Bad Boys trilogy review — The regular return of buddy cops

Somehow I’ve arrived in 2020 without ever having seen a Bad Boys movie. I’m not sure how that happened, but this week I remedied the situation. Here’s the review for the first two films, followed by the third one now in cinemas.

Bad Boys (1995) | Directed by Michael Bay | Written by George Gallo, Michael Barrie, Jim Mulholland, and Doug Richardson | 119 min | Netflix

I found Bad Boys on the CTV app, which is fine aside from the constant, volume-jacked L’Oreal ads.

The movie is the first feature from a massively successful director of music videos, one Michael Bay. This was before The Rock or Armageddon or countless Transformers blockbusters, but his over-torqued directorial style is already in place: It’s like Ridley Scott’s and Adrian Lyne’s ’80s never ended in Bay’s world—it’s all sunsets, venetian blinds, blasts of steam, and twirling fans in the background of every room, with Joe Pantoliano’s scenery chewing to complete the illusion. It’s a buddy cop movie years after those went stale, the novelty of the cops both being African American the only thing that distinguishes it.

Top-billed Martin Lawrence is family man Markus Burnett, and as his playboy partner, Mike Lowrey, is Will Smith. Burnett’s problem seems to be that his gorgeous wife (Theresa Randle) won’t give him sex because he’s always working, while Lowrey inherited a bunch of money and drives a Porsche, and as a result his colleagues won’t take him seriously. These Miami detectives do a lot of yelling at each other, but Smith’s ease in front of the camera wins the day, while Lawrence has one speed: irritatingly uptight.

The plot has something to do with a gang, led by evil-as-hell Tchéky Karyo, having stolen a bunch of drugs from the cops’ evidence locker, and when the gang kills a prostitute, her best friend (a welcome Téa Leoni) is a witness and in need of protection. That leads to a ridiculous identity swap between Burnett and Lowrey that goes on a lot longer than it needs to, and more than a few distracting plot holes. The action scenes are edited to a headache-inducing fever pitch—including one of the least coherent car chases I’ve ever seen on film—but at least Lawrence and Smith have chemistry, though Smith vanishes for way too much of the running time. The laughs kick in when they get together, especially with Leoni’s not-so cooperative witness riding shotgun.

Look out for a pre-Sopranos Michael Imperioli in a small role, and CSI’s Marg Helgenberger as an internal affairs officer who’s saddled with the movie’s worst line: “This had to have been an inside job, and I’m gonna find out about it!”

Bad Boys II (2003) | Directed by Michael Bay | Written by George Gallo, Marianne Wibberley, Cormac Wibberley, Ron Shelton, and Jerry Stahl |  147 min | Netflix

Burnett and Lowrey are back, and Bay’s unearned filmmaking confidence is through the roof.  Expect the dizzying, physics-defying camerawork and exceptionally confusing action sequences, though Bay’s skill and scale for vehicular mayhem—or “Bayhem,” as it has become known—has gotten a lot bigger and, credit where it’s due, better.

Téa Leoni is much missed. Instead, we get Gabrielle Union as Syd. She’s playing Burnett’s sister, and is entirely implausible as an undercover DEA officer working on a big drug smuggling case in Miami while she’s secretly dating Lowrey. Peter Stormare shows up as a Russian drug czar dealing with Cuban dealers led by Spaniard Jordi Mollà.

The dynamic between Smith and Lawrence is still the best part, except now Burnett is subscribing to some new age philosophy that barely covers his buttoned-down rage.

Also a little more obvious this time is a streak of racism, misogyny, and homophobia, the hateful trifecta, mostly played for awkward laughs. The movie also overstays its welcome by a good hour, and the reckless stupidity in the last half act beggars belief, like when our “heroes” destroy dozens of Cuban homes with their enormous yellow Hummer—the geopolitical symbolism is impossible to ignore, unless your name is Bay.

The future star who shows up for a scene this time is Michael Shannon as a KKK dude who spends most of his screen time in a car trunk.

Bad Boys For Life | Directed by Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah | Written by Chris Bremner,  Peter Craig,
Joe Carnahan, and George Gallo | 124 min | Amazon Prime

17 years since the last sequel and Smith and Lawrence return to their roles as the bromantic Miami cops, though without Michael Bay in the director’s chair. The filmmakers known together as Adil and Bilall mimic some of Bay’s colour scheme and aerial shots, but the action sequences and car chases are a lot more coherent this time out.

The story is, unfortunately, a conventional tale of aging action heroes: Lawrence’s Markus Burnett has just become a grandfather, and he wants to retire from the force, while Smith’s Lowrey is still a bit of a player without a girlfriend or kids. It doesn’t take long for the movie to get sanctimonious about his “lack of direction,” that he’s lost without a family of his own. What is this, a Fast & Furious spinoff?

The parallels with that mega-successful franchise continue: A multi-ethnic squad of cops, including Vanessa Hudgens’ Kelly and Paola Nuñez’s Rita, become an important part of the dynamic, showing up at key moments to help out our buddy cops who are facing an assassin (Jacob Scipio) and his mother (Kate del Castillo) who hold a personal beef with Lowrey.

This is all a lot less caffeinated than the earlier entries in the series, but maybe that works given the middle-aged leads. That said, it’s also not nearly as goofy nor as entertaining in the interstitial scenes between the action set pieces. These movies sink or float on the potent charm of Lawrence and especially Smith—with the welcome return of Joe “Joey Pants” Pantoliano as their gruff-but-lovable captain—and a certain comforting familiarity for anyone who remembers the peaked-in-the-’80s cop genre.

But do cop movies even work in 2020? Can we all get behind the militarization of police, the fact the new cops, with their high-tech surveillance, weaponry, and an armoured vehicle, are called AMMO? Is that supposed to be a joke? As far as Hollywood escapism goes, it’s hard to thrill at all this urban-pacification firepower backing up our bad boys.

And they sure aren’t boys anymore. Smith still brings his movie-star pizzaz to play, but watching this movie I was genuinely worried about Martin Lawrence. Famed for his motor mouth, I wonder if he’s had a stroke that hasn’t been reported—in a few scenes he struggles to deliver his lines. BBFL offers his character more than just the random philosophical gambits of previous films, he’s now had a religious conversion, though he drops all that when it’s convenient for him to shoot some dudes.

The biggest problem with Bad Boys For Life is tone: at least the previous films knew they were ridiculous, high-octane bro-heavy action fests and didn’t take themselves too seriously. Having borrowed the portentousness of the Fast & The Furious, this one forgets to also deal in the physics-defying nonsense. There’s no Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson to oil his pecs and deliver the ridiculous one-liners and remind us this is all for fun. Instead, the directors bring on heavy, operatic stakes and a grim orchestral score that grow tiresome by the last act. The last movie had Jay-Z and Puffy handling the beats, so they’re definitely missed.

I won’t say the Bay movies were always a good time, but they aspired to be. While the chemistry between these actors is good to see again, in reaching for a franchise restarter—and there’s a big nod to a possible fourth movie over here—these bad boys are more slog than sizzle.

About the author


Carsten Knox is a massive, cheese-eating nerd. In the day he works as a journalist in Halifax, Nova Scotia. At night he stares out at the rain-slick streets, watches movies, and writes about what he's seeing.