After turning in the first two greatly beloved, operatically souped-up action opuses in the “Bad Boys” franchise, everyone’s favorite gearhead maximalist auteur Michael Bay is no longer behind the camera for the third, “Bad Boys for Life” (though he is in front of it, briefly). Not to worry though.
Belgian filmmaking duo Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah, clearly devoted students of Bay’s style, craft a wonderful facsimile of his greatest hits — from his swirling low-angle dolly shots to capturing the glorious clash of sunset and neon that screams Miami. From the very first sequence of a screeching Porsche burning up the streets of South Beach, El Arbi and Fallah prove that as directors, they have the horsepower to match Bay, if not the grace yet. Nevertheless, their first major American feature outing is a loving and skillful tribute to pure ’90s action cinema, and it’s a hoot for fans of the franchise.
That’s largely because Martin Lawrence is back, baby! After popping up in a small but memorable role in Harmony Korine’s “The Beach Bum” last year, Lawrence returns to full-blown movie stardom and walks away with “Bad Boys for Life,” reminding audiences what a crucial element he is to the unique mix of action and comedy that makes the “Bad Boys” work.
The yin and yang, push and pull of the soft goofball Marcus (Lawrence) and his partner, the hardened Mike (Will Smith), is thrown into even starker relief when Marcus becomes a grandfather. His desire to retire clashes with Mike’s quest for vengeance after being shot by a mysterious motorcyclist, testing the whole “for life” part of the pals’ mantra. Forget boyhood; Marcus just wants to see them become a few “good men.”
Longtime Miami cop Mike has a few South American drug-cartel enemies who might want to see him dead. But for this particular assassin, it’s personal; and after facing death, Mike loses his already tenuous grasp on his own cool. In the process, the bad boys have to learn a few new tricks from some younger, high-tech, less-lethal new dogs (Vanessa Hudgens, Charles Melton, Alexander Ludwig).
The script relies on a few too many twists and bait-and-switches. Probe its depths and politically it’s a bit problematic, but El Arbi and Fallah throw enough surface pleasures like gorgeous Miami time-lapses, rosy vistas and bonkers action sequences at the audience to distract from inspecting anything below.
The film is lensed beautifully by their longtime cinematographer Robrecht Heyvaert, who also shot the insanely stunning French feminist revenge horror flick “Revenge.” “Bad Boys for Life” delivers the kind of richly textured visual eye candy that expresses a hyperreal sense of place and a tone. It’s an aesthetic all too often lost in the gray blur of CGI that passes for action filmmaking these days. That’s why the ’90s throwback vibe of “Bad Boys for Life” is so refreshing: El Arbi and Fallah predominantly use practical stunts, sets and effects; the action is plotted crisply and carefully. One night sequence featuring a motorcycle and sidecar, helicopter and rocket launcher rivals even Bay’s jaw-dropping bridge car chase from “Bad Boys II.”
El Arbi and Fallah have done seemingly the impossible. They’ve taken over an action franchise 17 years after the last installment and made a film that’s a delightfully dizzying love letter to action filmmaking of yore, while respectfully preserving the franchise’s best elements. It really makes you believe that these bad boys just might actually be for life.
★★★ “Bad Boys for Life,” with Will Smith, Martin Lawrence, Kate del Castillo, Joe Pantoliano, Vanessa Hudgens, Charles Melton, Alexander Ludwig, Paola Nuñez. Directed by Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah, from a screenplay by Chris Bremmer, Peter Craig and Joe Carnahan. 123 minutes. Rated R for strong bloody violence, language throughout, sexual references and brief drug use. Opens Jan. 17 at multiple theaters.