Will Smith and Martin Lawrence are definitely too old for this shit, which doesn’t stop them from trying to reclaim their 1990s buddy-cop swagger in Bad Boys for Life, a belated threequel that trades in outrageous mayhem for the more street-smart brand of personal combat apparently favored by Belgian directors Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah, aka Adil and Bilall. The bones of the story are pretty familiar: aging cop Marcus Burnett (Lawrence) is looking forward to retirement, a fate worse than death for his cocky partner Mike Lowrey (Smith), who mocks Burnett’s increasingly grandfatherly vibes. Just as the two men agree to arbitrate Burnett’s retirement date via the results of an impromptu foot race on the streets of Miami, Lowrey is gunned down by an assassin on a black motorcycle. Once Lowrey recovers, he’s bent on revenge, but his faithful sidekick Burnett wants out of the game entirely. What will it take to bring these bad boys back together … for life?
There’s plenty of plotline here and a solid helping of action, but for a too-long proportion of its running time, Bad Boys for Life is surprisingly … plain. Smith and Lawrence are coasting into their fifth decades on a cushy bed of audience goodwill — I don’t mind that; they’ve earned it — but their verbal sparring has lost a lot of its snap. In his quieter moments Lawrence turns in an impressive, genuinely touching performance as a man torn between duties to his family and his friend, but Smith is more reliant on a constant feed of mild one-liners. Fortunately, the cooler-than-thou young actors playing members of the Ammo squad, an elite task force inside the police department (Vanessa Hudgens, Alexander Ludwig, Charles Melton’s, Paola Nuñez) keep Smith on his toes.
Adil and Bilall rev things up substantially by deploying a brutal array of stabs and slashes, using deep crimson pools of blood as set dressing; those fight scenes can get vicious. Ace stunt coordinator Spiro Razatos helps put bigger action on the screen, but the set pieces are dim echoes of that old Michael Bay bellicosity, or better or worse. While the directors do take advantage of an undercover mission in a nightclub to establish that Smith and Lawrence’s younger co-stars look good wearing very little clothing, they have ditched Bay’s signature leering camera moves in favor of hanging back respectfully from the bodies — and they seem every bit as impressed by Alexander Ludwig’s hulking physique and Charles Melton’s impeccably cocky charm as they are by the bodies of Paola Nuñez and Vanessa Hudgens. That’s a nice touch.
What For Life really gets right about the Bad Boys ethos is its insensitivity: When Captain Howard (Joe Pantoliano) asks Lowrey if he shot anyone during a surveillance mission gone horribly wrong, he’s unperturbed: “C’mon, captain, you know I shot some people.” (It’s a great line reading from Smith.) In another scene, a body drops unexpectedly from the sky and smashes into Burnett’s parked Nissan Quest, occasioning loud complaints as he imagines only his wife’s displeasure at the wrecked roof and windshield, all speckled with blood and, presumably, other bits of human tissue. This callous disregard for human life is definitely a joke held over from the earlier films; I don’t want to be the guy complaining that a Bad Boys movie isn’t leftie enough for my taste. Still, a decade of hard reflection on Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and hands-up-don’t-shoot has made it a little harder for me to cheer for trigger-happy heroes in uniform.
Then again, there’s a lightness to Arbi and Fallah’s unadorned approach that’s hard to resist entirely. The film turns pleasantly silly as we head into its third act, which involves a Mexico City bruja and the emergence of a skeleton from Mike Lowrey’s closet. The film’s production design and color palette turn things up one step from the look favored by Bay, if such a thing is even possible. Daylight exteriors (and some interiors) are lit with harsh Miami sunlight that shows up as saturated yellow verging on orange on screen; if you don’t care for that look, wait for the glorious purples and pinks of evening skies, nightclubs and more. There’s even a scene where Pantoliano’s shirt is the same shade as his Pepto-Bismol. Now that’s production design!