is MASSIVE on this and Will Smith makes another few flops.  What would you even call it?  Bad Boys For MORE Life?  Bad Boys EIGHT Life!?

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