“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 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