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‘Bad Boys for Life’ Is Loud, Fun, and Only to Be Experienced in a Theater

Will Smith and Martin Lawrence’s latest turn in the buddy-cop franchise is best viewed in a room full of strangers, not on your phone

Sony/Ringer illustration

If you have even the slightest interest in seeing Bad Boys for Life, the long-threatened third installment in a cheerfully violent 25-year-old buddy-cop franchise best summarized as Grand Theft Auto: Looney Toons, I implore you to go see this movie right now. Tonight. It might not be the best argument for cinema, in the Scorsesian sense, but it makes an awfully strong case for movie theaters and the unruly crowds that still occasionally flock to them.

Specifically, you want an overfull, sweaty, chatty, opening-weekend theater. You want no available cup holders. You want the audible ripping-open of Junior Mints boxes. You want uncomfortable proximity to the point of exasperation. Because above all, you want boisterous mass enthusiasm. Every additional 25 people in the room makes this live-action, but defiantly cartoonish movie 100 percent better and 500 percent funnier. At critical mass, elbow-to-stranger’s-elbow, even a midgrade lowbrow line like “Just ’cause I fucked your mother doesn’t make me your grandpa” or “You fucked a married witch!” might just be the most hilarious thing you ever heard in your whole entire life, just so long as everyone around you thinks so.

You can watch both Bad Boys (1995) and Bad Boys II (2003)—both starring ascending superstars Will Smith and Martin Lawrence as Miami’s quippiest and trigger-happiest cops, and both directed by tasteful auteur Michael Bay, whose approach to lighting and decor can make even a police station look like a billion-dollar brothel—on Netflix right this second. Go ahead. Far worse uses for your time. (Dolittle, for example.) Just know that you’re not getting the full experience, and that’s not a you’re watching it on your phone problem, it’s a there aren’t at least 100 slap-happy fellow revelers watching it with you problem.

For this is a truly communal experience, like a church picnic, like a prison riot. Extravagant car chases, wanton explosions, lurid bullet-hell gunfights. (Smith still does the slo-mo, full-extension, double-fisted dive-and-shoot thing, but now he’s got one of those giant car-mechanic roller pads to scoot around on.) Bawdy erectile-dysfunction banter, soap opera plot twists, myriad Surprise Helicopters. (“Where in the hell they getting all these helicopters?” Lawrence exclaims near this new movie’s blaring Mexican-standoff finale, shortly after observing, “This is some real telenovela shit.”) Dick jokes, goatee-dyeing jokes, enhanced-interrogation jokes. (In Bad Boys for Life the artist formerly known as the Fresh Prince beats up the artist currently billed as “Khaled (DJ Khaled) Khaled” with a meat tenderizer, a rich text indeed.) The gaudy appeal of the Bad Boys multiverse is uncomplicated and, as it turns out, undiminished; for all the talk of retirement, our heroes are not, in fact, too old for this shit, and neither, in all likelihood, are you.

It took forever for this movie to get made; it is too bad that Michael Bay himself didn’t make it. (He does get a delightful cameo, however, and while we’re here, his newish goofy and gratuitous Netflix jam 6 Underground is exactly the sort of action-comedy spectacle best served by a packed theater, just to spread the incredulity around.) Bad Boys for Life, coproduced as always by fellow tasteful auteur Jerry Bruckheimer, is instead directed by the Moroccan-Belgian duo of Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah, who make the bizarre but not-unsuccessful decision to treat it like a normal movie, with stakes and character arcs and, y’know, emotions. Lotta crying in this movie! Lotta impassioned monologues in hospital chapels and on basketball court bleachers and whatnot! “I love you, man,” the Bad Boys declare, verbatim, to each other. The sweetest and funniest moment in the whole thing is, indeed, the sight of Martin Lawrence dyeing an unconscious Will Smith’s goatee with Midnight Cocoa Bean hair dye. You had to be there. At least half a theater’s worth of other people have to be there, too.

The plot doesn’t matter. There is a new villain played by Jacob Scipio who I’m going to refer to as the Google Sniper on account of his Googling somebody’s name and then brutally sniping that person, usually to the strains of a City Girls song called “Money Fight.” The Google Sniper’s mother (Kate del Castillo) is posted up in Mexico plotting evil schemes; as for the good guys, there is now a quasi-CSI crew of young, attractive, high-tech crime-fighters whose job is to fly drones and “monitor 4chan” and heed the directives of a new Will Smith love interest played by Paola Núñez, whose job is to say things like “I’m not risking collateral damage” whilst knowing full well that collateral damage is the entire point of movies like this. Soon she, too, is firing yet another machine gun at yet another Surprise Helicopter.

But the whole point of a Bad Boys movie is to watch Will Smith and Martin Lawrence banter for two hours, the more absurd the context the better. The original Bad Boys spends a truly incredible percentage of its run time committed to a bit in which Lawrence’s detective character (married, sexless, slovenly, nauseous around corpses) has to pretend to be Smith’s detective character (suave, playboy-ish, independently wealthy, flagrantly badass) for the benefit of Téa Leoni’s imperilled-witness character (a woman in a Michael Bay movie); the flashiest shootout involves, like, 10,000 exploding barrels of ether. Bad Boys II is nearly two and a half hours long, climaxes in a minefield surrounding Guantanamo Bay after our heroes have already blown up 60 percent of Cuba, and includes a scene in which Lawrence and Smith terrorize a 30-year-old-looking teenager attempting to take Lawrence’s daughter out on a date. I would pay $25 to watch this sequence again in a crowded theater.

That 30-year-old-looking teenager gets a lovely callback in Bad Boys for Life, which has, for all its pulpy headshots and nuclear-warhead-sized explosions, a jarring but shockingly pleasant sense of history, of gravity, of macho camaraderie. It takes some getting used to. Those various teary monologues are so sincere and heartfelt that they scan, initially, as jokes; Joe Pantoliano, reprising his role as the harried police captain who spent the first two movies making proctology jokes, delivers a bizarre quasi-zen parable that flirts with but never quite succumbs to self-parody. The tone gets confounding. “That fool put holes in me,” cries Smith, ranting about the Google Sniper; “And you’re filling them with hate,” Lawrence shoots back, earnestly. A truly incredible percentage of Bad Boys II is dedicated to mocking any notion of self-help or self-improvement (“Whoosah!”), but I suppose that’s the difference between letting Michael Bay talk in your movie for 10 seconds and letting him direct the entire thing.

Suffice it to say that Bad Boys for Life ends, as movies like this tend to end, with all our heroes jumping on a plane and barging into a foreign country and more or less leveling it. It’s nonsensical, and quite soothing. A quarter-century after this franchise’s inglorious birth, technology has advanced to the point where you can watch a film in which Martin Lawrence blurts out, “How you fuck a witch without a condom?” in the privacy of your own home, on the device of your choosing, alone. Don’t do that. It’s a throwback franchise in a throwback genre starring two throwback superstars, but the true joy of a Bad Boys movie in 2020 lies in watching it not surrounded by your loved ones, but surrounded by scores of guffawing strangers who kind of love it, too.