Will Smith and Martin Lawrence Bring Some Big Laughs to Rehashed ‘Bad Boys for Life’

Bad Boys for Life” is yet another attempt at continuing a franchise that began back in those sunny days when CDs were the norm. Will Smith and Martin Lawrence return to reprise roles they first played in 1995, changed a bit by time but still running around the same old explosions and choppy plotting. The approach of the movie is still self-aware, turning the actors’ current ages into one of its running themes. But what remains intact is the habit of style over any substance.

Detectives Mike Lowrey (Smith) and Marcus Burnett (Lawrence) are still chasing criminals down the streets of Miami, but Burnett is feeling the time is now to retire despite Lowrey determined to keep going forever. Burnett just turned into a grandfather, while Lowrey remains a bachelor, more committed to fighting crime than settling down (while dying his beard). But in Mexico a ruthless cartel boss, Isabel Aretas (Kate Del Castillo) has escaped from prison and reunited with her son Armando (Jacob Scipio), whom she tasks with taking over Miami’s drug trade and extracting revenge on Lowrey. It was Lowrey who put her behind bars years ago and took down her cartel boss husband. As Mexican drug lords are prone to do on screen, Aretas prays to Santa Muerte and promises Lowrey will have a slow demise. When Armando gets close to gunning the suave cop, Burnett takes it as another sign it’s time to quit. Fueled by a need to take down Aretas, Lowrey teams up with a fresh crew led by former flame Rita (Paola Nuñez). 

The “Bad Boys” films have always been more about showcasing Smith and Lawrence within absurd plotlines. It’s no surprise the original 1995 movie was the feature film debut of director Michael Bay, who basked in sumptuous cinematography that gave a fashion magazine look to a bland script. The material was elevated by Smith and Lawrence bringing their zany energy. Bay also helmed the 2003 sequel, “Bad Boys II,” which simply went off the rails with a generic plot, severed body parts and homophobic jokes.  “Bad Boys for Life” is directed by Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah, a duo who have directed music videos and shows like “Snowfall.” But you suspect the real brain behind it all is veteran action producer Jerry Bruckheimer, who also produced the first two movies (as well as a whole gallery of 90’s action extravaganzas). We get the same slick shots of Miami, where all is shiny and neon glow, and Smith sports great clothes while potential snitches hang out at nightclubs. The soundtrack mixes rock, rap and reggaeton to the point where the actual score by Lorne Balfe is barely noticeable. 

But if “Bad Boys for Life” is fine to look at, what’s missing again is a more original story. Every character feels borrowed from every other bad action movie of the last few years. Kate Del Castillo’s drug boss spends most of her screen time praying to Santa Muerte, which has become the required religious icon for every Mexican villain, surrounded by ominous candles and mumbling Spanish one-liners about getting even. It’s unfittingly low key for the actress who in real life found El Chapo. Armando doesn’t dress like a hip Miami movie gangster, he just prowls around in a t-shirt with a gun, waiting for his chance to shoot Lowrey. Even for what’s primarily an action movie there’s no juice to the scheme at hand. Side stories that could be fun never develop, like Lowrey’s love interest with Rita, who is made to look like a supermodel, but is given banter with Lowrey that is so boring none of it constitutes as flirting. They just exist as cogs for shootouts. And there are plenty of those. Smith has better chemistry with Charles Melton of “Riverdale,” who plays a cocky younger squad member the older detective puts in his place. 

The best pairing here remains Smith and Lawrence. Like its predecessors, “Bad Boys for Life” works best when it lets the two just be funny. The plot is already absurd, so the heart of it is seeing the two argue over middle age, sing their trademark Inner Circle song, which is itself a relic from the decade when the show “Cops” made it a household tune, and turn regular action moments into pure farce. Burnett still gets car sick during high speed chases, Lowrey dyes his beard to keep looking young and cool. There are some fun updates from the first two movies as well. Burnett’s daughter gets married to the quiet high school sweetheart the two cops harassed so viciously in “Bad Boys II” when he came to pick her up for their first date. Joe Pantoliano also returns as Captain Howard, still throwing tantrums and drinking Pepto. These characters give the movie a glint of nostalgia. Ironically while a much bigger franchise like the “Mission: Impossible” movies still feature Tom Cruise defying age itself, “Bad Boys for Life” acknowledges it. Arbi and Fallah truly wonder how characters in this kind of movie world would deal with not being 25 anymore. In ’95 these two heroes were driving around in slick sports cars, now Lawrence picks up Smith in a family wagon with a baby in the back seat. 

The rest of “Bad Boys for Life” hurtles along with the pacing first established by Bay, as any further development in the writing is brushed aside for lots and lots of shootouts. The structure boils down to Armando shoots someone, Lowrey gets angry. Then, by the third act, Lowrey drops a bombshell revelation that defines over the top even for this franchise. Fittingly the climax involves burning buildings, crashing helicopters and Kate Del Castillo delivering lines in Mexican telenovela style. 

Who is the audience for “Bad Boys for Life?” Longtime Smith and Lawrence fans will certainly enjoy seeing the two back together just for old time’s sake, even if the jokes aren’t what they used to be, and if all you seek are explosions and fist fights, the movie has them but with few new flourishes. You get what you pay for, but maybe it’s time for this franchise to retire. 

Bad Boys for Life” opens Jan. 17 in theaters nationwide.